Category: iSimangaliso.

Miracles and wonder

By Geoff Dalglish

A World Heritage paradise in northern KZN is offering visitors the healing balm of an intense back-to-nature experience, writes Geoff Dalglish

iSimangalisoIt’s called iSimangaliso, which means “miracle and wonder”, the new name for SA’s first World Heritage Site.

Extending 220km up the coast to Mozambique and covering 332000ha, the former Greater St Lucia Wetland Park is wowing visitors with an unsurpassed beach and bundu experience.

The appeal of iSimangaliso is unique. Former president Nelson Mandela rightly insisted it must be the only place on Earth where the oldest land-mammal (the rhinoceros) and biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and biggest marine mammal (the whale).

Where else, in the space of a weekend, could you see elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard, cheetah, hippo, crocodiles, sharks, whales and dolphins, and enjoy a guided exploration of one of the last significant breeding grounds for giant leatherback and loggerhead turtles?

Offshore it’s also renowned for its diving, with waters populated by a prehistoric fish that, until recently, was believed to have been extinct for 70 million years.

And, yes, I have personally met all these remarkable creatures – other than the coelacanth, which swims far deeper than I’d dare. I have to confess, though, that I’ve not ticked them all off on the same trip, but during many pilgrimages.

Perhaps the greatest marvel is that, in a world plundered by greed in the name of short-term gain, the conservationists are winning the day. Little more than a decade ago, the now-protected area featured a controversial missile-testing range, forestry was ravaging the landscape, and the devastating spectre of mining loomed large.

Now all appears well in paradise.

There are ambitious plans to continue expanding protected areas while upgrading tourism facilities with programmes that involve impoverished local communities in decision-making and wealth-creation.

Long before I’d ever heard the word iSimangaliso, or had the faintest grasp of what it meant, I was drawn to the superb beaches and game reserves, and enjoyed driving the deep sandy coastal tracks that are the domain of high-clearance 4x4s.

Like many others, I enjoyed traversing the beaches in my vehicle, although I fully support the protection to sensitive ecosystems offered by the Beach Ban – hiking unspoilt beaches is definitely more rewarding than churning them up with 4×4 tracks.

Besides, many wonderful drives remain, my favourite being the roller-coaster ride alongside Lake Sibaya, Southern Africa’s largest freshwater lake, that takes you along a track less travelled to tantalising destinations like Mabibi campsite, Thonga Beach Lodge and Rocktail Beach Camp.

Keep heading north and you arrive at the Kosi Lake system where time stands still, locals harvesting fish sustainably with fish traps that have been handed down from father to son for centuries.

Of course, it is the resort town of St Lucia, alongside Africa’s largest estuary, that is the start of so many great adventures, my latest visit including a whale-watching excursion where bottlenose dolphins surfed around our bows and relaxed humpback whales spouted nearby.

Later we drove good tar roads to Cape Vidal and booked into an affordable log cabin, where we braaied beneath a magnificent starry sky, soothed by the rhythmic sound of the waves.

At first light, there was the delicious dilemma of beach or bush. After an early morning beach stroll, we explored the shores of Lake St Lucia, following a new route suitable for ordinary cars that flanks the Western Shores and Charters Creek. It will shortly be opened as a scenic link to more northerly attractions.

Next up was uMkhuze, one of my favourite game reserves and a top birding site boasting more than 420 species. Our highlights included sunset at picture-perfect Nsumo Pan; abundant game just metres from a hide and an early morning guided stroll through a magical fig forest. This time the accommodation was an en-suite safari tent, our plan being to splurge on our last night with the supreme pampering of Thonga Beach Lodge.

Its position is unrivalled: within seconds of leaving your room, you step off a boardwalk onto a pristine beach of the sort that honeymooners dream about.

To outsiders, iSimangaliso is paradise, although Andrew Zaloumis, CEO of iSimangaliso, admits: “There are still many challenges, the most important being to ensure that progress continues to be made towards putting an end to the paradox of poverty amidst the plenty of nature . to show that nature-based tourism can be more beneficial than smokestack industry and can promote a natural form of wealth distribution.”

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Category: iSimangaliso
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