iSimangaliso in North Eastern KZN (formally the Greater St Lucia wetland park) is one of the most important wetland regions on the planet .There are three independent lake systems within its boundaries as well as the most southerly coral reefs in Africa-
On the lake shores and in the indigenous forests and grasslands, there resides a very healthy population of both black and white rhinos, 526 varieties of birds (that’s 25% of the continent’s species) more frogs than anywhere else in Southern Africa; and over a hundred species of butterfly.
Its a huge and impressive place to be sure; a 332000 hectare chunk of land, lake and sea that begins on the coast about 270 kilometers north of Durban and ends at the Mozambique border a further 220kms away. There are even plans afoot to link it with a counterpart park across the border, which will make iSimangaliso Africa’s first land and marine transfrontier conservation area.
Elephants & Raggy Tooth Sharks
“Its probably the only place on earth where you can see elephants on a game drive in the morning and then go for a dive with raggy tooth sharks before lunch”
said Andrew Zaloumis, iSimangaliso’s CEO “And all of it within the boundaries of the same protected area”
We were standing at a beautiful viewing area on the all weather main access road to Cape Vidal and there below us, sauntering across the open planes of the Bhangazi swamp were a pair of white rhinoceros.
There were magnificent male Kudu all around us on the grassy hills, whilst down on Lake St Lucia’s shores hippos jostled and crocodiles lounged like languid logs.
“iSimangaliso means miracle in the Zulu language” Andrew continued “And it truly is. If you had been here just a few years back, all of this natural beauty would have been obscured by alien pine and gum plantations. We took them down though; all six million of them”
Natural grasslands had already moved in to colonize the spaces where uniform rows of trees had recently been growing, and all I could see of them were their stumps.
One of the rhinos below us paused next to one these and began to scratch her flanks on it.
“The stumps will soon rot away” said Andrew “and then there will be no more reminders that this place was not always so beautiful”
We then took a drive followed by a short walk to another viewpoint atop the Western Shore’s highest dune where the panoramic vistas were even more spectacular.
In front of us Lake St Lucia shimmered in the sun like an enormous sheet of chiffon whilst way off to the west, barely discernible in the haze, we could see the Lebombo Mountains of uMkhuze and iMfolozi Hluhluwe Park.
Behind and below us the Indian Ocean glowed like a sapphire colored duvet, its waves lapping against an unbroken and undeveloped stretch of beach that vanished into the horizon.
A whale, probably a humpback according to Andrew, could be seen waving its tale around like a big shiny flag.
“Hard to imagine that most of this was slated for destruction isn’t it” said Andrew.
From Mine to Magic
During the 90s, before iSimangaliso became a world heritage park, an international mining company put in a proposal to strip mine hundreds of kilometers of dunes: a process that would have destroyed forever the extremely rare forests that grow on them.
“The mining company was after titanium” said Andrew “And to get at it, they were prepared to cut down the indigenous forests and then suck up the dunes with dredgers”
The most southerly population of leatherback and loggerhead turtles in Africa lay their eggs on iSimangaliso’s beaches. Something that is only possible because of the incubating effect of the titanium in the sand. If the mining company had been granted its license then South Africa’s turtles would have vanished…and possibly just about every other living thing in iSimangaliso.
For eons, KwaZulu-Natal’s northern dunes and their forests have acted as percolators and regulators of rainfall and groundwater. Without them, the St Lucia, Bhangazi, Sibaya and Kosi Bay lakes may well have become less hospitable for many of the animals (and plants) that live in and around their waters.
Lord only knows what could have happened to the beautiful soft coral reefs that lie just off shore.
Thankfully though, we will never have to know because all was saved courtesy of half a million outraged South Africans (Madiba included) who lent their signatures to a petition against the a mining application
It was a resounding victory for conservationists, and for the first time in the country’s history traditional smokestack industries were turned away in favor of conservation and Ecotourism potential in an area of negative economical growth.
The Promise of Jobs
However, it wasn’t turtles or dune forests or reefs that swayed the government’s decision to stave off the dredgers. It was the promise of jobs
“There are approximately half a million people, most of them poor, residing within 20 kilometers of iSimangaliso” Andrew told me “Dune mining promised them 313 lifetime jobs whereas conservation and tourism was deemed to be much more profitable and sustainable in the long run”
The park itself employs hundreds of people whilst its concessionary partners (lodges, tour companies etc) employ several hundred more. Road building, alien plant removal, and other services are contracted out to local businesses which in turn have created even more jobs. Crafters sell their products in and around the park, roads and infrastructure has been improved, access to services is better than it ever has been and the future is looking bright…for people…for the local economy…and for nature.
Before the iSimangaliso Authority took over, the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park comprised of sixteen separate nature reserves; most of them cut off from each other by giant forestry plantations, unused tribal lands, and a missile test military base.
“The army would use the lakes and the sea to test their ordinances on” said Andrew…
“But now, like the alien trees and the threat of dune mining, they are also gone; replaced instead by elephants, rhino and giraffe”
“There have always been a few sweet spots in what we now call iSimangaliso” Andrew continued “Fishermen came to the town of St Lucia and to Cape Vidal camp, Scuba divers came to Sodwana bay, 4×4 enthusiasts braved the sandy tracks of Lake Sibaya and Kozi Bay; but now there is so much more to experience here and its all so much more accessible”
He then went on to explain that there are kilometer upon kilometer of newly created and graded game viewing tracks, most of which are suitable for city cars. The entire Western portion of the park has traditionally been off limits to the public, but soon it will be open and tourists will be able to drive through rolling scenery teeming with big game species”
“We have several privately run five star lodges in iSimangaliso as well as a large selection of down to earth campsites and cabins” said Andrew “And what’s more, there’s a whole host of things to do within the various sectors of the park including horse back safaris, fishing, boat tours, snorkeling, kayaking with hippos and crocodiles, hiking, game viewing, scuba diving, turtle tours, whale watching, night drives and what else? Ah yes, you can build sandcastles and go swimming in a lovely warm ocean if you want to”
Local roads have been upgraded with a specific emphasis on opening up the entire area (not just iSimangaliso) to tourism, and its now relatively easy to travel between Imfolozi/Hluhluwe park, Phinda Conservancy, Zululand Rhino Reserve, Umkhuzi section, ISimangaliso, Tembe Elephant Park, Ndumo Game Reserve and Jozini Dam.
“We have also managed to eradicate malaria from the St Lucia area”
All in all, there are many reasons to make a trip to go see what’s on offer in iSimangaliso and the surrounding Zululand area.
Less than two hours after bidding farewell to Andrew I found myself underwater at Rocktail Bay surrounded by a flurry of tropical fish and corals.
Clown fish peered at me from behind their wavy walls of tentacles and hawksbill turtles drifted by like flying saucers.
Was it really just a few hours ago that I had been watching Rhino, Zebra and Buffalo?
And then I remembered the praiseful words of Nelson Mandela who had obviously been as charmed by this park as I had been.
“Nowhere else on earth can one find the oldest land mammal (the rhino) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) living naturally in the same protected area as the ocean’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the sea’s biggest mammal (the whale)”
And all of it so nearly consigned to destruction…. Imagine that!
iSimangaliso, as its name suggests, truly is a miracle. Its a miracle that its even there at all.
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