Visitors are likely to spot hippos during a cruise on Lake St. Lucia. // © 2014 David DiGregorio
Feature image (above): Performers demonstrate traditional Zulu dance at Khula Township. // © 2014 David DiGregorio
Since hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup, South Africa has experienced a dramatic increase in arrivals, with growth year over year. Travel agents have been finding value in selling a destination that balances authentic wildlife experiences with first-world tourism infrastructure.
But there’s a lot more to South Africa than Kruger National Park and Cape Town. A case in point is the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, situated along the Indian Ocean and a three-hour drive from Durban. This relatively unknown corner of South Africa offers some of the country’s best value and unique experiences.
Formally the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, iSimangaliso translates to “miracle” in Zulu. It’s easy to understand why. The park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its concentrated biodiversity and five different ecosystems, including coral reefs, sandy beaches, subtropical dune forests, savannas and wetland. This is the only spot in South Africa where visitors can see Big Five game as well as dolphins and whales. Best of all, this area offers plenty of bookable activities in a space that’s small enough for clients to explore without having to self-drive.
What to Do
Any trip to iSimangaliso should begin with an evening cruise on Lake St. Lucia. The wetlands are home to a population of 1,200 Nile crocodiles and 800 hippopotami. The populations are so concentrated that viewings are guaranteed. More adventurous travelers will enjoy kayaking in the crocodile-infested waters, while those interested in the bush can spot big game from horseback. A daytrip to the eastern and western shores promises unspoiled beaches, excellent game viewing with a chance to see elephants, snorkeling at Cape Vidal and a lunchtime barbecue near the beach. For a touch of local culture, a visit to the nearby Khula Township offers the opportunity to enjoy a meal as a guest in someone’s home and pay a visit to a local school. From November to March, loggerhead turtles can be seen laying their eggs on the beach at night.
Where to Stay
The small town of St. Lucia is situated on a peninsula within the wetlands and must adhere to strict development restrictions to minimize ecological impact. The result is a tiny, extremely walkable hamlet filled with bed and breakfasts, small shops and intimate restaurants. This is the hub of the wetlands, and guests staying here can easily be picked up for activities and walk everywhere else. Umlilo Lodge and Santa Lucia Guest House offer some of the best values in town. Be sure to warn clients to be cautious walking around at night — hippos often roam the streets feeding on residential grass.
South African Airways Express and Airlink fly five times daily to Richard’s Bay Airport (RCB) from Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB). Flight time is just over an hour. A ground transfer from Richard’s Bay takes roughly 45 minutes to St. Lucia, and major car rental companies are available at the airport.