The 332 000ha iSimangaliso Wetland Park was declared South Africa's first World Heritage Site in December 1999 while still called the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. It received this prestigious status in recognition of the beauty of the landscape, its unique ecological processes and the exceptional diversity of species that the park protects.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela referred to the St Lucia Wetlands in a speech marking the historic 2002 reintroduction of elephants to its eastern shores, saying: 'The wetland park must be the only place on the globe where the world’s oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest land mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale).'
The park's Kosi Bay region comprises four lakes linked by a network of channels, while its estuary is one of the world's best fly-fishing destinations.
Accessible only by 4x4, the coastal forest region encompasses the pristine beaches of Mabibi, Island Rock, Rocktail Bay and Black Rock, where snorkelling and diving are popular pastimes.
South Africa's largest freshwater lake, Lake Sibaya, also forms part of the park. Formed against thickly forested coastal dunes, its clear waters support the province's second-largest hippo and crocodile population.
Along the coast lies Sodwana Bay, a top diving destination. More than 1 200 fish species have been recorded along its bountiful reefs, including the coelacanth, rediscovered in Jesser Canyon in 2000 after it was widely believed to be extinct.
The uMkhuze ecosystem is a 38 500ha bird-lovers’ paradise that supports 420 species. Leopard, black rhino, white rhino, elephant, giraffe, wild dog, cheetah, hyena and various antelope are also found here.
Sand forest, thornveld and open savannah characterise False Bay, where boating, fishing and fossils are the main attraction, while Charters Creek is a wildlife haven for larger game species such as elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard, giraffe and tsessebe.
Lake St Lucia is Africa’s largest estuarine system and home to 800 hippos and 1 200 crocodiles. Flocks of pelicans and flamingos favour the expansive lake, making for excellent birdwatching. The eastern shores and Cape Vidal lend themselves to beach-and-safari tours, while Maphelane is a favoured fishing spot, with two self-guided nature trails, one estuarine and one into the dunes. The most impressive of these is the Maphelane dune at 183m high.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park has 35 frog species – 30% of the 116 species recorded in South Africa – more than 500 bird species, over 100 species of butterfly, more than 2 000 species of flowering plants and all five of South Africa’s surviving mangrove tree species.
iSimangaliso is also home to significant cultural heritage sites, including evidence of Stone Age human activity and 700-year-old fish traps at Kosi Bay. You’ll also encounter five of the cultural groups who call this area home: Zulu, Swazi, Shangaan, Tonga and Gonda.
Source: South African Tourism