Elephant Coast

The Elephant Coast is wild and unspoiled, covering the KwaZulu-Natal coastline from Lake St Lucia, a World Heritage site, to Kosi Bay and the Mozambique border. It is named the Elephant Coast in recognition of the large herds of indigenous elephants which have dwelt in the sand forests of this area for centuries.

The diversity of habitats and eco-systems here offer fascinatingly different experiences within one region. This area also penetrates the interior to the Lebombo Mountains in the west, encompassing the Hluhluwe Game Reserve, renowned for its ‘Big Five’ of African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros and also its longevity as the oldest game park in Africa.

Eco-systems vary from sand dunes to swamps and coastal forests, coral reefs and rocky shores to woodlands, savannah and the greatest protected wetland in southern Africa, iSimangaliso Wetland Park which was formerly known as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. Wildlife experiences include viewing of dolphins and humpback whales by boat and observing the turtles which return year after year to a stretch of coastline to lay their eggs on the beach. There is also scuba-diving and snorkelling, and activities such as game-viewing, birding, hiking and horseback riding. Cape Vidal, with its promises of inviting beaches, whale-watching and the lure of deep-sea fishing, is a premier attraction, as is Sodwana Bay Reserve and Kosi Bay.

CAPE VIDAL is located around 38 kilometres to the north-east of St Lucia within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Visitors will be entranced by the vegetated dune range on the eastern side and the majestic St Lucia Lake system to the west. Wildlife includes around 430 bird species, while Cape Vidal’s access to the eastern shores of Lake St Lucia improves the possibility of sighting game such as reedbuck, various antelope, hippos, crocodiles and buffalo. Self-guided trails provide visitors with a convenient way to view the wetlands and Lake Bhangazi.

For the sports enthusiasts, Cape Vidal’s bay offers a launch site for ski-boats which allows for deep-sea fishing and spear-fishing, and the sheltered position of the bay at low tide lends itself to snorkelling. For the history buffs, the site of the wreck of the Dorothea, a wooden barque lost in heavy weather on 31 January 1898 and said to have gold from the Transvaal in her hold, may be another attraction. The exact whereabouts of the Dorothea remain a mystery, but the discovery of a chain deep in the bay encourages people to believe she lies close by.

But perhaps the prime attraction here is the wonderful opportunity to observe marine life. Humpback whales follow this route on their northerly migration to Mozambique to calve; marlin, sawfish and dolphins are plentiful, and visitors to the area over December may be fortunate to catch a glimpse of loggerheads and leatherback turtles heading onto the beach to lay their eggs.

HLUHLUWE is a little village situated between the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve on the banks of the Hluhluwe River. The Zulu name of ‘hluhluwe’ refers to the thorny Monkey Rope which grows along the riverbank. Agricultural production centres on sugarcane, timber and cattle, with more than nine-tenths of South Africa’s pineapples are produced in this region.

THE HLUHLUWE-IMFOLOZI PARK, formerly the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, was once two separate reserves – Hluhluwe and Umfolozi – which are today linked by a corridor some eight kilometres wide. This well-established wildlife area about two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Durban (some 275 kilometres) now extends across 96 000 hectares of rolling hills. The Hluhluwe Reserve was first established in 1895 is said to date back to the days of the old Zulu kings, Dingiswayo and Shaka, who initiated conservation activities in the area.

Home to the Big Five, the park is intensely committed to saving the white rhino from extinction and protecting both species of rhinoceros, and provides abundant sightings of these animals. Game-viewing is well-organised, with concealed observation points set up at pans, and self-guided wildlife trails which provide sightings of an amazing diversity of flora and fauna. Iron-Age metal-working sites dating back to 1000 CE provide historical evidence of the first communities said to have inhabited the valley.

THE ISIMANGALISO WETLAND PARK, which translates as ‘miracle and wonder’, comprises the former Lake St Lucia and surrounds, which was in 1971 listed as a Wetland of International Importance by the Convention on Wetlands. In 1999, the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2007 the park was renamed as the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

The park covers a massive area, stretching from Kosi Bay in the north to Cape St Lucia in the south. The five different ecosystems here include swamps, lake systems, coral reefs, beaches, wetlands, woodlands and coastal forests. The area is an unspoiled haven of fresh water pans, lakes, mangroves and reed swamps, marshes and coastal dunes. It also abounds with hippos and crocodile, Leatherback turtles, black rhino, leopards, over 530 species of birds and around 36 species of amphibians. Activities in the area are plentiful and diverse. Hippo and croc cruises can be enjoyed and game safaris and trails are readily available. Boating takes place on Late St Lucia and the beaches are great for long walks or just for sunbathing.

Plans are afoot to turn this area into an even larger transfrontier park by adding the Sodwana Game Reserve, Cape Vidal Reserve, Kosi Bay Nature Reserve, Mkhuze Game Reserve, Maputoland Marine Protected area and the Maputo Protection Area in Mozambique. This more extensive area would then be integrated into the Greater Lebombo Transfrontier Conservation Area.

