St. Lucia is a cosy little town on the far east side of South Africa. It mostly lives off of the tourism drawn in by the wonderful iSimangaliso Wetland Park (formerly known as the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park) and about half the town are guest houses. We spent our nights at the Avalone Guest House on east the edge of the town, where the garden borders the bush and the occasional buck can be seen from the pool.
It's a small town. The other side of the town is a mere 5 blocks away, a 10 minute walk. That's where you'll find the town's main street with all the restaurants, shops & everything alse a tourist needs: Mckenzie Street. Just make sure to carry a flashlight at night, because that's when some of the hippos that live in the estuary roam the streets.
That estuary, one of the largest in Africa, is the scene of St. Lucia's most popular attractions: the Hippo & Croc Boat Cruise. There are 1200 nile crocodiles and 800 hippos, so you're pretty much guaranteed a few amazing sightings during the 2 hours estuary cruise. And if you're really lucky, you might find an antelope attempting to cross the shallow estuary. But the odds of them making it are low with that many crocs on the lookout…
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a lot smaller than Kruger National Park and doesn't have the same concentration of animals. The St. Lucia lake divides the park into an eastern & western shores, the latter of which is best for game viewing: since the reintroduction of the lion just a few years ago, it's again home to the big 5. The eastern shore lacks the lion and the elephant, although we were told elephants did cross over a few years ago, during a drought so bad that the estuary nearly dried up and they had to cross over in order to find water by the ocean.
We joined a night drive safari in the western shores, but didn't get to see any of the big five animals. Compared to what we had experienced on our safaris in Kruger, this was was no match: this jeep had a roof, there was no separate tracker, the concentration of animals was lower and consequently, the guide has less stories to tell. But I realize that we had been spoiled in Kruger, and this was still very much an enjoyable safari - it just didn't feel as adventurous & wild.
This is a big 5 reserve, but there are better places to go check those off of your sightings list. That's not what this park is about. It's about diversity. Of ecosystems, of habitats. And that also means a staggering diversity of animal species beyond the big 5.
iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale.)
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in this relatively small area are 8 interlinked ecosystems, making it the most diverse park in Africa:
- coastal forests
- coral reefs
You can self-drive through some of these ecosystems on the various loops (pan loop, vlei loop, dune loop, grassland loop and forest loop) around the main road between St. Lucia and Cape Vidal and the scenery is a-ma-zing!
Cape Vidal is a bay on the north end of the eastern shores, with an unspoilt beach from where - if you get lucky - you may even see a humpback whale. Because of the rock reef and the year round warm Indian Ocean currents, it is the perfect spot to go swimming. Or snorkeling, like I had wanted to do. But that didn't happen because of unfortunate timing: low tides were early in the morning, or late in the evening (either too early or too late, because the park's gates close at night.)
If you are into diving, you probably want to go even further north, to the Sodwana Bay coral reefs.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve
The reserve that saved the white rhino from going extinct by setting up a conservation program where there were less than 100 white rhinos left. Nowadays, there are an estimated 20 000 white rhinos.
In addition to an abundance of rhinos, this reserve boasts the big 5 as well. Compared to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, this reserve feels a lot more like Kruger Park. Just smaller and with a different topology.
From St. Lucia, it's a short 45 min drive to the Nyalazi Gate, from where you can take a right to the Hluhluwe part of the reserve (which is more hilly) or turn left for iMfolozi (more open.) We took a left, past the Mpila camp, towards the Sontuli loop. This is supposed to be the best area for game viewing, and we did see quite a lot: baboons, zebra, warthog, giraffes, an elephant, a few buffalo herds, and a whole lot of rhinos. No cats, but that's to be expected - they mostly sleep during the day… All in all, not bad for a short self-drive! Not bad at all.