Travel: Wetland Wonders

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VIEWS

Words and pictures by Jacques Marais

Eight interlinked ecosystems: tick. Big Seven game viewing: tick. Turtle hikes and jaw-dropping marine adventures: tick. Superb camping and accommodation options in an unmatched World Heritage Site: tick. Yup, iSimangaliso certainly ticks all the boxes!

Hanging back from the rest of the group, I perched on an undulating grassland dune, waiting to grab a few photos. Looking down, I watched as iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis followed the game track, together with his wife Tracey and Lindy Duffield, the marketing manager at this ‘Place of Miracles and Wonder’.

They skirted a thicket of Umdoni trees atop the 30 000-year-old dunes, and disappeared from view. As I lifted my camera, a scream pierced the air, and within an instant all hell broke loose. Through my zoom lens, I saw Tracey running towards me on the forest edge, with a massive buffalo bull less than 10 metres behind her.

I dropped the camera and shouted loudly, hoping to distract the dagga-boy, but this had no effect whatsoever, and an instant later the buffalo crashed into her back with the full force of nearly a ton of bone, muscle and horn. The enraged bull swung its massive head, hooking his horn into Tracey’s thigh to fling her skywards like a rag doll.

“Fortunately, I never saw it coming,” says Tracey Zaloumis. “I remember being airborne and landing hard on my back.” From my vantage point, it looked like Bismarck du Plessis head-butting a kitten before the buffalo charged onwards.

All of this took three, maybe four seconds; and up to then I’d felt relatively confident that I was in control there. In a flash, it dawned on me that the buffalo was less than 15 metres from me, and moving at full tilt towards the exposed rise where I stood − giving me a couple of seconds at most in which to make my move.

As I sprinted to my right, the animal charged up the dune, contouring left and putting us on an exact collision course. The only option left now was to dive face down into the tall grass, and wait for the shit to hit the fan. For one heart-stopping moment, I thought the bull might charge right onto me, but his direct escape route took him a couple of metres to one side, close enough to scatter sand all over me where I lay.

As the buffalo disappeared from view, I ran down to where Tracey was lying. “I don’t know why, but I kept totally still and it was such a relief to see Jacques next to me,” Tracey said when recounting the events. The first thing she’d said was, “Tell my children I love them,” and followed this with “I think my back is broken”.

While stabilising her, I could see a huge puncture wound in her left thigh, as if a pickaxe had been drilled into her quad, but fortunately it had missed all major arteries. Tracey could not give me a local emergency number, and it took a while to find Lindy, who had fled into the relative safety of the forest.

Once I had the number, I ran to the top of a dune to get signal and contacted the emergency services at iSimangaliso, who then arranged with the EMS paramedics and helicopter to fly in from Richards Bay.

Lindy, meanwhile, had been right in the eye of the storm, but managed to escape injury. “I was walking with Andrew when we heard twigs cracking; there was no time to react, and, a split second later, the bull rammed him in the chest,” she told me.

At this stage, we were unsure whether Andrew had survived the ordeal, and I was just about to go and look for him when he staggered out of the undergrowth.

Blood was flowing from cuts above his eye and on his scalp, and I could see a massive flesh wound on his side. “It’s just a scratch,” he grimaced as I lifted the palmsized flap of sub-cutaneous tissue and fat to inspect the wound. To this day, I find it unbelievable that the horn did not penetrate his ribcage.

Andrew had been unconscious for at least three minutes and was severely concussed, so it took a while to get any sense out of him. “It happened fast. I saw the blur of buffalo and reacted,” he explained later. “I shouted a warning and instinctively turned to limit the damage. His horn hooked into the side of my abdomen, cracking ribs and bruising my kidney.

The dagga-boy then pulled and twisted, and its boss delivered a solid blow to my temple. The impact catapulted me backwards; at some stage, my collarbone broke. As I hit the dirt, it crossed my mind that he could come back; somehow I accepted it calmly, as a simple detail.”

Approximately 30 minutes later, Dr Irene Coutsoudis, with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and iSimangaliso staff, reached the accident scene, and a medical rescue helicopter followed an hour later. First Tracey – with a fractured T3 vertebra and serious puncture wound – and then Andrew, was airlifted to hospital. We were all incredibly fortunate to escape alive…

Two years later…

I’d not had the opportunity since the dagga-boy incident in 2015 to return to iSimangaliso, but a road trip with one of the Isuzu KB Series double-cabs earlier this year saw the family and me head up to the KwaZulu-Natal north coast once again.

