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iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

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Game Warden

Last minute in iSimangaliso Wetland Park.


Prior to leaving for South Africa I'd been in contact with Lindy Duffield from iSimangaliso Wetland Park, (www.isimangaliso.com), we hoped to meet up following Kosi Bay but plans remained fluid until my last full day: a telephone call as well left Tembe saw us arranging to visit her at St Lucia which was still a couple of hours drive south.


We checked into a basic and budget bed and breakfast hotel on the main road as it offered cheap lodging and after quickly freshening up, we set off to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park administration offices where we were greeted by Thandi Shabalala, the Tourism Information Officer who was to be our guide for the afternoon.


Entering via Bhangazi Gate, Thandi drove us to some of her favourite places on the Eastern shores of Lake St Lucia, (details, entry times and prices here), a well maintained tarred road takes you up as far as Cape Vidal, (from which split a number of viewing loops), the vast lake on your left, (80 kms long and 23 kms wide at its widest, Africa’s largest estuarine system), and the Indian Ocean to your right. There is no need for a 4wd. But honestly, we only scratched the surface of the Eastern Shores in the short time before sunset.











Mission Rocks is approximately 30 minutes drive from the gate and there is a lookout point, a short and easy climb, (however not accessible to wheelchair users), up through the coastal dune forest. At this point, one can look west over stretching plains reminiscent somewhat of the Serengeti, (this being a mini-version but no less stunning), and the vast Lake St Lucia, whilst turning around to face east, one has the impressive view to the Indian Ocean with its crashing surf and sea anglers standing atop the rocks.







We dropped down a path to stand on the rocky foreshore overlooking the ocean, it was high tide and the surf crashed in: it did not deter the anglers and Thandi said that it would soon be the season to watch the whale migration. First thing in the morning one should make Mission Rocks their destination and set up here to photograph the sun rise.













Checking the time, we were still able make Jock's Mess lookout to watch the sunset over Catalina Bay, so named due to it being a US airforce base during WWII from where Catalina seaplanes were flown from the lake. A stunning lookout point from where Lake St Lucia spreads out in front of you, small pods of hippos can be seen, we are not the only ones at this well patronized spot: all that was missing was a G&T to make it perfect.


The amount of restoration work that has been undertaken thus far is impressive: what used to be alien eucalyptus and pine plantations is now gone; (approx 12,000 hectares recovered), regular and manpower intensive sessions to rid areas of invasive plant species are being undertaken employing people from local communities. Old roads and tracks have been dug out and their scars being regrassed: you could see evidence of this, it's still a work in progress but those involved throughout the whole process have every reason to be proud of their achievements, not only for the improved environment but for the way it has united people of all backgrounds: the iSimangaliso project is taking the area back to a beautiful wilderness it must have once been and alot of the hard work has already been done. The victory over Richards Bay Minerals, (a subsidy of Rio Tinto), saw the huge mining threat to the dunes on iSimangaliso's eastern shore, (for titaninium and other heavy metals) defeated bringing together the public and organisations: the 1994 government decision to prohibit future mining and protect the area's fragile ecosystems. In 1999, iSimangaliso was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. In 2007, what until that date had been called Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, became iSimangaliso Wetland Park following a public consultation, (meaning miracle in Zulu), and now totals 332,000 hectares.


Working with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the intention for iSimangaliso has been the reintroduction of all historical wildlife species, including, in 2013, lions to Mkhuze - more details of which can be found here.




One of the many hippo we saw strolling about on land.


We see kudu, waterbuck, buffalo, hippos strolling through the grass between the main road and lake. Thandi tells us her own story - she is another example of one of the enthusiastic and passionate people we meet on this tour of KZN, someone who loves her job and loves iSimangaliso. That was plain to see after only a few minutes in her company. It was something that stood out for me as well at Mkhuze, from the gate staff to the guides, the lady in the restaurant and the cleaners: the receptionists. I came away with a really positive impression, how proud people were of their parks...

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Game Warden

Night Drive through the Eastern Shores with Kian Barker...

With so many places in which to eat, we chose the Ski Boat Club for dinner with Lindy Duffield and it is reached by driving south through St. Lucia and following the road round past the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Office. We'd already eaten there, prior to the primitive trail and the food and service is excellent with the added attraction of a wonderful view out over the estuary and resident hippos which come out of the water to munch the grass but a few yards from where you sit down.

