The Splendour In The Grass
After meeting the team from iSimangaliso when they won the Platinum Award* at the recent Africa’s Travel Indaba, I was very happy to learn that we would be travelling there as part of South Africa Tourism’s post-conference famil.
Situated along the scenic coastline of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province, iSimangaliso Wetland Park encompasses a vast protected area teeming with five distinct ecosystems, hosting four of the renowned Big 5 species and boasting an impressive array of more than 500 bird species.
At the heart of this remarkable park lies the majestic Lake St. Lucia, whose rich environment nurtures a diverse tapestry of wildlife, including graceful hippos, formidable crocodiles, elegant pelicans and vibrant flamingos.
We entered the park through the Nhlozi Gate, located west of Lake St. Lucia. This area is inhabited by elephants, buffalos, leopards and numerous other species. Much of this section of the park used to be a forestry plantation and remnants of eucalyptus forests can still be seen along the park’s edge.
However, significant efforts have been made over the past eight years to remove thousands of alien trees and restore the natural landscape. The area consists of a mixture of grasslands and palmveld, which has allowed prey animals such as wildebeest, impala, waterbuck, kudu, nyala and many others to thrive. In addition, the absence of lions in the park means that the other animals exist in a relatively safe environment.
The hippo population in the area is substantial. During our drives through the park, we spotted them in every body of water. The nearby town of Saint Lucia is well-known for its hippo encounters, with locals often finding them lumbering through their gardens. Walking through the town at night can be extremely risky due to these encounters. They can gallop up to 30 km per hour so it’s important to give them plenty of space.
Hippos typically live in groups of 10-20 females and their young, known as a “bloat.” These groups are led by a dominant male who defends his stretch of riverbank from intruders. Hippos spend their days dozing in shallow water, with their nostrils exposed above the surface. They have a tendency to rest on each other and can be seen snuggling. Interestingly, hippos do not swim but instead walk on the riverbed. They can hold their breath for up to five minutes. At night, they leave the water to graze and socialise, covering distances of up to 15 kilometres.
A boat safari through the narrows south of the lake gave us a closer look at the many families of hippos living near Saint Lucia. Our skipper Warwick, a retired car salesman who grew up in Saint Lucia, regaled us with many wildlife stories from his life in the area.
ABOVE: MS THANDI SHABALALA, MARKETING AND BRAND MANAGER HOLDING THE AWARD. *THE GREEN STAND EXHIBITORS AWARDS, SMALL STAND CATEGORY.
Finding accommodation within the park allows guests to enjoy game drives during the early morning and evening when the park is closed to the public. Matakatana Bay Lodge stands as the only privately owned safari lodge on the banks of Lake St. Lucia. The lodge is named after a Zulu Chief called “Chief Mhakhakhathana”, who lived in the area many years ago.
Nestled in the forest, the lodge offers chalet accommodations that extend towards the lake’s edge. The chalets and boardwalk are elevated above the forest floor, providing glimpses of local wildlife. I had the unique experience of enjoying an outdoor bath while listening to a warthog snuffling under the cabin and catching sight of a passing waterbuck. Families of vervet monkeys live in the trees and can be seen (and heard) bounding across the chalet roofs.
The main lodge seamlessly blends indoor and outdoor spaces, and the firepit creates a delightful gathering spot for pre-dinner drinks. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to dine under the stars each night.
In addition to game drives and the boat safari, Matakatana also offers beach safaris. The park’s eastern shores provide a rare beach and bush experience. The beaches are pristine and untouched with sand dunes capped by a tropical forest. We were thrilled to find leopard prints in the sand instead of human footprints, although we didn’t spot any leopards (they probably saw us, though!). Local marine life includes humpback whales, dolphins, rare turtles and whale sharks. Snorkelling, diving and deep sea fishing are all available in the park.
The staff at Makakatana Bay Lodge
The lodge’s small staff were friendly and professional. I chatted to them about their wildlife encounters at iSimangaliso.
Sarika is the General Manager at Makakatana, she comes from Johannesburg and was attracted to the change of scenery that offers both bush and beach experiences.
“Elephants are one of my many favourite animals and I could never get tired of watching them. Just recently we had a breeding herd with tiny babies coming up to the front of the lodge, cooling down at the animal pit and munching on some branches. What was amazing is how close I was to them on foot and how relaxed they were with me in their presence.”
Mthobisi Jermone Xolo is a waiter at Makakatana. He has a Diploma in Hospitality Food and Beverage. He worked at the lodge before the pandemic.
After having a difficult time during COVID, he was happy to return in 2022.
Whilst walking from the staff accommodation to the lodge he has ‘bumped into’ a leopard, herd of elephants and a hippo. “Taking pictures is always the last thing on my mind” he says, “I just freeze and then calmly move back and give the animals their space.”
Hans is a field guide at the lodge. He also worked at Makakatana pre-COVID and returned earlier this year. He is engaged to Carlita, his high school sweetheart, who also works at the Lodge.
He returned to Makakatana for the environment, landscape and the birdlife “which is just out of this world.”
One encounter he vividly remembers; “Three of us were on a night drive. Carlita and I were sitting in the back row and during the drive we stopped to look at a waterbuck. We switched off the vehicle using only the spotlight. When we turned the headlights back on to continue with the drive, there was a massive bull elephant standing right in front of the vehicle. We all kept very quiet and did not move a muscle. The elephant walked around the vehicle and came to my side. He smelt the vehicle and then stopped, picked up a trunk full of sand from the road and threw it at the truck and then just turned and walked away. We were covered in sand!”