iSimangaliso Wetland Park
South Africa’s third-largest protected area and oldest UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 3,320km2 (1,282 square miles) iSimangaliso follows the Indian Ocean coastline for a full 220km (137 miles) north of Lake St Lucia (Africa’s largest estuarine system) to Kosi Bay on the border with Mozambique.
It’s easily the country’s most biodiverse reserve, incorporating five separate Ramsar Wetlands, a lush tropical mosaic of mountains, bushveld, palm groves, wooded dunes, grassland, and coastal forests, as well as a 5km (3mi) wide marine section that harbors Africa’s most southerly coral reefs.
The faunal diversity of iSimangaliso (a Zulu word meaning ‘something wondrous’) was encapsulated by Nelson Mandela, who described it as “the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (whale)”.
Indeed, iSimangaliso can boast a higher count of vertebrate species than any other African conservation area, with 129 terrestrial and aquatic mammals, 525 birds, 128 reptiles, 50 amphibians, and 991 marine as well as 48 freshwater fish.
Despite this, while wildlife is abundant in parts, the stunning coastal scenery is at least as big an attraction as the game viewing.
Highlights of ISimangaliso Wetland Park
St Lucia Village
Jungle-swathed St Lucia Village, fringing the freshwater estuary for which it is named, stands at the far south of iSimangaliso and is the park’s main travel hub. A contender for South Africa’s most wildlife-friendly settlement, it’s home to plentiful hippos and crocs, porcupines, bushbuck, and warthogs.
The tropical birding safari destination includes the African fish eagle, Trumpeter hornbill, Purple-crested turaco, and Mangrove kingfisher. Popular activities include visits to an out-of-town crocodile farm and launch trips on the St Lucia Estuary.
Set below forested dunes on a reef-shielded beach north of St Lucia, Cape Vidal is a superb beach that offers good low-tide snorkeling and seasonal land-based whale and dolphin viewing. It also forms a vital seasonal nesting site for loggerhead and leatherback turtles.
Halfway between St Lucia and Cape Vidal, the forested dunes around Mission Rocks are some of the world’s tallest and provide sanctuary to the secretive Red duiker and localized Blue monkey.
Buffalo, rhinos, elephants, and possibly cheetahs might be seen on the safari loop to Lake Bhangazi.
uMkhuze Game Reserve
The 400km2 (154 square mile) uMkhuze Game Reserve offers the finest game viewing within iSimangaliso. Home to elephants, buffalo, giraffes, and elusive populations of leopards and cheetahs, it’s ideal for a photographic safari thanks to some well-sited photographic hides that attract a steady stream of nyala, kudu, zebras, warthogs, White rhinos and Black rhinos.
More than 420 bird species, including the localized Yellow-spotted nicator, Livingstone’s turaco, Neergaard’s sunbird, and African broadbill, make it an excellent birding safari destination.
Africa’s southernmost coral reefs stand offshore of Sodwana Bay, whose Seven Mile Reef is ranked among the world’s most beautiful dive sites, with overhangs, drop-offs and mushroom rocks reaching around 20m (65ft) below the surface. Expect a dazzling array of colorful reef fish.
South Africa’s most significant natural freshwater body, Lake Sibaya, is backed by tall forested dunes and supports around 150 hippos along with a wide diversity of aquatic birds, making it an ideal destination for a birding safari.
Comprising eight lakes and a series of connecting channels that drain into the Indian Ocean through a sandy estuary, scenic Kosi Bay offers unusually calm snorkeling conditions and the opportunity to seek out 150 marine fish species on the rocky reef in the estuary mouth.
The complex fishing traps set in the estuary by the local Thonga people represent a highly sustainable form of traditional resource management since the estuarine fish are readily replenished from the open sea.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve
St Lucia village is a convenient base for day safaris to the nearby Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, providing the perfect opportunity for a Big Five safari. The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve houses the world’s densest populations of both White and Black rhinos.
Other wildlife includes African wild dogs, giraffes, zebra, impala, nyala, greater kudu, warthogs, Vervet monkeys, and almost 400 bird species, making the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve perfect for a birding safari as well.
Phinda Resource Reserve
Sharing its eastern boundary with iSimangaliso, the private Phinda Resource Reserve is KwaZulu-Natal’s most prestigious safari destination.
All-inclusive safari tours with guided game drives in an open-top 4×4 are also sure to yield all the Big Five throughout a two- to three-night holiday. A dense population of habituated cheetahs allows for excellent close-up behavioral viewing.
Tembe Elephant Park
Not strictly speaking a private reserve, but effectively functioning as one, the 300km2 (116 square mile) Tembe Elephant Park is best known for its giant tuskers.
Practical Advice for ISimangaliso Wetland Park
- Several scheduled daily flights connect Johannesburg to Richards Bay, a large industrial port town about one hour’s drive southwest of St Lucia Village by road. There are also regular flights from most major South African cities to Durban, about three hour’s drive from St Lucia along the N2. Some visitors to Phinda and other private reserves use direct charter flights.
- Most Durban-based tour operators offer overnight trips to southern iSimangaliso and/or Hluhluwe-Imfolozi. The region is also well suited to self-drive visits, though a 4×4 vehicle is required for most places north of Mkhuze Game Reserve and east of the N2.
- You can find a varied selection of budget to mid-range accommodation in St Lucia Village. Most reserves within or associated with iSimangaliso have inexpensive but comfortable rest camps. Upmarket bush camps can be found in Phinda, on the outskirts of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, and at certain sites along the iSimangaliso coastline north of Sodwana.