And it's not only the hippos which wander across the streets in St Lucia, (there are signs to be vigilant), leaving The Ski Boat Club, we witnessed a honey badger waddling through the undergrowth into someone's garden. I was so surprised, I didn't even tell Bugs to stop, to take a photo, we were in the middle of town, not on a game drive...

Lindy had arranged with us to accompany Kian Barker, director of Shaka Barker Tours, www.shakabarker.co.za, on a night drive through the Eastern Shores of Isimangaliso Wetland Park. Kian's all inclusive wildlife resume includes managing Mala Mala, producing wildlife documentaries and spearheading wildlife tourism in Isimangaliso and St Lucia for the past 20 years.


Departure time was eight pm and the drive was scheduled for two hours: it was a real night drive, not just the kind you get when driving back to camp after a sundowner before dinner...


He rolled up to the arranged RV point in a behamoth of a Unimog, it was our transport for the night drive. In certain places, the grass grows very tall and this vehicle offers a great platform from which to observe the nocturnal goings on. We were joining a few other people: we clambered up and into our seats and after a light hearted briefing, set off towards Banghazi Gate.




Even before entering into the park proper, Kian was stopping and illuminating foliage on the verge. His keen eyes, (and years of experience), had spotted a Setaro's dwarf chameleon, (Bradypodion setaroi), endemic to Isimangaliso's dune forests. Barely larger than a grown person's fingerprint: Kian gently nudged it onto his finger so we could take photos before slipping it back onto the leaf from where he'd taken it. Close by, a weaver ants nest, (leaf stitching ants), spanning across a number of bushes.

When entering through the main gate, you pass through an "outer cordon", a fenced buffer zone without predators and yet we see hyena - they must have got through. They have found there way here and it reminds me of the quote from the character Jeff Goldblum plays in Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm:

If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is.



It's not the only hyena we are to see, there are a small number inhabiting the Eastern Shore area and we find them on one of the loops...




Hippos lumber through the night... bushbuck, other antelope, spring hare, eyes flash in the dark under the sweep of the spotlight, nightjars suddenly flap up from where they are sitting on the track. We vere off the main road and follow grass tracks which Kian knows well but are off limits to public.



Spot the chameleon...



A flapped neck chameleon, so different in size and colouring than the Setaro's dwarf chamelion earlier...




A black rhino in the spotlight.




A small goup of bushpigs, running from us, they stop briefly turn, observe us as we observe them. I've never seen one before: it's a great night drive sighting.


Halfway through the drive, we stopped in a secluded, forested area for coffee and hot chocolate, home made rusks. We were to remark on the diverse number of species we had already seen, (having spotted a lot more than we've photographed), bearing in mind that this afternoon, sightings had been limited. And of course with anyone involved in conservation and tourism we mulled over the threat of poaching: it was the main subject of our discussion and how authorities in iSimangaliso were dealing with it and galvanising local communities to help. But in the end, where will ever be safe? Overhead the Milky Way stretches across the sky, billions of flickering stars in an amazing shimmering display. I supped on hot coffee, crunched down a second rusk - Kian Barker proved to be an excellent, amusing guide with a real insight into South Africa's wildlife issues and certainly an expert on iSimangaliso Wetland Park.


A Cape, (?), genet, stood in the fork of a tree, again close to us, perhaps the best sighting I've ever had. It slinks off alas before we can get a photo.




Another chameleon: once you've seen the outline profile of one on a leaf, they become easier to spot and whereas before there were none, now you were seeing them almost on every bush...






The leopard was right next us, but a few meters away to our left. Kian was excited to see it, as much as us and when a guide is enthusiastic as he was, their guests receive so much more from the whole experience.


Little bee eaters huddled together on a branch: to us it appeared Barker had the most incredible eyesight, but his many years of driving at night had fine tuned his senses: he knew where to look, he knew iSimangaliso Wetland Park.




And our last sighting of the night before heading out of the park, a brown snake eagle perched atop a telephone wire post.


Kian dropped us in town opposite our lodgings and our night drive was over. As his Unimog rumbled off down St Lucia's main street, Bugs and I walked back to where we were staying. It had been the most amazing conclusion to my visit to South Africa...

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Great nightdrive, especially cool seeing Bushpigs - is this the first pic of them on ST? :)

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Game Warden
Don't think of iSimangaliso as a park, think of it as a series of destinations. In fact, they are described as the 10 Jewels: more can be found at the iSimangaliso website here. Depending on your time schedule you can fit one, a couple, or all ten into your itinerary. And, if just spending a day or two in St. Lucia, you can easily fit in a visit to both the Eastern and Western Shores via Bhangazi and Dukuduku gates respectively. And as I found, a night drive with Kian Barker is a must do, revealing varied and interesting wildlife species you might not see during the day.