JOZINI is the name of both a small town and a large dam (also known as the Pongolapoort Dam) on the Pongola River. The dam covers 16 000 hectares between the towering Ubombo and Lebombo Mountains and was established to provide irrigation to around 80 000 hectares of farmland producing sugarcane, rice, coffee beans and several sub-tropical fruits. The Jozini Dam supports extensive populations of fish, hippos and crocodile, and is particularly renowned for its Tiger-fishing potential. Besides Tiger-fishing one can also experience fresh and salt water fly-fishing and deep-sea fishing.

Bordering on the Pongola Nature and Game Reserve, wildlife such as buffalo, wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, kudu, bushbuck, duiker, steenbok, hyena, cheetah, wild dog and warthog can be viewed. Sometimes visitors may be treated to the appearance of a leopard from the vicinity of the Lebombo Mountains. Besides this amazing array of mammals, over 350 bird species are supported in the area, and include whistling ducks, yellow-billed storks, Egyptian geese, herons, kingfishers and fish eagles.

A site worth visiting is Border Cave, which is a rock shelter on the western face of the Lebombo Mountains. Fairly modern ‘homo sapiens’ skeletons were discovered here along with stone tools and chipping instruments. Excavations have produced many interesting artefacts and bones fragments, as well as the complete skeleton of an infant. The ‘Lebombo Bone’, an ancient mathematical artefact used as a tally stick, is the oldest item unearthed here, dating back 35 000 years. A small piece of baboon fibula marked with 29 notches it is similar to the calendar sticks used by the San in Namibia.

KOSI BAY consists of a system of lakes extending from Lake Zilonde on the Mozambique border in the north to Lake Amanzimnyama in the south. These lakes are connected by a series of channels and drain into the Indian Ocean through a sandy estuary. Most of this area falls into the protected Kosi Bay Nature Reserve, which is home to diverse birds and animals including hippos and crocodiles. Humpback whales can be viewed as they follow their migration route northwards towards Mozambique, and the loggerhead and leatherback turtles lay their eggs in nests already prepared on the beach.

Kosi Forest Lodge offers forest walks through awe-inspiring Raffia Palm stands, visits to Kosi Mouth, boat trips, turtle-tracking and Illala Palm wine-tasting. Fishing in the area is a natural activity for the Thonga people and, while popular among visitors, is only permitted in the reserves and with a permit. Many smaller creatures such as the rare two-armed Mudskipper fish and the one-armed Fiddler crab also populate this area.

LAKE SIBAYA, also known as ‘Lake Sibhayi’, is part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site. Sibaya is the largest freshwater lake in the country, covering an area of between 60 and 70 square kilometres with an average depth of 13 metres. The varied flora of the lake, which includes beautiful and rare orchids, supports birds, mammals and aquatic life. The six mammals species commonly associated with the lake are the white-tailed mongoose, water mongoose, hippos, reedbuck, vlei otomys and the African marsh rat. The hippo and crocodile populations are the second-largest in KwaZulu-Natal, and many other smaller species are also prolific. For example, there are 22 species of frog at Lake Sibaya and large reptiles including Water Monitors, African Pythons, Forest Cobras and Nile Crocodiles.

There are 279 bird species in the lake’s vicinity, and as other water resources in the area may sometimes become scarce, the lake is periodically the only place to find water. Birds which can be spotted include Red and White-breasted Cormorants, Pied, Giant and Malachite Kingfishers and Fish Eagles. Waders such as the White-Fronted Sand Plover, Black-Winged Stilt, Greenshanks and Spoonbills are abundant, and sightings of sought-after birds such as the Pel’s Fishing Owl, the Pygmy Goose and the Palmnut Vulture have been recorded.

Since the reserve is protected, walks with guides are conducted in the community conservation area, the forest and along the edge of the lake. While beaches have limited access, scuba-diving, snorkelling, swimming and sunbathing remain popular activities and the beaches are maintained in excellent condition.

MABIBI possesses great unspoiled beauty with sparkling sea and kilometres of white beaches and is the only tropical dive site in South Africa. Nestled between Lake Sibaya and Sodwana Bay, Mabibi is located alongside Africa’s southernmost coral reefs, which contribute to its celebrated status as one of the best diving sites in the world.

Turtles, whale sharks, sharks, Bottlenose dolphins and 1 200 species of fish are attracted to the warm waters of the Mabibi reefs, making this a spectacular environment for viewing natural wonders such as turtle hatchlings making their sprint to the ocean in February and March. The clarity of the water invites snorkelers and divers and makes swimming a pleasure.

