The miracle and wonder of iSimangaliso Wetland Park MzansiBride

Winona Griggs

The Incredible iSimangaliso Wetland Park: A Natural Wonder

Prepare to be amazed by the sheer beauty and diversity of the majestic iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Located in Kwazulu-Natal on South Africa’s far northeast coast, this stunning area encompasses a breathtaking expanse of land, ocean, and freshwater lakes and rivers.

Spanning an impressive 332,000 hectares, iSimangaliso Wetland Park is South Africa’s second largest protected natural area, surpassed only by the world-famous Kruger National Park. While the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which straddles Botswana and South Africa, is larger than Kruger, the South African portion of the park ranks as the third largest nature reserve, after Kruger and iSimangaliso.

It’s fascinating how this place isn’t just a national park – it’s actually recognized as a World Heritage Site (check out this amazing read: Africa’s 10 best World Heritage Sites). Even though it’s not officially a national park, it’s managed by the iSimangaliso Wetland Park authority and KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife. In my opinion, it’s so incredible that it should be considered a national park because it definitely stands out among the top protected areas in the continent.

Just picture this – a boardwalk stretching over Third Lake at Kosi Bay. It’s such a breathtaking sight!

Wow, you won’t believe the incredible variety of life at iSimangaliso! It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and it rivals even the biggest nature reserves in South Africa. Get this – there are a whopping 526 different species of birds here, which is half of all the bird species in the entire country! And that’s not all, it’s also home to 25% of Africa’s bird species! Just imagine the beautiful songs and vibrant colors you’ll encounter.

But wait, there’s more! iSimangaliso is a true paradise for reptile enthusiasts too. You’ll find 36 different snake species slithering through the underbrush, along with 35 species of frogs – the highest number in the entire country! Talk about hopping with excitement.

Now, let’s dive into the water world. iSimangaliso is proud to be home to an amazing array of marine life. Picture this – 5 species of turtles gracefully gliding through the turquoise waters, mingling with over 2,000 species of beautiful flowering plants that add a pop of color to the landscape. And don’t forget about the show-stopping dragonflies – a staggering 80 species fluttering about in the air.

Did I mention the butterflies? Brace yourself, there are 110 species of these delicate creatures dancing through the air, spreading joy with their vibrant patterns. And beneath the surface of the ocean, a wonderland awaits. More than 100 species of coral create a magical underwater world, teeming with life and color. And let’s not forget the diverse collection of fish species, both in the ocean and freshwater habitats. It’s like swimming in your very own aquarium!

Now, if you love getting up close and personal with Africa’s wildlife, iSimangaliso has got you covered. Picture majestic elephants wandering through lush landscapes, and cheeky hippos taking a leisurely dip in the water. Feel the thrill of encountering a mighty buffalo, and the spine-tingling howl of a hyena under the moonlight. And here’s a unique twist – iSimangaliso is one of only two places in South Africa where you can spot a leopard strolling along the sandy beach. The other place is De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Western Cape.

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I hope you’re as amazed as I am by the extraordinary biodiversity at iSimangaliso. It’s truly a nature lover’s dream come true. So, pack your binoculars, put on your safari hat, and get ready for an adventure like no other. Let the wonders of iSimangaliso take your breath away!

Why is Isimangaliso such an extraordinary place? Well, the word itself, which means “miracle and wonder” in Zulu, gives you a hint. Isimangaliso is truly a marvel, offering a stunning variety of landscapes and marine life in Africa. It boasts over 220 kilometers of pristine ocean shoreline and is home to eight interconnected ecosystems, each with its own unique features. From sprawling bushveld and grasslands to lush swamp forests, tranquil lakes and rivers, towering coastal dunes (some of the tallest on the planet), vibrant coral reefs, and never-ending beaches, Isimangaliso has it all.

An essential part of Isimangaliso’s ecological balance is the presence of three major lake systems – Kosi Bay, Lake Sibaya, and Lake St Lucia. These lakes are among the largest freshwater bodies in the country and play a vital role in driving the diverse ecosystems of Isimangaliso. Interestingly, these lakes are separated from the ocean by a slim strip of dense, forested coastal dunes, creating a remarkable contrast between the freshwater and marine environments.

Have you ever heard of Kosi Bay? It’s not actually a bay, but rather a collection of four large lakes that are all connected to each other through channels. These lakes are also linked to the Indian Ocean near Mozambique. The Tongan people, who live in the area and consider themselves different from the Zulu, have been fishing in Kosi Bay for hundreds of years. The abundance of fish in the lake system is quite impressive, although some species have declined over time, which is not surprising.

Lake Sibaya, the largest freshwater body in South Africa, is an interesting feature of Kosi Bay. Unlike other lakes, it doesn’t have any rivers flowing into or out of it. Rather, it relies on rainwater to maintain its water level. This lake is home to a large population of hippos and crocodiles, making it the second-largest gathering of these animals in KwaZulu-Natal.