Just over 200 kms from King Shaka International Airport to St Lucia and little more than a couple of hours drive brings you to the gates of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. A huge number of accommodation options exist in St Lucia and one can explore the whole region, for instance staying a couple of days in Mkhuze, driving up to Kosi Bay, then south via Lake Sibaya and Sodwana Bay: iSimangaliso does not just mean Safari: it means snorkeling, scuba diving, sports fishing, whale watching, turtle nesting and so much more and it's all within easy reach from Durban. Self driving the N2 and R22, two well maintained, asphalt highways needn't worry you. And whilst it's always advisable pre booking accomodation, out of season, last minute rolling up, there'll be options available as we found out. With so many restaurants in St Lucia, (and I can heartily recommend The Ski Boat Club where we dined), you don't need to worry about full board lodging and in the two places we stayed, low and medium budget, a hearty cooked breakfast was served.

iSimangaliso is something special. It's not just the wildlife, or the scenery, the biomes, the nature. iSimangaliso is the people too, for, without their combined efforts, their fight, there would be no iSimangaliso. It would all be mined... And, whilst many tourists to South Africa focus their attention elsewhere, Kruger, the Cape, the Garden Route for example, Kwa-Zulu Natal still remains, to a certain extent, undiscovered. But it won't for long, so best you make plans now - and speak to @@Thandi Shabalala for she knows iSimangaliso better than me.

(Read about my visit to Kosi Bay here.)


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Such a gorgeous country...the shore at sunrise is really something.


And I will always appreciate a post which combines game drives and Jurassic Park, two of my favorite things.

Edited by Marks
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@@Game Warden - I am so glad you had a great time in iSimangaliso and enjoyed your TR. We stay in the Parks Board accommodation in Cape Vidal itself and often get bush pigs and genets at night while braaing.

Although the thieving vervet and samango monkeys are quite a pest and clever enough to always be around when you are packing and unpacking your car.

There is a high concentration of leopard around the Eastern Shores and they are often seen !

A bucket list item for me is to watch the turtles laying their eggs - I have heard that is very special.


btw - I cant believe Kian was able to spot such small creatures - amazing !


I am loving seeing KZN from your perspective.

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Game Warden

@@Scops I still have to write up our visit to uMkhuze and Ndumo, and Zimanga Private Game Reserve... stay tuned.

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@@Game Warden - thanks for sharing. I was in St Lucia this week last year. Unfortunately we did not give ourselves enough time to experience iSimangaliso in any meaningful way. The drive to Cape Vidal is gorgeous and I was surprised by all the wildlife!! We got lucky with the sunsets similar to yours, but had to get to the gate by sunset so couldn't linger. We did ride horses with Impala and zebra, which is just fun. We made it to mKhuze NP for a day and it was more fun than expected, but iSimangaliso really deserves more time than I thought. It's a shame that so few Americans (and all foreign visitors) don't know about this gorgeous area. We visited Tembe which was much nicer than expected, but were discouraged from visiting Ndumo due to some unrest between Mozambique and Ndumo residents - a land/water dispute. I look forward to your tr about Ndumo and Zimanga (which I've never heard of).


I have fallen head over heels for KZN. Thanks for sharing your great time in this beautiful area. Hopefully I will return next year and shop for real estate.

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Thanks for doing all the work Matt. I have had my hands full since I have been back.


When I talk about iSimangaliso - I may sound a little love struck. The potential achievement from a conservation perspective could be unmatched.


There is still lots of work to do, but the results at this stage is enough to blow your mind. Well done to all involved - It was a privilege to meet so many passionate committed people who will keep the dream afloat.


The night drive was the most productive night drive I have ever done. Chameleons - I couldn't believe how good Kian's eyes were, but as soon as we saw one - others seemed to pop up everywhere.

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  • 4 months later...

Hi @@Game Warden

Great blog! I see you had a leopard sighting on your night drive on the eastern shores. We have recently started the iSimangaliso Leopard ID Project and have identified 5 leopard to date in the area between Cape Vidal to St Lucia: Ngunuza, Dune, Nkazana, Sibomvini and Shana


From what I can see, your leopard could be a new individual in the area. Would you mind posting the sighting on www.trackingthewild.com

That way, we can tag it to one of the existing individuals or create a new identikit...


Let me know if you have any questions.


Kind regards


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