Previously the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, the iSimangaliso Wetlands extend 175 miles down the north-east coast of South Africa in what is now the province of KwaZulu Natal. The word isimangaliso means "miracle" in isiZulu. The story of the name is that one of Shaka's subjects was sent to the land of the Tsonga people, and on his return he described the beauty of the area as a miracle.
The keystone of the park is Lake St. Lucia itself which is the largest estuarine lake in Southern Africa, covering an area of more than 150 square miles. The lake and its feed rivers, as well as the outlet into the sea, is a stunningly varied collection of habitats for a stunning collection of birds and animals. The area is said to be home to nearly 1000 hippos and even more crocodiles.
|Flamingos on the lake. Photo Jill Wilson.|
In 1999 it was declared as South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage site and Nelson Mandela himself visited the area to speak at the declaration ceremony. More land has been added over the years and the Mkuzi Game Reserve – one of the nurseries that brought the white rhino back from the brink of extinction - is now connected to it. No less than five major rivers meander through the area and feed the lake and the surrounding wetlands.
|Sunrise at Nibela Lodge. Photo Jill Wilson.|
Quite some time ago I made an arrangement with friends Ian and Jill Wilson from Australia to visit the area on route (for them) to Kenya and Tanzania on a mainly bird focused trip. Their special interest is bird photography, so we settled on an Eco lodge situated on the tip of the peninsular protruding into the lake. It’s not in the national park itself, but allows easy access to a variety of different bird habitats. The only pity was that it forced me to miss the wonderful Quais du Polar event because the invitation to that came after all our arrangements had been finalized and paid for. Well, I had some consolation for that!
|Nguni cattle at the lake. Photo Jill Wilson.|
Brought down by Bantu-speaking peoples from India and Europe around a thousand years ago, the Nguni cattle seem now to be a natural feature of the area that they share with the birds. Their decorative hides set off the natural backdrop of the lake.
|Nguni cow and friendly cattle egret. Photo Jill Wilson.|
|White-fronted cormorant and Grey heron. Photo Jill Wilson.|
|Pygmy Kingfisher at Nibela Lodge. Photo Ian Wilson.|
Why do these stories always seem to have a “but”? Why can’t we just feel good about a wonderful achievement in preserving this miracle area with its beautiful creatures? Because it always turns out to be too good to be true. The area has been subjected to a prolonged drought. At least as bad, the five rivers have been dammed upstream, and much less water makes its way to the coast than in the past. The mouth of Lake St. Lucia is now closed by the sandbanks, and leap tides pour salt water into the lake, which is now below sea level. The level has dropped so low that the boats belonging to the lodge are stranded on shore. The saline concentration is reaching extreme levels, causing the fresh water fish to die off and lie drying in the sun, pecked at in a desultory way by seagulls. The lodge has signs warning visitors to beware of hippos and crocodiles, but they have retreated into the fresher areas nearer the rivers.
Some protection has been provided by the twenty-five thousand year old sand dunes that form the boundary between the lake and the sea. Filtering the water, they provide some haven for the smaller aquatic freshwater creatures, who then wait for the salt levels to drop in the main water body as it has done in the past. But with global warming –predicted to make southern Africa hotter and drier – and the increasing demand for fresh water for industry and people upstream, how long will they have to wait for that?
|Enjoying a sunset glass of wine. Guess who took the picture.|
Well, Stan and I are now in the Kalahari doing research for our new book. At least it’s supposed to be dry here…
Michael - Thursday