We met Andrew there. He muttered that we had some unfinished business up on those dunes – and bundu-bashed along some seriously overgrown park management roads to where we’d previously had the buffalo encounter.

This happens to be where the new iSimangaliso three-day Trail Challenge Run will take place later this year, and I wanted to grab some images. Fortunately, this time we had back-up from armed rangers; they will also join the runners during the event, thus ensuring their safety as they get to experience the wetland park on foot.

The beauty of a visit to this incredible World Heritage Site – it is SA’s first, proclaimed in 1999 – is that you can explore low-risk areas on foot or by mountain bike. “We’ll continue to afford visitors the privilege of walking in designated sites at own risk, of course, after carefully inspecting the area for wild animals. We believe this a key highlight when visiting any protected area as this connects us more deeply to the land,” explained Andrew.

I suggested that my wife Karyn and the older kids – Beth (14) and Robs (12) – decide for themselves whether to hike the dense dune section to the safety of the beach. “Sounds like utter madness,” said Robs, followed a splitsecond later by, “Not gonna miss that!”

As ‘luck’ would have it, a huge old daggaboy lumbered out of the forest close to the trail head, but fortune favoured the brave as we tramped into the emerald thickets. We even spotted a honey badger in one of the bush tunnels as we followed the armed rangers onto the pristine swathe of beach stretching towards Mission Rocks.

Hundreds of scuttling ghost crabs, a sea cave aflutter with Angolan free-tailed bats, wary red duiker darting into the undergrowth, ocean rock pools brimming with marine diversity, and dolphins cruising the Big Blue. Yes, that was our morning snapshot of iSimangaliso, but this 332,000ha conservation jewel offers so much more.

Here are some of the many highlights from a few of the wetland park sections we visited…

Coastal Forest, near Lake Sibaya

It seems the weather-gods ruling the iSimangaliso roost have a rather warped sense of humour. I mean, why the hell else would they strafe us with 150mm of rain on our first couple of days up here on the KZN coast? In the greater scheme of things, the region did need the rain, and I’ve never seen the wetland park quite as lush and alive.

Our first couple of nights were at Rocktail Beach Camp, one of the truly classy Wilderness Safaris lodges. An elegantly rustic central dining-and-bar lounge – with access to a tropical garden and pool area – welcomes you on your arrival. From this ambient openplan centre, meandering pathways traipse into the surrounding sand forest and lead you to hideaway luxury tents.

This is arguably one of the park’s most ‘secret’ establishments, and it comes packaged with a sense of utter peace and tranquillity. Even the vervet-monkey chatter here seems subdued, and a blanket of night sounds envelops you in a many-layered symphony of hums and tweets and chirps as you waver on the edge of dreamland.

Sedan vehicles generally park at Coastal Cashews, from where a shuttle can pick you up, but the cyclone-strafed tracks made for excellent fun for us in the Isuzu double-cab. Expect soft sand in places, and pools up to a metre deep during the rainy season.


iSimangoliso Wetland Images


The Western Shores

Just so you know, iSimangaliso is vast beyond belief. It stretches 300km − all the way from the Kosi Bay Lake System which is up against Mozambique, to the south of Lake St. Lucia. From Rocktail Bay, we headed south past Sodwana Bay; but unfortunately cyclonic rain forced us to skip uMkhuze and the False Bay section.

All was certainly not lost, and we navigated the Isuzu south-east towards the Nhlozi Gate, from where a truly breathtaking section of wild country stretches along the western shores of Lake St. Lucia (hence the name). We immediately snuck onto a gravel road tripping up towards Charters Creek, where a viewpoint with superb views across the lakes awaited.

Water buck, kudu, reedbuck, giraffe and buffalo dotted grand wetland plains, very similar to scenery one would encounter in some prime east-African conservation areas. This is a heaven for birders, too, with excellent sightings of greater egret, goliath heron, spoonbills, European blue rollers and blue-cheeked bee-eaters.