Did you know that Lake St Lucia is the biggest estuary in South Africa? It stretches out for 80 kilometers and is 23 kilometers wide. This place is home to over 1,000 hippos and crocodiles, as well as large groups of pelicans, flamboyances of flamingos, and various types of fish.

What about the hippos in the Kosi Lake system?

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Something new that has been added to iSimangaliso is the uMkhuze Game Reserve. It’s one of the most exciting wildlife reserves in the entire country. This place covers a massive area of almost 40,000 hectares. You can find a great variety of animals here, like elephants, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, leopards, hyenas, and tons of different types of antelope and ungulates.

Wow, let me tell you about iSimangaliso, South Africa’s very first World Heritage Site! It was declared in 1999, but did you know that this incredible place almost got destroyed by mining and uncontrolled development? Back in the late 80s and early 90s, a mining company called Richards Bay Minerals had plans to mine the titanium in the dunes along this gorgeous coastline.

Can you imagine that? They wanted to bulldoze and dredge the forests, estuaries, lakes, rivers, and even the beaches! It’s hard to believe that someone would even think about doing something like that. Once you see this place for yourself, you’ll be dumbfounded that anyone would consider such a thing.

A group of organizations, with support from 500,000 regular people and Nelson Mandela himself, asked the government to cancel the permit for mining. Thankfully, the government had the wisdom to prohibit mining, recognizing that this area should be protected for the future. They realized that ecotourism and sustainable use were the best ways to generate income. There is another struggle happening right now at Mkhambathi Nature Reserve on the Wild Coast. Conservationists and communities are fighting to preserve this smaller, yet equally stunning, location. You can read about it in my blog.

When you think about it, iSimangaliso is a truly extraordinary place. Nelson Mandela himself once said, “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.”

With these incredible facts in mind, I eagerly began my journey in the far north at Kosi Bay. And let me tell you, what a way to start my exploration of iSimangaliso. While the rest of the country was bundled up against the winter chill, I was happily wandering the beaches, lakes, and forests in my shorts and flip flops. The temperatures here hardly ever drop below 25 degrees, and during the day, they can even reach a scorching 35 degrees. The waters of the oceans and lakes are just as warm!

I found the most amazing campsite at Kosi. It’s right by Lake KuNhlange, the biggest lake in the area. Surprisingly, there weren’t many people around when I was there. The water in the lake is so warm, it feels like taking a bath! I know it might sound scary, but you can actually swim in the shallows during the day without worrying about crocodiles or hippos.

One of the best things about the campsite is the sound of fish eagles. They make these beautiful calls all the time. And guess what? Kosi Bay is home to one of the few colonies of palm-nut vultures in the whole country! These birds are rare and look more like eagles than vultures. In the mornings and evenings, they fly over the campsite looking for food in the raffia palm trees nearby. It’s incredible to see them in action, especially considering that there aren’t many raffia palms left here.

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One sunny morning, my friend Jenny and I hopped on Steve de Lange’s boat for a thrilling ride around the lake system. I highly recommend it! Steve will guide you from the third lake all the way to the first lake, giving you an incredible glimpse into the fish traps that the local Tongans have been using for over 1,000 years. Those traps were first documented by Portuguese explorers 700 years ago. To reserve a spot on his boat tour, just give Steve a call at 079-991-7714.

During the trip, you’ll also get to see an abundance of birdlife and some hippos, and if you’re lucky, you might even spot a few crocs. If you’re feeling adventurous, Steve suggests snorkeling near the fish traps to witness how young fish seek refuge in the wooden structures to escape from predatory fish. The water is crystal clear and warm, teeming with thousands of fish, creating an unforgettable experience. But don’t worry, although there are crocs in the area, Steve assures us that they mainly come out at night.

So, let me tell you about this amazing adventure I had one afternoon. I hopped into my car and headed to the estuary, you know, that place where the lakes meet the ocean. The tide was really high, called a spring tide, and I thought it would be the perfect time to go snorkeling in the estuary. It was like swimming in a huge aquarium! There were so many fish swimming around, and I even saw some eels and scorpionfish. Super cool, right? Oh, but watch out when you’re in the shallows, you might get stung by a scorpionfish!

After my snorkeling adventure, I went back to my campsite for the evening. And let me tell you, things got pretty interesting. Just as I was about to start a barbecue, a massive thunderstorm passed over us. It was like Mother Nature turned on her disco lights! The rain poured down like crazy, and the thunder was booming all around us. But here’s the thing, I had this awesome rooftop tent that kept us dry. So, I just stood under it, watching the storm and feeling all cozy. After about thirty minutes, the storm passed, and the sky cleared up. And guess what? The stars twinkled like diamonds in the night sky! I fell asleep to the gentle sounds of hippos grunting and raindrops falling from the trees. It was such an incredible experience!

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