As part of his year-long journey through 31 South African nature reserves, including all the national parks, photojournalist Scott Ramsay explored one of the country’s most important and diverse protected areas.
Text and photo’s by Scott Ramsay
The huge iSimangaliso Wetland Park on the far north-east coast is a truly impressive stretch of land, ocean, lakes and rivers. At 332 000ha, it is SA’s second largest protected natural area, after the Kruger National Park. (The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that straddles both Botswana and SA is bigger than Kruger, but the South African portion would be the third largest nature reserve, after Kruger and iSimangaliso.)
At first, iSimangaliso can seem daunting to explore. The park, the name of which means “miracle” in Zulu, was SA’s first World Heritage Site (declared in 1999), and is a collection of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, stretching 250km by 50km at its widest.
It incorporates places as diverse as uMkhuze (a game reserve comprising bushveld and pans), Kosi Bay (a series of four lakes used for centuries by Thongan fishermen), Lake Sibaya (SA’s largest freshwater lake), Lake St Lucia (Africa’s biggest estuarine system) and the so-called Western and Eastern Shores. These comprise beaches, grassland, swamps and forests. Offshore is a marine protected area, extending three nautical miles out to sea. It includes the most southerly warm water coral reefs on the continent.
The diversity of animal life at iSimangaliso is unrivalled in the country. There are more than 3400 animal species including 129 mammals, 526 birds, 128 reptiles, 50 amphibians, 1400 fish species, 282 butterflies, 228 spiders, 54 dragonflies and 36 snakes! The park hosts SA’s largest populations of hippos (at least 1200) and crocodile (more than 1600), as well as the highest number of southern reedbuck and red duiker, the latter being endemic to SA. There are no lions, but there are elephants, rhino, buffalo, wild dog and hyena.
This is one of two protected areas in SA where it’s still possible to see a leopard walking on the beach (De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Western Cape is the other).
It was Nelson Mandela who said about iSimangaliso: “It must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhino) and the world’s biggest terrestrial animal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the blue whale).
It’s not surprising that here you will find some of the rarest creatures in Africa, and there’s no better person to point them out than Kian Barker of Shakabarker Tours.
He is based in the town of St Lucia, where hippos and leopards are regular garden intruders. (St Lucia is the only urban area in the world surrounded entirely by a natural World Heritage Site.)
Kian, a former game ranger, is one of the few professional guides allowed to take guests on night drives. Before we’d gone 10m, he slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the Landy, gently plucking a tiny chameleon from the edge of a leaf.
“It’s a Setaro’s dwarf chameleon,” Kian elaborated on the tiny creature, no longer than about 4cm. “And it’s found only here. The survival of this species depends almost entirely on iSimangaliso.”
Like this chameleon, the park’s most iconic animals are inextricably linked with iSimangaliso. Its beaches are the most important nesting area in the southern Indian Ocean for endangered leatherback and loggerhead turtles. Leatherbacks can weigh more than 800kg and reach 2m in length. They can dive to depths of 1km to feed on jellyfish, holding their breath for more than an hour.
In November and December, females make their way onto the beaches to lay their eggs, which are buried in the sand. In January and February, hundreds of hatchlings emerge and make their way down to the sea. It’s estimated that just two in every 1000 hatchlings survive to reproductive age, returning to the same beach on which they were born to lay their eggs.
The turtles and iSimangaliso’s other creatures almost lost their sanctuary in the 1990s when mining companies wanted to dredge large parts of the shoreline and forested dunes for ilmenite, a mineral that is processed into
titanium. This black sand may be valuable as an industrial and consumer product, but it’s vital to the survival of the turtles.
“The ilmenite in the sands of iSimangaliso is critical,” researcher Dr Ronel Nel told me. “The turtles have no sex chromosomes, so when they hatch in temperatures above 29° Celsius it’s a female and if the temperature is below that, it’s a male.
Without ilmenite’s warmth, most hatchlings would end up as males, effectively dooming the population to extinction.”
The turtles are just one of many species that would have lost their home if mining had gone ahead. Concerned citizens and organisations fought the plan, and the government appointed the Leon Commission to investigate the best course for the area traditionally known as Thongaland.
The message came back loud and clear: “The unique combination of socio-political history and environmental and biological diversity makes this area a very special asset to the nation. There is no substitute.”
No substitute indeed. Mining was banned, and more than 3000 animal species could carry on thriving in the lakes, rivers, forests, bushveld and beaches. From almost being dredged to oblivion, the park is now a sanctuary to natural diversity and a beacon of conservation.
Getting to know iSimangaliso Wetland Park
The park comprises 10 sections, which together form one contiguous protected area.
• Kosi Bay. On the border of Mozambique, Kosi Bay is actually a series of four lakes of varying levels of salinity, connected by redlined channels. It’s here that the local Thongan people have fished for more than 1000 years, using ingenious fish traps in the lakes.
• Coastal Forest. This section of thick dune forest runs along the coastline and includes the beaches of Black Rock, Rocktail Bay, Island Rock and Mabibi.
• Lake Sibaya is SA’s largest freshwater lake. Guests at Thonga Beach Lodge are allowed to canoe on the lake, which is otherwise off limits to fishermen and boaters.
• Sodwana Bay is a mecca for scuba divers and anglers.
• uMkhuze. Just 40km west of Sodwana, this 40 000ha wildlife reserve comprises lakes, forests and riverine habitat and is a must visit. Look out for black and white rhino, buffalo, elephant, wild dog cheetah, hyena and birds from a list that is among the longest in the country.
• False Bay is an inland area on the wild western shores of Lake St Lucia.
• Western Shores, on Lake St Lucia, is a good area to spot elephant, buffalo, rhino, giraffe and tsessebe antelope.
• Lake St Lucia is the centrepiece of the southern portion of iSimangaliso and SA’s largest estuarine system. At 80km long and 23km wide, it’s also home to the biggest hippo and croc populations in the country.
• Eastern Shores. This is the most popular part of the park and incorporates several game-viewing roads and lookout points, as well as the most popular campsite at Cape Vidal beach.
• Maphelane is in the very south of the park, below the town of St Lucia. It’s a popular spot for fishermen, and boasts the tallest dune (183m) in the park.