From Thonga Beach Lodge near Mabibi on the coast of iSimangaliso, I drove past Lake Sibaya, the largest fresh water lake in South Africa. It’s also one of iSimangaliso’ four Ramsar sites, an international accreditation given to ecologically-special lakes, rivers and water systems.
I travelled down the western shore of the lake, and spotted a croc or two as well as some hippo in the distance, but I wish I had more time – and a canoe, although no boating, kayaking, fishing or canoeing is allowed on the lake because it’s a fragile system – there is no major river flowing into it, to replenish the lake’s water. Instead, ground water and rain are the main sources of water.
Sodwana Bay was my next overnight stop. This is probably South Africa’s most popular scuba-diving site, and for good reason. There are superb coral reefs extending several kilometres in a north and south direction. I dived with Reefteach, one of the longtime operators in the area, and we dived one of the shallower reefs not far from the launch site. Unlike the exclusive concessions of Rocktail Bay and Thonga, Sodwana is open to the public and all operators, and so it can get busy out in the ocean. But the reefs are still in good condition, and of course the prices are far more accessible.
From Sodwana, I headed to uMkhuze, a 39 000 hectare game reserve that was once independently run by the provincial government, but is now part of iSimangaliso. Fences have been dropped to reconnect the wildlife of the land with the shorelines of the ocean. uMkhuze is just forty kilometres west of Sodwana Bay. This is where iSimangaliso’s superlative diversity is most keenly experienced. I had scuba dived with turtles, eels and rays in the warm Indian Ocean in the morning, and by lunch time I was driving through quintessential Zululand woodland and bushveld, photographing buffalo, nyala, impala, zebra and vultures.
That evening, while I slept in my comfortable tent at the unfenced Mantuma Camp at uMkhuze, I was woken by a spotted hyena which came up to slurp up some water at the kitchen drain. There’s a lovely sense of wildness at uMkhuze, as animals are free to wander through camp if they wish. Keep an eye out for buffalo and hyena though! There are no lion at uMkhuze, but it’s got almost everything else that originally existed here, including black and white rhino, leopards, elephants, wild dog and cheetah.
Nsumu Pan is a huge body of fresh water that covers a large portion of the eastern part of the reserve, and there are some fantastic hides which have recently been renovated by iSimangaliso. uMkhuze has one of the longest list of bird species in the country – at least 430 species.
The trees are another outstanding feature of uMkhuze. Large tracts of riverine forest include giant figs, fever trees and mahogany trees. Then out in the woodlands are some beautiful umbrella thorns that just beg to be photographed and admired.
The next morning I took a walk with ranger Jabulani Simelane to the beautiful fig-tree forest. We left at 6am on the back of an open Land Rover, and drove several kilometres to where the trails starts. It was one of those champagne autumn mornings in Zululand, where every leaf seemed to sparkle in the hushed coolness before the heat of the day. The trail isn’t long and takes about two hours to walk slowly, in the company of an armed ranger. But you won’t want to walk it any quicker, because bird life can be prolific (listen out for the awesome calls of trumpeter hornbills), and the thick emerald forest is full of huge fig and fever trees. Some of the fig trees are impressively wide at their trunks, and it’s amazing to think that some have been around for several hundred years. (If you’re a bird lover, you’re in good hands with Jabulani, as he’s an expert! Look out for Pel’s fishing owl and African broadbill.)
Despite the challenges that conservation authorities in the region face today (like poaching and water use), a place like uMkhuze gives cause for celebration. At one stage in 1939, uMkhuze was almost abolished by politicians, because of the nagana disease which was transmitted by tsetse flies to livestock. The flies’ parasites had no effect on the wild anidmals, but farmers’ livestock was not immune. The reserve was deproclaimed and taken over by the veterinary services. Then in 1944, uMkhuze (like other wild areas at the time) was decimated by controlled hunting, in an attempt to rid the area of tsetse flies. More than 38 000 wild animals were shot. Finally, over the next few years, authorities sprayed tons of DDT and BCH insecticide mixed with diesel fuel and atomized through the aircraft’s exhaust pipes.
Finally, the reserve was reinstated as a formal protected area in 1954 and given back to the then-Natal Parks Board. Over subsequent decades, political infighting and negotiations over land almost cost the reserve its existence, but concerned citizens and organisations like Wildlife Society raised their voices so that uMkhuze could remain a wild and free area. (It’s worth noting that today the southern portion of uMkhuze is a hunting area that is marketed as such and is off-limits to visitors).
So considering the challenges that conservationists and communities have faced over the past 100 years at uMkhuze, it’s a minor miracle (or major!) that today you can spot a warthog and his family, or hear a hippo grunting in the distance, or listen to a hyena drinking from your kitchen drain. How nearly these were lost…but how wonderful that they are now firmly ensconced here!
For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Thanks again to my sponsors for making it all possible. CapeNature, South African National Parks, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Eastern Cape Parks, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Ford, Total, Evosat, Conqueror Trailers, Vodacom, Digicape, Lacie, Frontrunner, Safari Centre Cape Town, K-Way, EeziAwn, National Luna, Nokia , Garmin, Goodyear, Global Fleet Sales, Hetzner, Clearstream Consulting, Escape Gear and Trailcam Adventures.