St. Lucia estuary and iSimangaliso Wetland Park guide
The beginning of the St Lucia Estuary, the estuary mouth, is situated within the town of St Lucia at the Southern-most point of Lake St Lucia, within the province of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. This area was proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 1999, and in 2007 the adjacent Wetland Park bordering St Lucia was renamed the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, meaning “Place of Wonder” or “Miracle”. The name iSimangaliso came from the Zulu proverb “ubone isimanga esabonwa ujeqe kwelama thonga” (“If you have seen miracles, you have seen what ujeqe saw in the land of the Thonga”).
The St. Lucia Estuary is the largest estuarine system on the African Continent and boasts the largest single populations in South Africa of the hippopotamus. The beautiful area of Isimangaliso Wetland Park is known for its phenomenal diversity and boasts of being South Africa’s third-largest protected area, it is 332.000 hectares and cover an impressive distance of 200 km of coastline. Bird lovers will be in paradise as the area supports in excess of 500 bird species, including a number of rare wetland and marine varieties. It is home of African elephants that roam the plains and hide in the fragrant forests but even rhino, leopard, zebra, eland, buffalo and kudu, along with majestic humpback whales, at certain times in the year.
Its not just the wildlife but the scenery and incredible ecosystems that one may enjoy while on tour. The park, encompassing five major ecosystems, is affectionately referred to as an ecological paradise and is home to a diversity of wildlife, birds, plants, insects, fish, reptiles and scenic beauty. From wetlands to Savannah grasslands to mangrove forests, unspoiled beaches and an abundance of wildlife, the Park contains three major lake systems, 8 interlinking ecosystems, 700-year-old fishing tradition and 25.000-year-old coastal dunes, the second-highest in the world. The St Lucia section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the most visited of the park, has a variety of activities like the boat cruise along the estuary , the whale watching just offshore from the town of St Lucia, game drives to spot wild animals, guided walks, beautiful beaches as Cape Vidal and to the oldest Game Reserve in Africa, the Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Game Reserve, which is just 1 hour drive.
Travel tips & Information: Activities in the Park
1. Self-drive eastern and western shore section
Ongoing improvements to signage, maps, Park road networks and visitor facilities make iSimangaliso an ideal self-drive destination. Entering from Bhangazhi gate ( eastern section ) and driving along the tar road, stopping at the several viewpoints like Mission rock and Catalina bay, you get to Cape Vidal. It is protected bay renowned for its unspoiled beaches and sport fishing.
Once here u can have a walk along the beach or a beautiful snorkelling activity looking for the numerous fish species that frequent the area. It’s also a nice place where you can picnic. Leaving Cape Vidal you can take the loop along the gravel road passing by Lake Bhanghazi, the Swamp Forest and the red dunes. Next to Bhanghazi gate there is a crocodile centre where all the African species of crocodile can be seen (it hosts a reptiles section but it is temporarily closed for renovation). A number of excellent game viewing roads traverse the Eastern and Western Shores sections of the Park. There is no road that links the two sections. While much of the Park (Lake St Lucia Estuary, Eastern Shores, Western Shores, uMkhuze and Sodwana Bay) is easily accessible by sedan, on decent tar or gravel roads, the northern Coastal Forest section is more remote and a four-wheel drive is required.
Entering from Dukuduku gate, only 4 km from St Lucia along the R618, you start your visit to the Western section. Since the Park homes 4 of the big 5, driving along these roads you could spot elephants, buffalos, Rhino and also leopards. It’s also possible to spot serval, tsessebe, giraffe, nyala, white and black rhino, buffalo, zebra, red and grey duiker, and wildebeest. Obviously, they are wild animals so you have to be lucky and pass by at the right time in the right place. There‘re several loops like uMphathe (with its Kweyezalukazi Lookout) and uMdoni, the uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk overlooking Lake St Lucia, and the beautiful Charter’s Creek, ideal base for birdwatching that provides opportunities to view terrestrial forest birds as well as a variety of aquatic birds, both freshwater and marine. You can also enjoy the park booking a game drive with an open-vehicle with experienced driver/guide through a local tour operator.
2. Estuary boat cruise
This 2 hours boat trip, stopping at interesting sightings along the way, allows you to view hippopotamus and crocodiles. A wide variety of birdlife including fish eagles, kingfishers and herons are normally spotted on the tour as well.
3. Whale Watching
From July to November, the Humpback and Southern Right whale dwell in the St. Lucia waters, during their annual migration to mate and calf. A boat tour is the best way to enjoy these colossuses of the sea and spot them and get as close as 50 meters.
4. Turtle Tours
From November to March the gigantic Leatherback Turtle and the smaller Loggerhead Turtle are nesting at the beaches in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Here the females emerge from the surf and rest in the wash zone alert for danger, then move above the high tide mark to find a suitable site, where the laborious process of digging a nest, down to 1m in depth, commences.
5. Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Game Reserve
It’s also worth visiting Hluhluwe – Imfolozi game reserve, the oldest reserve of Africa. With its rolling hills, open Savannah grasslands it remains an incredibly scenic reserve and with its magnificent history, it’s sure to be a splendid day for a Safari. The park covers 96000 hectares and containing an immense diversity of fauna and flora and above all is the stronghold of the white and black rhino. Check at Hluhluwe – Imfolozi, the oldest reserve in Africa.
Need to Know
Reservations: there are other activities you can enjoy in the Park such as guided walks, deep-sea fishing, horse riding, kayaking and scuba diving. Booking your activity is very easy, go on the main road of St Lucia town and you’ll find many local tour operators. We booked with Advantage Tours in St. Lucia.
Getting there: the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is situated in the northern region of KwaZulu-Natal, with the nearest international airport being King Shaka (Durban) and the closest regional airport at Richards Bay. For those driving themselves, the Park’s gates are accessible from two major tarred roads, the N2 and the R22. Travelling from the south, take the N2 north, travelling north of the Mtunzini toll plaza. The southernmost Park entrance is Maphelane, accessible from the Kwambonambi junction. To visit the Eastern Shores and Western Shores sections (and the town of St Lucia), turn off the N2 at Mtubatuba. The R22 branches off the N2 at Hluhluwe, with directions showing the way to the False Bay gate. Further north along the R22, the D820 on the left leads to uMkhuze’s Ophansi Gate. To reach Sodwana Bay, Lake Sibaya and the Coastal Forest sections, the turn off from the R22 is at Mbazwana. The northernmost section of the Park, Kosi Bay, is accessed via the town of Manguzi/KwaNgwanase.
Where to sleep: St Lucia town is next to the eastern and western gates. Here you‘ll find a wide range of accommodations and restaurants. We slept at Stokkiesdraai Guesthouse.
Where to eat: in St Lucia, you’ll find a good choice of restaurants. We ate at Ocean basket restaurant. Click on the banner to see al the restaurants in St Lucia and the customers’ reviews.