South Africa’s Playground

By Winnie Graham
Photography: iSimangaliso Wetland Park &



 “iSimangaliso?” The pretty blonde asked. “Where on earth is that?”
“i’ll give you a clue,” her companion replied. “It’s a wilderness area on the coast. Nelson Mandela says it’s ‘the only place on the globe where the world’s oldest land mammal, the rhinoceros, and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal, the elephant, share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish, the coelacanth, and the world’s biggest marine mammal, the whale’.”
She leaned forward and stared intently at him before answering. “It sounds very much like the St Lucia Wetland Park in kwazulu Natal—but the name’s different. Am I right?”

The young couple were discussing holiday venues in a Johannesburg restaurant. He wanted to go somewhere he could watch birds and go fishing; she wanted to go on a horseback safari and scuba diving—in between sun tanning and fine dining, of course. They had tossed around the names of game parks and romantic islands before he suggested isimangaliso.
Eavesdropping on their conversation, I was tempted to tell them they had found the perfect place. The newly named Isimangaliso Wetland Park—formerly known as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park—is a dream destination for folk wanting to escape to the wild, either camping in a reserve or staying at a luxury lodge.

It’s a huge place—some 332 000 ha in extent, stretching from St Lucia and Maphelane in the south to Kosi Bay in the north and encompassing Sodwana bayLake Sibaya, and the Umkhuze game reserves, three major lake systems, and eight interlinking ecosystems. 

Also part of the park are South Africa’s remaining swamp forests, Africa’s largest estuarine system, 25 000-year-old coastal dunes—among the highest in the world—and, fascinatingly, a 700-year-old fishing tradition. 

And that’s not counting the 526 bird species (including Pel’s fishing owl and the Palmnut vulture) or the turtles that breed on the beach there. 
Regarded as one of South Africa’s ‘must see’ destinations, isimangaliso is a tropical paradise washed by the warm Benguela current, a feature that makes diving among the world’s most southerly coral reefs particularly rewarding. The sandy beaches, the submarine canyons, the woodlands, the wetlands and the savannah all add up to provide visitors with a variety of activities, both water and land based. And, yes, horse safaris and fishing are among them.

Full praise must go to the authorities, who have turned this magnificent wilderness into an accessible tourist destination. Much of the park had a history of land use for forestry, agriculture, cattle grazing, subsistence farming and even military activities, so the large animals once found there had virtually disappeared. Yet isimangaliso recognised that one of the region’s biggest attractions was game viewing and embarked on an ongoing programme to reintroduce animals that were once common there.
Just recently, umkhuze received a further 47 buffalo to boost the initial 103 released in 2005. The buffalo herd, which will eventually number 500, was increased after a R6 million perimeter fence around umkhuze was completed. The fence has also made possible the introduction of wild dog and cheetah.

The Park now has about 6 000 tourism beds, some of which are being upgraded through private public partnerships or through direct investment by government. The local communities have been given an opportunity to participate in these initiatives and are being assisted with the development of small businesses.

Among the many excellent accommodation facilities in the park are Thonga Beach LodgeMabibi CampRocktail Bay Lodge and the Rocktail Beach Camp. Then, of course, there are still the old favourite holiday venues such as Cape VidalUmkhuzeSt Lucia Estuary and Sodwana bay, where camping and self-catering facilities are available.

Though holidaymakers were going to isimangaliso long before it was known by that name, it is only in the last decade or so that the region has come into its own. In fact, the area was South Africa’s firstWorld Heritage Site (beating even the iconic Robben Island off Cape Town and the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng in the listing). The status, however, imposes a responsibility on the country to conserve the environment for future generations and to deliver tangible benefits for local communities.

Restoring the area to its pristine state was—and still is—a major undertaking. During the 1950s commercial forestry plantations were planted on the eastern and western shores of the isimangaliso Wetland Park. By the beginning of 2007, however, the commercial forestry operations had ceased, and 8 093 ha of gum and pine on the western shores and 6 200 ha of pine on the eastern shores had been cleared. 

A land rehabilitation programme to deal with alien invasive species resulting from the commercial plantation operations is in place. A network of some 20 kilometres of 2x4 game viewing roads has been established, along with picnic and viewing sites. A spine road linking St Lucia to Charters Creek has been built, and the construction of a series of loop roads off it begun. A new park entrance to the Western Shores will be built in 2009. 

Roads, fences and other infrastructure are being upgraded and improved in a bid to make the wetland park a world-class tourism destination. All gravel roads in the Umkhuze section of Isimangaliso are being resurfaced and selected sections tarred to ensure all-weather access for visitors. Hides, popular day-visitor facilities and the fig forest walk are all earmarked for redevelopment. 

Much of this work is done by women and has created much-needed jobs. In the past year Isimangaliso has employed some 4 000 people in land rehabilitation programmes and worked with 900 women to develop 40 food gardens as alternatives to farming in sensitive wetlands. It has also provided ongoing support to crafters.

There is another important factor. A serious cross-border push to reduce high levels of malaria has left Lake St Lucia malaria free for the first time in history, with malaria down by more than 98 per cent.

Isimangaliso has an intriguing history. During the late-eighties and early-nineties, the struggle for the future of the Greater St Lucia Wetland reached fever pitch when half a million ordinary people and organisations petitioned the State to resist plans by a multinational mining company to mine the dunes for titanium and other heavy metals. The mining option was overturned with tourism and conservation seen as the more appropriate land use for the wetlands. 

The cultural and ecological treasures of the region are enormous. The area has a 105-year history of conservation (St Lucia Park was declared a game reserve three years after the Yellowstone National Park in the United States and is Africa’s oldest protected area along with the nearby Hluhluwe imfolozi Park). The 200 kilometres of coastline and beaches where it is equally possible to dive—or watch baby turtles hatch and scurry off to the sea—are, literally, a unique attraction. 

Today the fragile combination of natural beauty and social diversity has elevated Isimangaliso to iconic status in the history of environmental struggle in South Africa.

When elephants were reintroduced to Isimangaliso, South Africa’s much-loved former president described it as an “almost spiritual form of restitution”. Mandela added: “It is an attempt to recreate the wholeness of nature so that we can live in harmony with our creator’s magnificence … so that the descendants of the elders of Maputaland and future generations, too, can experience this grandeur.”
What a place for a holiday.

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New to the Area
An exciting new R1,8 billion project, set to begin in September 2009, is planned on the Swazi side of one of the five cross-border initiatives making up the Lubombo Transfronteir Conservation Area (TFCA) – another one links the Isimangaliso Wetland Park with the southern Mozambican coastline. Known as the ROYAL Jozini big 6 project, it will feature a tiger-fishing village and marina, championship golf course, game lodges, timeshare complex, golf hotel and conference centre, boatyard, casino, landing strip and a big five game reserve, among others.
The project will roll out in four phases and is expected to employ no fewer than 8 000 construction workers over the four-year construction period and thereafter directly provide 2 000 permanent jobs. It will also create a wide range of small business opportunities. Operations are set to begin in September 2009 and will contribute to the opportunities presented by the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
The South African component of this TFCA includes community areas and public and private land surrounding the Pongola Poort Dam, also popularly known as Lake Jozini. The dam forms the core conservation component. In Swaziland the area consists of private land, government-owned land and community areas.