An introduction...

The iSimangaliso / Greater St Lucia Wetland Park was declared as South Africa’s first Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO protocol. This created the most ecologically and historically diverse Park in Southern Africa, home not only to the natural features, but to a number of Nguni tribes. Traditionally the park has been zoned into five ecosystems, however they are so intertwined that it takes several days to understand this incredible labyrinth of nature, history and culture.

This park is situated on the Southern extension of the African Coastline and is warmed by the Western Indian Ocean waters. A massive tropical current, seductively bathes the sandy shore. These waters are kept unusually warm by the Agullas current, a current seasonally driven by strong Madagascan winds. The water temperature reaches a comfortable 31 degrees Celsius. These waters are home to tropical reefs graced by hundreds of fish species, turtles and dolphin all year round with a large migratory population of whales making an appearance in winter.

These warm tropical waters tidally rise and fall onto mineral rich beaches. These minerals, valued more than gold, create a unique ‘sense of place’ and these restless sands have formed massive dunes which guard over the ancestral nesting grounds of the worlds largest reptile, the leatherback turtle. The dunes are capped by a tropical forest which hides secrets of Zulu explorations, trading routes, poor agricultural practices and European expeditions.

The ancient east facing trees watch the sun rising over the Indian Ocean and weather the salty spray while the west facing trees reach skywards in a massive jungle, a tropical paradise which is home to a variety of frogs, insects, reptiles, birds, buck and apes. This west facing forest borders a massive coastal grassland that reaches all the way up the east coast of Africa to Ethiopia. Many roads and guided hiking trails lead visitors through this diverse three canopy forest.

The grasslands are home to a variety of large and small mammals. Once afforested with Pine trees, the grassland is being restored to its original pristine condition. However, this area consists of a complex gridwork of water tables, which include the deepest peat swamp in the southern hemisphere, sacred Zulu burial lakes, tannin rich freshwater streams and acres of verdant grassland covering ancient marine deposits. These marine deposits of sand were formed as the sea retreated thousands of years ago.


It is not only the large mammals however, that attract visitors. The sandy tropical grasslands are also home to some unique reptiles and birds as well as some interesting nocturnal visitors. After dark 1300 hippo emerge from Lake St Lucia to eat tonnes of grass from the coastal plains. They can be seen wallowing in the warm lake waters by day or lumbering across the darkened landscape in a quest to fill their enormous herbivorous appetites at night. During the day they share the waters of Lake St Lucia with over 2000 crocodiles, tens of thousands of fish, birds and invertebrates, but it is the hippos that are the driving force in the lakes ecosystem. They release tonnes of droppings into the lake which fertilize the warm tropical water creating Africa’s most important fish and prawn nursery ground.

The lake is linked to the Indian Ocean by a canal known as the Narrows and is fed by five rivers, thus keeping a general salt balance in the lake’s eco-system. The largest of these rivers is the Mkuze which filters through a massive delta created at the most northern end of the lake. This area is a complex of small and large channels filtering through a variety of reed beds. All the rivers reaching into this park arise in the last of the five ecosystems - the Savannah. Here the western shores are made up of minerally rich soils and are home to a typical Big Five ecosystem.

From the Southern end of the park characterised by the westernised village of St Lucia, to the northern end characterised by Kosi Bay and home to an entire fishing community with organic and environmental fishing techniques, this is the iSimangaliso / Greater St Lucia Wetland Park... a park filled with a microcosm of culture, ecosystems and people to create an incredible macrocosm.

Sand dunes


Fringing the 280km coastline of this natural World Heritage Site are sand dunes exceeding 180m in height. These impressive dunes have been built and sculptured by the wind over the past 25 000 to 30 000 years. Rising steeply from the waves of the Indian Ocean are the highest vegetated dunes in Africa.

The dunes are composed of windblown sand driven off the beach by north-easterly winds. Vegetation growing on the dunes form a delicate membrane of plant life. These plants trap nutrients and stabilise the dunes. On the seaward side, the dunes have a stunted forest whereas on the leeward side a large Climax forest can be found. Hardwood trees in the climax can exceed 20m. Growing on these trees are a variety of epiphytic plants, including orchids, ferns, cactus (natural to Africa) and lichen (old man’s beard). A network of lianas and creepers complete this remarkable habitat.

Within this unique habitat occurs a variety of birds, monkeys, reptiles, squirrels, antelope and insects. Visitors can access this area by utilising guided safaris or self-guided walks.

Below this unique eco-system lies a huge mineral wealth. Mining was proposed in the 1980’s – a massive public outcry, however, averted a potential ecological disaster. Mining that would have caused a permanent ecological scar extending hundreds of kilometers, has been averted by the recent World Heritage status.

Although mining does occur near St. Lucia for Rutile, Zircon and Ilmenite, mining may not occur in this World Heritage Site. Historically, limited mining occurred during the days of Shaka, as the “black sands” of Zululand were known to contain useful minerals. A small clan of Zulus fashioned weapons with iron by smelting minerals found in these sand dunes. Present day mining which takes place near Richards Bay, separates minerals from the mined sand dunes. These minerals are then used in an array of modern day products.

These dune minerals were eroded from the Majestic Drakensberg and transported hundreds of kilometers to the coast. When reaching the Indian Ocean they were washed north and blown on-shore by the prevailing on-shore winds.

This phenomenon can still be witnessed today where black patches of sand pattern the beach. It is not oil, but mineral-rich sand. A unique geological feature of the iSimangaliso / Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park.




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