Also known as the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park is South Africa's third largest conservation area and was proclaimed as a World Heritage Site in 1999. It offers a unique combination of a subtropical coastline with a classic African game park. The St. Lucia Wetland Park is located in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal, known as Maputaland, and stretches over 280km from Kosi Bay in the north to St. Lucia in the south. It covers an area of 328 000 ha. The St. Lucia lagoon, the Mkuze Park, the St. Lucia Marine Reserve, the Sodwana Bay National Park, Lake Sibaya and the Kosi Bay Nature Reserve are all part of the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park.
The Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park comprises some of the highest forested dunes in the world. The region is of global importance and boasts different ecosystems such as swamps and wetlands, lake systems, beaches, coral reefs, woodlands and coastal forests. Lake Sibaya is South Africa's largest freshwater lake, covering an area of 77km², and is intensely blue and crystal clear. Lake St. Lucia is also fed by seawater and is therefore a unique lake system of fresh and salt water.
Large herds of animals inhabit the area, such as antelope, hippos, crocodiles and elephants. Many species of fresh water- and sea-birds are found in the lake areas of St. Lucia Wetland Park. Fish are abundant and include species such as cod, mullet and grunter. Interesting bird species include pelicans, fish eagles, flamingos and herons. The St. Lucia Wetland Park area is known worldwide for the turtles that breed on the subtropical beaches. Activities that can be recommended include game fishing, rock and surf fishing, fly fishing and spear fishing. Game safaris, hippo cruises, walking trails, kayak safaris, night safaris and turtle breeding excursions are also offered.
At iSimangaliso, you will be able to experience a true African safari. Lions, buffaloes, rhinos, antelope and many more can be seen roaming the various reserves. It also, however, offers you ocean safaris. You can go and dive in Sodwana, or watch the turtles coming to lay their eggs during their gestation period, for example.
Head out to Kosi Bay where you can enjoy various activities in the rich waters. The area has been referred to as one of the best snorkeling spots in the world, because of its shallow depth and the diverse range of species to be found under the water. If you prefer to stay above the water, try kayaking around the bay.
Horse riding in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is unlike any other horse riding experience you can imagine. From the African bush and sharing space with zebra, giraffe, rhino, hippopotamus and many more, to the beach, where you can view the magnificence of the estuary and, if you’re lucky, a couple of whales or dolphins in the surf.
The Greater St Lucia Wetland Park is located in the northern section of the eastern coastline of South Africa. Guests traveling to St Lucia will be welcomed at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and assisted in transferring to a domestic flight headed for King Shaka International Airport or Richards Bay Airport, if it is the first destination on your itinerary.
The park covers 332 000 hectares, and the drive to the park will depend on where you choose to stay and what you prefer to do. St Lucia is also often not the first destination on tour to the area. From Durban, it is a three to four hour drive along the beautiful coastline to the southern and middle reaches of the park. Guests will be transported in a private, air-conditioned 4x4 vehicle.
The subtropical climate of the eastern coast of South Africa means that the area is warm all year round. The winter months are the most comfortable, however, as the humidity is not as intense as during the summer months. Visiting St Lucia will depend heavily on what you would like to see. If you are coming for the whale season, try to come at the end of the winter from June to August.
Those interested in the loggerhead and leatherback turtles have to visit in high summer from November to February. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean make diving comfortable throughout the year, and the major animals like elephants, hippos and crocodiles are also seen through winter and summer. For birders, the summer season is the best time to visit.
In 1554, the area that is now St Lucia was called “Rio dos Medos do Ouro”, that translates to “River of Golden Dunes” by the survivors of the Portuguese ship Sao Bento. Later, on 13 December 1575, the day of the feast of Saint Lucy, the estuary was named Santa Lucia by Manuel Peresterello. The British proclaimed St. Lucia as a township in 1822 and, by 1895, the St. Lucia Game Reserve was established 30km north of the town. Then, in 1971 following the establishment of the Ramsar Convention, the turtle beaches and coral reefs of Maputaland and the St. Lucia estuary were listed by the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1999.
