iSimangaliso Wetland Park: South Africa’s coastal jewel

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is one of the jewels of South Africa’s coastline, with a unique mosaic of ecosystems – swamps, lakes, beaches, coral reefs, wetlands, woodlands, coastal forests and grasslands – supporting an astounding diversity of animal, bird and marine life.

Dawn over Lake St Lucia seen from Fanies Island in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa's first Unesco World Heritage site. (Image: South African Tourism)
Dawn over Lake St Lucia seen from Fanies Island in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first Unesco World Heritage site. (Image: South African Tourism)

Brand South Africa reporter

Formerly known as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, iSimangaliso was renamed in the early millennium to better reflect its African identity – and to avoid confusion with the Caribbean island country St Lucia.

Lying on the northeastern coast of KwaZulu-Natal, stretching from Kozi Bay in the north to Cape St Lucia in the south, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park was the first site in South Africa to be inscribed on the World Heritage List by Unesco, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Remarkable diversity

iSimangaliso’s uniqueness lies in its remarkable diversity, particularly its combination of a subtropical coastline and a classic African game park.

It is South Africa’s third-largest national park. It runs along 280 kilometres of coastline, from the Mozambican border in the north to Mapelane south of the St Lucia estuary. The park is home to some 328 000 hectares of pristine natural ecosystems – including swamps, lake systems, beaches, coral reefs, wetlands, woodlands and coastal forests.

A satellite view of the St Lucia estuary, which runs inland along the Indian Ocean coast of KwaZulu-Natal, and the wider iSimangaliso Wetland Park. (Image: Nasa Earth Observatory)
A satellite view of Lake St Lucia, a 60-kilometre estuary lying just inland of KwaZulu-Natal’s Indian Ocean coast, and the wider iSimangaliso Wetland Park. (Image: Nasa Earth Observatory)

iSimangaliso Wetland Park includes a river mouth, 60 kilometres wide, that creates a huge estuary. This is Lake St Lucia, which runs parallel to the coast and is separated from the sea by the world’s highest forested sand dunes. The lake is part of the St Lucia estuarine system, the largest estuarine system in Africa.

The park incorporates the whole of Lake St Lucia, the St Lucia and Maputaland Marine Reserves, the Coastal Forest Reserve and the Kosi Bay Natural Reserve. The 40 000-hectare Mkuzi Game Reserve is also in the process of being incorporated into the park.

Variety of ecosystems

iSimangaliso’s wide variety of ecosystems and natural habitats provides for an astounding diversity of species in the area.

With its lakes, lagoons, freshwater swamps and grasslands, iSimangaliso supports more species of animal than the better-known and much larger Kruger National Park and Okavango Delta. It is home to South Africa’s largest population of hippos and crocodiles. It also harbours giant leatherback turtles, black rhino, leopards, and a vast array of bird and marine life.

A baby hippo in the iSimangaliso wetlands. The park is home to South Africa's largest population of hippos. (Image: South African Tourism)
A baby hippo in the iSimangaliso wetlands. The park is home to South Africa’s largest population of hippos. (Image: South African Tourism)

According to the Global Nature Fund’s Living Lakes project, more than 530 species of birds use the wetland and other areas of the Lake St Lucia region. “These waters also are graced by 20 000 greater flamingos, 40 000 lesser flamingoes, as well as thousands of ducks. With 36 species, this area has the highest diversity of amphibians in South Africa.

“Here, and nowhere else in the world, can one find hippopotamuses, crocodiles and sharks sharing the same waters.”

In proclaiming the iSimangaliso Wetland Park a World Heritage Site in 1999, Unesco said: “The interplay of the park’s environmental heterogeneity with major floods and coastal storms, and a transitional geographic location between sub-tropical and tropical Africa, has resulted in exceptional species diversity and ongoing speciation.

“The mosaic of landforms and habitat types creates superlative scenic vistas. The site contains critical habitat for a range of species from Africa’s marine, wetland and savannah environments.”

Tourist attraction

The variety of natural settings, the abundance of wildlife, and the sheer beauty of the place draw tourists to the area in increasing numbers. There is plenty to do – from fishing, boating and scuba diving to hiking, horse riding, game viewing, and whale- and bird-watching.

The African jacana is one of the many species of bird to be found in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. (Image: South African Tourism)
The African jacana is one of the many species of bird to be found in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. (Image: South African Tourism)

The park is also one of South Africa’s most popular fishing destinations, lending itself to rock and surf fishing, kite fishing, spear fishing, fly fishing, estuary fishing and deep sea fishing.

There are plenty of hiking trails through the park – ranging from a few hours’ to a few days’ worth – offering the opportunity to see a huge variety of animal and bird life. Accommodation options are extensive, ranging from camping to private game lodges, and including hotels, flats and chalets in the nearby town of St Lucia.

Editing and photo research by Mary Alexander.

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