Birds can also be spotted in abundance, including Crested Guineafowl, Trumpeter Hornbills, African Fish Eagles and Collared Sunbirds among others. Fishing is popular at Mabibi Beach, where largespot pompano, grunter, queen fish and stumpnose can be caught. The local population rely on the lake as their primary food source, particularly the black bream which they catch in fish traps.

MAPELANE NATURE RESERVE, also within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is located on the south bank of the iMfolozi River at its entry point into the sea opposite the village of St Lucia. This region is a great fishing spot for all forms of fishing – spear, surf and deep-sea – and mussels, oysters and crayfish can be scavenged for among the intertidal rock pools. This reserve is around 100 kilometres north of Richards Bay and 250 kilometres north of Durban. The self-guided Umphafa Trail explores the estuary bank and forested dunes, where visitors might spot small buck, monkeys and mongoose, or even meet up with hippos and crocodiles! Bird-watching is a must, and there are over 200 species here.

MAPUTALAND MARINE RESERVE exists primarily for the protection of the shrinking populations of Leatherback turtles, which nest in this area. The marine reserve includes those of Lake Sibaya, Kosi Bay and Rocktail Bay, a 40 kilometre expanse of coastline where a co-operative model has been set up between conservationists, local authorities and communities to allow visitors to experience nature walks into the coastal forest, as well as boat trips and more. Sodwana Bay also falls within the Maputaland Marine Reserve and is regarded as one of the prime dive sites in the world. In addition to observing turtles nesting, activities in the reserve include outstanding snorkelling and diving, fishing and the sighting of whales, dolphins and sharks.

MKHUZE GAME RESERVE is a smaller reserve in comparison with the more widely publicised reserves of Hluhluwe and iMfolozi. It is nonetheless definitely worth visiting as a place of beauty and diversity that contains a rare sand forest at its centre with dark-leafed sherbet trees and red-heart trees. It was proclaimed a protected area in 1912 and supports over 700 plant species and 450 bird species. Five pans are found in the park: The Kubube, Kamasinga and the KwaMalibale pans have hides to observe game, while the Hlonhlela and Nsumo pans are populated with hippo, crocodile and pelicans which are attracted to the pans’ water-lilies during summer. The reserve also houses a sacred burial site of the Kwajobe clan.

Animals in the reserve include giraffe, elephant, black and white rhinoceros, leopard, nyala, warthog, blue wildebeest, impala kudu, eland and smaller antelope. Ghost Mountain looms over the Mkhuze River and is said to be haunted. The privately-owned and much acclaimed Ghost Mountain Inn is situated at the mountain’s foot. The town of Mkhuze is 18 kilometres west of the reserve’s entrance gate, and is reached via the N2 highway.

SODWANA BAY is renowned primarily for its deep-sea diving and coral reefs; however, there are also many other activities to be enjoyed in this beautiful area. Birding in and around Sodwana Bay is fascinating, with several trails beginning inside the Sodwana Bay National Park. Forest species such as Turacos (Louries), Woodwards Batis, Green Coucal, Black-bellied Starling and many others can be spotted, while Nogoboseleni Lake offers a perfect habitat for waterbirds like the Pygmy Goose, Goliath Heron, White-faced Duck and many more. Of course, sea birds such as the Cape Gannet, Cape Cormorants, Caspians Terns and White-fronted Plover are also in evidence.

Sodwana Bay’s coral reefs provide a dense cover which supports an expansive range of fish and crustaceans, with over 1 200 species having been sighted in the area. These include tropical fish, moray eels, schools of pelagic fish, sponges and, in particular seasons, whales, whale sharks and dolphins. The water temperature is around 24° Celsius in summer and seldom drops to below 19° Celsius, which makes diving year-round a possibility. Dive sites vary in depth, with some at around ten metres and others catering only for technical deep divers. The main reefs are split into Quarter Mile, Two Mile, Five Mile, Seven Mile and Nine Mile Reef, and each has its own dive sites. Popular spots on Two Mile Reef include Anton’s Reef, Two Buoy, Four Buoy, Coral Gardens and Wayne’s World, among others. The reefs are estimated to be over 4000 years old; in fact, the shallowest sighting of a coelacanth occurred in Sodwana at around 100 metres.

Surfing in Sodwana is popular just south of Jesser Point to Nine Mile, while the Bay itself is ideal for beginners to experience a mid-break and shore-break. Turtle tours can be undertaken to witness the habitual laying of eggs on the beach in nests dug about a metre deep. The eggs have a 70-day gestation period and usually hatch between January and February, with only about five hatchlings in every thousand surviving to maturity.

ST LUCIA is located at the entrance to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. It is said that the area was first discovered in 1554 by survivors of a Portuguese ship called ‘Rio de la Medaos do Oura’. The town is today a tourist centre, and while it has grown considerably still manages to maintain a relaxed holiday atmosphere. Seafood restaurants and bait and tackle shops abound, and the wildlife sometimes pays the town a visit, with monkeys and duikers roaming the streets.

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