iSimangaliso Wetlands Park

ISIMANGALISO WELANDS PARK, South Africa’s first world heritage site, is a haven for many species of threatened and endangered plants and animals, although climate change threatens the fragile balance in the park’s five ecosystems. Park rangers are working to stop illegal poaching of black and white rhinos, both endangered species.

iSimangaliso means “miracle” in Zulu – that’s how King Shaka’s trusted advisor Ujeqe described this stretch of coastland when he first wandered into it (on the run from his enemies, but that’s another story). Formerly known as the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park, iSimangaliso truly is a miraculous, Noah’s Ark sort of place. Tropical Africa merges into subtropical Africa here, yielding five distinct ecosystems; it also sits on several migration routes, adding up to a mind-boggling total of species—over 100 different butterflies and some 530 types of birds alone.

At the park’s heart lies Lake St. Lucia, which is really a vast estuary—Africa’s largest—teeming with hippos, Nile crocodiles, and flamingos. Even when severe drought hits the rest of Africa, there’s water here, so it’s a vital bird migration spot. You can take guided tours on the Santa Lucia lake cruiser, and at the mouth of the St. Lucia River, visit the Crocodile Centre, McKenzie Street, St. Lucia Village -it’s not just some tourist trap but a significant research center with fine exhibits about Africa’s many crocodile species.

On the lake’s western shores you can drive into the Mkhuze savanna and thornveld, where kudu, nyala, impala, duiker, and reedbuck roam. Even more unusual are the wooded hills on the lake’s eastern shores—the world’s largest vegetated sand dunes. Conservationists recently fought to prevent mining companies from digging up the rich titanium and zirconium deposits under these rare dunes; follow a trail through their peaceful dusky gloom and marvel at what might have been lost. At the end of that road is Cape Vidal beach, where you can watch migrating whales from an observation tower from July to November. Scuba divers head farther north for warm Sodwana Bay, which has almost as many varieties of fish as the Great Barrier Reef; north of there, the mineral-rich sands of Kosi Bay Nature preserve are protected nesting grounds in summer (Dec–Mar) for loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, endangered elsewhere by poaching and by 4-wheel-drive vehicles on beaches (banned here since 2006).

If bird-watching is your passion, head for the Mkhuze Game Reserve, where at least 430 species of birds have been recorded. Mkhuze is like a greatest-hits version of the rest of the park, with a little of every habitat: mountain slopes, acacia savanna, swamps, riverine forest. In winter (June–Sept) you can settle into game viewing hides next to the Kubube, Kamasinga, and Kwamalibala watering holes and see black and white rhinoceros, elephant, giraffe, blue wildebeest, warthog, and myriad antelopes. Two bird hides at Nsumo Pan afford a spectacular year-round view of pelicans, ducks, and geese on the waterway; from here you can also take a guided walk through the lovely, rare Mkhuze Fig Forest. Ujeqe had it right—the whole place is a miracle indeed.