The iSimangaliso Wetland Park extends from the coastal town of St Lucia throughout the northern reaches of KwaZulu-Natal. It is one of the brightest jewels in South Africa’s tourism crown and is famous the world over for its incredible landscapes and abundant wildlife.
iSimangaliso was the first park in South Africa to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008 for its natural beauty and the unique coexistence of multiple biomes around Lake St Lucia – the centerpiece of the park. Since then the park has been expanding its borders and most recently incorporated the uMkhuze Game Reserve into its management fold.
iSimangaliso is also home to the unique Kosi Lakes, and coastal gems like Sodwana and Mabibi. The park is a treasure trove of cultural and natural attractions, including examples of ancient fishing techniques, South Africa’s best coral reef complex, the highest density of hippos and crocodiles in the country, and the prehistoric coelacanth fish!
As well as conserving some of the wildest places in South Africa, iSimangaliso has managed to achieve several amazing feats in its relatively short existence. These include the virtual eradication of Malaria from northern KZN and the re-wilding of large tracts of land previously utilized for plantations of water-intensive gum trees.
The ecological, economical and historical significance of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is beyond question and visitors to the park can expect to be treated to a wide range of activities to cater for all tastes and preferences.
Here’s our take on the 10 “must-do” activities in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
1. Walk the Fig Forest in Mkhuze Game Reserve
The Mkhuze Game Reserve is the most recent addition to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, however its existence goes well beyond its inclusion. Parts of the area that make up the Mkhuze Game Reserve have been protected by locals for hundreds of years, and one of the best places to see the results of this is in the 900-year-old Sycamore Fig forest on the eastern border of the park. This area can only be accessed by foot and it is one of the most humbling and spell-binding experiences you can imagine. Be sure to take your camera with for this one, you’ll want to remember every moment.
2. Explore the lakes at Kosi Bay
The Kosi Bay lake system is a natural wonderland and home to hundreds of bird and animal species. One of the best ways to explore this area is by boat. From the water one can access areas of the lake that are otherwise impenetrable, and visitors get a unique perspective of this incredible ecosystem.
Another attraction to this area are the fish traps that have been used by the local Thonga people for 700 years. These fence-like structures are iconic truly unique to this region of the country.
3. Go whale watching in St Lucia
The middle of May till December is an exciting time on the east coast of South Africa as scores of Humpback Whales pass by this stretch of coastline on a breeding migration. Guests can watch these magnificent creatures on coastal cruises that depart from St Lucia during the whale season.
4. Night-drive the Eastern and Western Shores
Game driving is a common activity in all of South Africa’s game reserves, and many people choose to drive themselves. However, visitors to the St Lucia section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park are not allowed to drive within the reserve after dark which is one of the best times to be out in the bush looking for elusive animals like leopards. It’s also a time when an entirely new set of animals come out to wander the plains and bushes of the Eastern and Western Shores Sections of the park making it a perfect opportunity to experience a completely different face of the reserve.
5. Go on a turtle walking tour
One of the most spectacular natural phenomena that occurs on the east coast of South Africa is the turtle nesting season from November to February. Each year scores of female loggerhead and leatherback turtles make their way up the steep beaches of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park to lay their eggs in burrows dug out in the sand dunes. Visitors can join guided walking tours to look for nesting turtles (early in the season) or hatchlings making their way back to the sea (later in the season). This is an experience you will not want to miss!
6. Snorkel at Cape Vidal
Cape Vidal is undoubtedly one of the best beaches in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Not only are the wide sandy beaches a great place to lay your towel and beach gear for the day, but at low tide an extended rocky point provides sheltered, calm water for some amazing snorkelling. There are dozens of underwater creatures to see as well as the remains of the Dorethea shipwreck – one of the great treasure-hunter tales of South African maritime history.
Note – Strong currents can develop at times, and there are no lifeguards on duty. Always pay attention to conditions on the day and be aware of changes in the tide and swell. Guided snorkel sessions are available, and we would especially recommend this for people who are less capable swimmers.
7. Snorkel Aquarium Reef
While Cape Vidal offers an awesome ocean snorkelling experience, there is a unique corner of the Kosi Bay estuary mouth that offers snorkelers an experience that can only be described as swimming through an aquarium. Although a 4×4 vehicle is needed to get to Kosi Bay mouth, transfers can be arranged with local operators.
8. Take a river boat cruise on Lake St Lucia
Lake St Lucia is the centerpiece of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and one of the best ways to get to know this unique ecosystem is by boat. Get up close to the resident crocodiles and hippos and gain a new perspective of life on the lake. Visitors can also view the mangrove and reed habitats that line the water and look out for some special water birds including the iconic African fish eagle.
9. Relax on the beach at Mabibi
While there are many incredible beaches in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Mabibi holds a special place among the contenders for best beach in the area. Its secluded location makes for a quiet day on the beach not to mention there are some great snorkeling options on Hulley Point!
10. Dive Sodwana Bay
Sodwana Bay has earned a reputation for being one of the top dive destinations in the world! And it’s not hard to see why. This stretch of coastline is home to the best high-latitude coral reefs in South Africa, and is also frequented by a variety of bigger animals including dolphins, turtles, manta rays and sharks.