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iSimangaliso – a place of miracle and wonder

iSimangaliso means “miracle and wonder” in isiZulu and it’s a very good name for this unspoilt piece of paradise. iSimangaliso Wetland Park covers 220km of coastline, stretching from Maphelane in the south to Kosi Bay in the north on the Mozambique border. It incorporates a staggering array of habitats such as mountains, grasslands, forests, wetlands, mangroves, dunes, coral reefs and beaches.

iSimangaliso is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning it is deemed to be an area of outstanding importance to the common heritage of humankind, which is quite a claim to fame. It became South Africa's first World Heritage Site in 1999. In 2019, 20 new marine protected areas (MPAs) were announced in the country and the largest increase was to iSimangaliso. The iSimangaliso MPA now covers a staggering 13 000 square kilometres and is one of the largest protected areas in South Africa (second only to the Kruger National Park). To celebrate this achievement, we take a look at some of the unmissable attractions in the area, and reasons to make sure it’s top of your holiday wish list for 2020.

Former President Nelson Mandela was clearly a fan of the area, saying “iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale).”

The area is all about the wildlife. The majority of visitors make their way to the southern part of the iSimangaliso MPA, which includes St Lucia and Cape Vidal.

One of the top attractions here is a self-drive game drive through the Cape Vidal nature reserve. There are six looping road routes to explore in this region, and visitors can see buffalo, buck, hippo, rhino and leopard, among others.

Another must-see attraction is the turtle nesting, which takes place between November and March. Both loggerhead and leatherback turtles nest on these shores, and visitors in November or December may see the females laying eggs, while visitors in the new year may see eggs hatching and youngsters making their first perilous voyage to the water. The tours are done at night and on a 4X4 which drives along the beach searching for turtles, starting at St Lucia and finishing 28km away at Leven Point.

For those looking for a more slothful form of relaxation, there are many appealing options. The estuary tours in St Lucia are highly recommended. Guests are almost guaranteed to see hippos and crocodiles, and the birdlife along the estuary, including pelicans and fish eagles, can be breathtaking. The mangrove swamps are stunningly beautiful, and even more so if you are lucky enough to time your trip with a good sunset over the water.

Another option is to walk along the estuary boardwalk, which runs from Sugar Loaf Road in St Lucia all the way to the beach mouth. Walkers pass plentiful mangrove swamps and reed beds, and have a good chance of spotting hippos (be careful not to walk this route at night, when they could be crossing the boardwalk).

The more adventurous guests will also find plenty to do. Sodwana Bay is one of the top sites in the world for scuba diving, boasting close to 100 types of coral reefs which are home to over 1 200 species of fish as well as an array of turtles, rays and even whale sharks. For those preferring to stay on top of the water, the whale watching boat tours offer a great chance to see humpback whales up close. These giants of the deep come to the South African coastline between May and December to breed, and as they are naturally inquisitive animals there is always a chance they will approach the boat to say hello.

Horseback riding is not only a lot of fun, but a good way to see non-dangerous wildlife from a completely new angle. Horse rides are available along the eastern shore of Cape Vidal. Riders are perceived as less of a threat by the game, so will often continue peacefully grazing as you ride serenely by. The ride finishes along the beach with the chance for the brave to speed up to a canter or a gallop, with nothing but sand and sea providing the perfect backdrop to this adrenaline rush.

At iSimangaliso the wildlife roam plentiful and free. We are simply guests in their kingdom, so perhaps the best activity we can recommend is to sit back, relax and admire the unspoilt beauty.

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