On the 1st of November 2007, the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park was renamed 'iSimangaliso', meaning either ‘miracle’ or ‘something wondrous’ in Zulu. This was the name the Zulu knew the area as ever since Shaka sent one of his subjects to the Tsonga in this area. On his return, he described the beauty that he saw as a miracle. Of iSimangaliso, the late great Nelson Mandela said: “iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest 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).”
In St Lucia, one could find elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo and leopard, thus lions are the only Big Five species not present. Tourists do not typically come here to see these species, but rather the amphibious hippopotamus. Hundreds of hippos live here and can be seen coming out at dusk to feed. Every night, they eat tons of grass and return to the estuary at dawn. The hippos then defecate in the water, thereby feeding a multitude of fish and prawns. Hundreds of Nile crocodiles also make the St Lucia estuary their home. In the early summer. loggerhead and leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, that incubate for around 65 days. Thereafter the the beaches are filled with hatchlings making for water.
An astonishing variety of species can be observed at St Lucia. Whales and dolphins can be spotted in the sea. Vervet monkeys and baboons will entertain you with their antics. Keen observers might lay their eyes on civet, black-backed jackal, serval, aardwolf - the list goes on and on. St Lucia is a birding hotspot, with 526 bird species documented, including species such as the pink backed pelican, greater and lesser flamingo. More than a hundred different fish species use the estuary as a nursery. In the deep waters off the coast of St Lucia, the ancient coelacanth walks on the sea floor with its specialized fins. A wide variety of snakes occur, including Mozambique spitting cobra, black and green mamba.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was South Africa’s first World Heritage Site. It was largely awarded the title because of its unique terrain and vegetation. The park encompasses five major interlinking ecological zones, which include marine, eastern shore, Lake St Lucia, Mkuze swamps and western shore zones. The park is also home to no less than three major lakes systems. There are so many threatened systems and species that it is hard to determine which is more important to mention. The fact that the park conserves most of South Africa’s remaining swamp forests should be an indicator of how important the area is.
In terms of species, the cycad found in the area is highly threatened, and much like the rhinoceros the illegal trade of these plants are destroying the biodiversity of the areas in which they occur naturally occur. There are many other beautiful and rare plants to be found in the region, which include the paintbrush lily, giant carrion flower, water lilies, the rare yellow tree orchid and the Natal dune vygie, to name but a few. The trees found in the area include the Fever, Sweet Thorn Acacia, Cabbage, Coastal Silver Oak, and Coral trees. The park also conserves a large portion of coastal and marine habitats such as coral reefs and the gestation grounds for various turtles. It is truly one of the most diverse and rich biodiversity spots in the world.
St Lucia offers a magnitude of experiences. Many are seasonal, however, and it is important to consult your calendar before visiting the area if you have something specific in mind. One of the major attractions is the annual whale season from June to December. Boats launched from the beach give visitors a thrilling rubber duck ride and a chance to view the magnificent creatures up close as they make their way south to give birth. From November to February, the beaches of the coastline are often visited in the evening, as the loggerhead and leatherback turtles (the largest turtles in the world) frequent the area to lay their eggs.
Boat and kayak safaris on the various lakes in the area make for great crocodile and hippo sightings, with the most prominent being Lake St Lucia, which is home to more than a thousand crocodiles. It goes without saying that swimming in any natural water source is not a good idea. Guests can also make their way to the St Lucia Crocodile Centre if they’d like to learn more about these prehistoric reptiles. The area is also close to Sodwana Bay, which offers some of the best diving sites in the world. Deep sea fishing and tiger fishing on Lake Jozini is offered throughout the year, and attracts anglers from all over the world. Birding is also very popular, and expertly guided birding safaris are available.
Savor wild and wet encounters with the animals that make this awe-inspiring estuarine system their home when visiting the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. You'll undoubtedly marvel at the abundance of wildlife in this corner of the world.
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