Cape Town - For many locals and international visitors to South Africa, iSimangaliso in KwaZulu-Natal is an unparalleled nature escape.
It is a rather unique place as South Africa's first World Heritage Site, instituted in 1999, deserving of the highest wildlife protection possible and all visitors should make the most of the hard work gone in to make it what it is.
Earlier in 2016, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park embarked on one of the biggest wetland rehabilitation in the world, and a milestone in the healing of the Lake St Lucia Estuary - with a contract awarded to remove some 100 000m3 of dredge spoil (sand, silt and vegetation) obstructing the natural course of the uMfolozi River.
'Conscious lack of concern about the environment'
This mammoth R63m rehabilitation programme was recently at the centre of a High Court dispute with Umfolozi Sugar Planters Limited (UCOSP) in an ongoing case about the management of the Umfolozi river mouth - however the High Court Judge Mohini Moodley has ruled in favour of iSimangaliso, sighting a conscious lack of concern about the environment by UCOSP.
SEE: PICS: St Lucia residents say 'NO' to uMfolozi breach
“This is a landmark case for the environment and the thousands of poor people that depend on it for their livelihoods. It’s an important step towards recreating the wholeness of nature – where our local communities can flourish alongside the natural environment,” says Andrew Zaloumis, CEO of iSimangaliso.
Over the last year iSimangaliso started the restoration of the Lake St Lucia Estuary - since the uMfolozi River is the powerhouse that drives the proper functioning of the estuary mouth. Its improper functioning resulted in species mortality and the collapse of prawn fisheries in the region.
SEE: iSimangaliso Then and Now pic shows dramatic conservation efforts
“By mid of April 2017, over 1 100 000 m3 or 80% of the anticipated 1.36 million m3 dredge spoil has been removed. Almost 100% of the surface area of the Lake is now under water, this is up from 10% in February 2016. It is anticipated that, by the end of the project, this number will reach 1.3million m3. The R63m project is expected to conclude in July 2017,” says Zaloumis.
'Nature's healing has begun'
“It is still early days and a lot more work is needed, yet nature’s healing has begun. The removal of the first million cubic metres of material obstructing the natural course of the uMfolozi River has begun to reverse its negative impact on the hydrological and ecological functioning of the 350km2 Lake St Lucia estuarine system.
"In February last year only 10% of the Lake’s surface area was covered by water. By March 2017, with good inflows from the uMfolozi River, almost 100% of the Lake’s surface area was covered. Levels have been maintained and salinities remain low, but we are not yet out of the woods.”
The estuary is home to many threatened and endangered species and is central to the livelihood of some 80 000 people who live within 15km of it. These communities rely on the St Lucia Estuary for their survival.
If you plan on visiting here are some of the highlights to consider:
Isimangaliso's newly completed forest loop game drives
“iSimangaliso inherited 35km of poor gravel roads from St Lucia to Cape Vidal and Mission Rocks beach. At times these where only suitable for 4x4s. Our aim has been to give all South Africans access and a full experience of what is on offer,” says Zaloumis.
The Eastern Shores now has 66km of quality roads that are environmentally appropriate, with a new range of visitor facilities including hides, look out points and picnic sites that are wheelchair friendly.
Overnight and take a guided tour with iSimangaliso's Wilderness Foundation
The Wilderness Foundation’s school trains young, unemployed black people to guide tours and gain conservation skills. Keep in mind this is roughing it of the highest order, no lux lapas of the kind you'll find in Kruger.
It involves a 6km hike to the swamps to see the famous hippos and crocodiles of iSimangaliso - Click here to read about the full experience.
For four nights and five days (with a minimum of six people per group and including food) South African adults are charged R9 320 per person. International tourists pay R12 595. South African students pay R7 200 and international students pay R8 990
Keep an eye out for their reintroduced servals
While Kruger, Serengeti and Chobe National Parks are deserved icons of Africa, protected areas like iSimangaliso are as important. By some estimates, this World Heritage Site has more species of animals per square kilometre than any other protected area in Africa.
However the park has just reintroduced a pair of rare servals on the western shores of iSimangaliso from the Emdomeni cat rehabilitation centre. The pair brings the total serval in the park to 11, adding on to the already nine servals that have been successfully released in iSimangaliso in the past in the uMkhuze, Eastern Shores and Western Shores sections.
“This really is a biodiversity hotspot, with a disproportionate number of species, making it extremely valuable. If you want to put conservation money into a particular area and you want to protect the most possible species, then iSimangaliso is THAT place in South Africa," writes conservation journalist Scott Ramsay
ALSO SEE: iSimangaliso Wetland Park: Wild place of superlatives
Plan an escape to see the turtles of Isimangaliso
There is no better place in Southern Africa than iSimangaliso in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal to witness one of the oldest rituals on the planet.
Every year, for the past 100 million years, female leatherback turtles have emerged from the ocean – mostly at night - to lay their eggs on beaches. During summer about 70 to 80 female leatherbacks return from their epic travels across the world’s oceans, to find their way back to these beaches. Read about the full experience here.
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