iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Size: 328,000 ha / 3,280 km2
Nearest major city: Durban (4h45 approx by car)
Species Numbers: 117 Mammals 505 Birds 102 Reptiles
Big Five: Yes
Meaning “miracle and wonder” in isiZulu, iSimangaliso Wetland Park is one of South Africa’s most important and beautiful protected areas, and was the country’s first World Heritage Site, declared in 1999.
Formerly Great St Lucia Game Reserve, this stretch of land, rivers, marshes, lakes, beaches and ocean is the second largest protected area in the country, after Kruger National Park. Offshore in the ocean is an 85,000 hectare conservation area, consisting of the St Lucia and Maputaland Marine Protected Areas.
And it is certainly one of the most naturally diverse; there are more species of animals to be found at iSimangaliso Wetland Park than any other part of southern Africa, a result of two things: the tropical climate, and the high diversity of habitats, which includes Indian ocean coral reefs, long beaches, coastal dune forest, the country’s largest estuary (Lake St Lucia), the country’s largest fresh water lake (Lake Sibaya), the country’s largest coastal lake system (Kosi Bay) and large tracts of bushveld (Mkhuze).
It’s possible – if you time your visit correctly - to go scuba-diving among thousands of tropical fish in the morning at Sodwana Bay, by lunch time be photographing white rhino at Mkhuze, and that evening be watching rare loggerhead and leatherback turtles laying their precious eggs on the beaches of Kosi Bay.