St. Lucia Wetland Park St. Lucia and Mtubatuba Accommodation
St. Lucia - South Africa's Jurassic
paradise by Barbara Ulmi
Land of ripe bananas, soft
avocado pears, and sweet coconuts. Land of roaming elephant herds, sun
basking hippos and snapping crocodiles - the Elephant Coast in KwaZulu
Natal, embraced by the warm Indian Ocean, the Umfolozi River in the south
and Mozambique in the north, is one of South Africa's most beautiful and
unspoilt areas. It is a perfect destination for everyone - be it for the
sensitive ecologist, the great outdoors fan or the happy camper sitting
on the boulders at Mission Rock sporting his hook, line and sinker. The
beating heart of this paradise-on-earth even has a saintlike name - St.
Lucia, the only private village surrounded by a Natural World Heritage
Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park obtained South Africa's first Natural World
Heritage status in 1999 by UNESCO, and comprises an impressive 280 km of
coastline - starting south of the St Lucia Estuary and stretching past
Kosi Bay all the way to Mozambique. St. Lucia is an eco-tourism mecca,
and centre point to an incredible 21 different eco-systems. Dense evergreen
forests of towering fig trees stand in a lush undergrowth of ferns and
wild orchids hanging from the trees. Palm savannahs with thousands of wild
date and lala palms dot the white sand of the undulating landscape. Swamp
forests with large raffias and tangled masses of greenery are home to myriads
of exquisite birds.
Few areas in Africa have
the incredible diversity of the fresh water eco-systems found here. There
are major rivers, broad flood plains, large coastal lagoons, deep clear
coastal lakes, extensive papyrus swamps and small semi-permanent pans.
The perfect playground for observant nature lovers, be it under water,
above sea, on land or in the air!
The ecological significance
of the wildlife and fish resources were only recognized and protected late
in the 19th century, after extensive hunting for ivory, rhino horn and
hippo. After more than 100 years of peaceful existence, the sleeping beauty
of the Estuary has become a trademark to the area - but beware, the hippo's
seemingly reassuring yawn hides a force not to be messed with! A safe way
of getting up close and personal with it's nostrils or a croc's 66 teeth
is a trip down the Estuary on one of the professionally captained river
touring boats, such as the Advantage, the most luxurious passenger ferry
custom built to venture into shallow waters.
We boarded the ferry for
the sundowner tour on a beautiful April evening, one of the best months
to visit the Greater Wetlands, when mosquitoes are few (but Gin and Tonics
still flow). In general, St Lucia's winter is often compared to a European
summer, and the tropical summer heat is moderated by the Indian Ocean.
The first 12 km up the Estuary passed with great anticipation with not
much else to do than getting the camera lenses ready and the drinks filled
up. Soon enough the captain spotted the first herd of river horses and
the crowd on board shifted dangerously to the very lee of the boat - everybody
wanting to get that first awesome holiday shot! The imbalance was easily
taken care of by the captain's next heart-beating announcement: crocodiles
on the shores under the mangrove trees, at three o'clock! And a few meters
away from the ancient reptile, stood a Kudu eyeing us out, while a Giant
Kingfisher was perched watchfully in the tree above it - picture perfect.
Encounters with crocodiles
can also be safely undertaken at the Crocodile Park a few minutes outside
St. Lucia - as long as one keeps from climbing the fences, and approaches
the enclosures at a steady pace (anything on wheels better first gets an
overhaul on its braking system). An ideal family getaway, the centre is
representative of the whole St Lucia Region and not only features local
crocodile, but has a breeding programme for two endangered African crocodile
species - the Dwarf and the Long Snout. (And in their thatched shop, they
serve some of the best coffee we have had on our trip!)
Lucia however offers much more than the expected hippos, crocs and fishermen
trying their luck on the coast and deep sea fishing grounds. Many guided
tours into restricted areas give visitors a greater knowledge and insight
into the varied ecosystems and habitats of the region. Most of the tours
operate throughout the year - with the exception of whale and turtle watching,
as these species migrate seasonally. Explore the Eastern Shores on night
drives to investigate the nocturnal activities of chameleons, aardvark,
antelope, owls, nightjars, porcupine, elephant, the occasional leopard
and yes, the hippo again! Wetland Tours on the other hand offer game-watching,
bird-watching, snorkeling, and hikes, during day time. Ecologically sensitive
activities like guided hiking trails as well as kayaking, canoeing and
horse riding tours enable visitors to glean environmental information in
a fun-filled and informative way. Anglers flock to this paradise to catch
shad, grunter, rock cod, marlin, sailfish and a variety of sharks and registered
guides even offer guided fishing safaris, deep sea charters, boat-based
spear fishing, shore angling, estuary fishing as well as kite fishing in
July and August. From May to October, there are daily trips to view some
of the thousands of Humpback whales migrating to the tropics. Another spectacular
tour of the area are the turtle tours, available form November to March,
when sightings are made of Leatherback and Loggerhead turtles nesting in
the titanium-rich sands.
In the days of Shaka, 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
the area's sand dunes - the highest vegetated sand dunes in Africa. Zulu
traditions are being revived at the community-run cultural village at Veyane.
The tour of Veyane takes visitors into the heart of an authentic working
Zulu community, where age-old tradition meets contemporary Zulu society.
The land of he Khula Dukuduku settlement, where the Veyane Cultural Village
is situated, was originally awarded to a brave Zulu warrior, Veyane Mkhwanazi,
by King Cetshwayo in recognition of his heroism at the battle of Isandlwana
in 1879. Today, the cultural centre invites visitors to call on traditional
healers, watch Zulu beadworkers and weavers at work; become spellbound
by magical storytelling and be entertained by talented traditional musicians.
Visitors are invited to sleep over in authentic Zulu huts, furnished with
double beds, and electricity!
While staying over at the
Veyane Cultural Centre is highly recommendable, nothing compares to the
magical views of St. Lucia and surrounds, where an entire range of accommodation
options are available: from humble backpackers and ultra-luxury hotels,
to self-catering options located close to all amenities - ideal for a longer
stay in the area. Most of these establishments are situated in the main
road where restaurants such as St Pizza Seafood Grill and Pub, Fuer Elize
and Alfredo's Italian delights, await hungry adventurers with an array
of mouthwatering dishes.
St. Lucia Wetland Park St. Lucia and Mtubatuba Accommodation