A hike onto uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk was scuppered by a deluge of biblical proportions, resulting in a bunch of bedraggled and very wet children moping on the back seat. “Well, at least we weren’t killed by a leopard,” was the most positive comment from the back seat for the next hour or so. But I must add that the boardwalk, set in a mighty Cape Ash (uMthoma) tree, offers the best views of the Lake St Lucia narrows and the forested dunes.

We ended the evening at the home of Andrew and Tracey Zaloumis, set in the wilds of the park and with views to-diefor across the flood plains towards the shimmering lake system. The kids climbed trees, so did we; later we sat around the fire and had some beers, and all was right with the world.

The Eastern Shores

In a natural space as beautiful as iSimangaliso, it seems unfair to have a favourite section. Bite me, because I do, and it is the Eastern Shores. There are just too many facets to this biodiverse section unfolding from Bhangazi Gate and onto the seductive shoreline sweep of the Indian Ocean at Cape Vidal.

Beach blends perfectly with safari along what is one of the Wetland Park’s crown jewels, with sand forest, ancient grassland dunes, shimmering lakes and extensive wetland pans ultimately giving way to pictureperfect coastal glory. It provides the best of both worlds, with near-guaranteed sightings of whales, dolphins, turtles or whale sharks from ocean vantage points, to excellent birding and game viewing of elephant, rhino, buffalo, crocodile, hippo, hyena, leopard and many species of smaller game.

As they say in the classics, the ‘outside is free’, and here anything goes as far as outdoor options are concerned. And that makes my job of trying to highlight only five must-do options in this incredible section of the park seriously tough …

Out and About

Other accommodation options in iSimangaliso include their two stunning campsites, as well as self-catering budget and luxury accommodation: www.isimangaliso.com

For a meal out of the park, head straight to Braza Restaurant, upstairs in the Georgiou Centre on McKenzie Street. Brilliant fusion food blends the tastes of Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, and Angola, with a kick-ass range of craft beers on tap. facebook:braza-restaurant-st-lucia 035 590 1242

Various events take place in iSimangaliso, so do not miss the ‘iSimangaliso Sodwana Bay Shootout’ (22 May every year). This competition draws photographers from around the world to test their skills in documenting iSimangaliso’s natural splendour, with a special focus on underwater photography.

Outdoor junkies can choose from either the ‘iSimangaliso Trail Challenge’ (7 July), the 3-day stage trail-run set in the southern section of the Park www.isimangaliso.com or the ‘iSimangaliso MTB 4-Day Ride’ (17-20 August). The latter lets you crank through this incredible World Heritage Site while traversing eight interlinking eco-systems, spotting everything from elephants and rhino to whales and dolphins over the handlebars. More info on these events at www.isimangaliso-mtb.co.za

Cetting there:

Durban is the closest city and most visitors arrive at King Shaka Airport, from where they head to iSimangaliso. Follow the N2 north for just on 240km, then look out for the turn-off to Mtubatuba, then the R618 to St Lucia.

PLACES TO STAY:

Rocktail Beach Camp

Access: From St Lucia, follow the R618 and then get onto the N2. Follow the N2 and take the R22 to D1849. Continue on D1849 secondary to D1850.

Accommodation: Rocktail Camp is set in the lush coastal forest and has 17 en-suite rooms, seven of which are family rooms. A honeymoon unit has wonderful views over the dune forest and ocean.

Contact: Tel: 011 807 1800 | www.wilderness-safaris.com

Makatana Lodge

Access: Turn off the N2 at 20km north of Mtubatuba or south of Hluhluwe and continue along a tar road for 13km to Nhlozi gate. To reach Charters Creek, travel a further 5km on gravel to the day visitors’ facility.

Accommodation: Currently your only option is Makatana Bay Lodge, a private fully-catered lodge situated on the edge of the lake on private land surrounded by iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Plans are underway to rebuild Charters Creek Camp.

Contact: Tel: 031 940 8555 | www.makatana.com

St Lucia Eco Lodge

Access: From Durban, follow the N2 for 240km, take the turn-off to Mtubatuba and then the R618 to St Lucia.

Accommodation: No fewer than 28 suites offer superb accommodation, consisting of superior bedroomand- lounge lodges, with large bathrooms/ showers, fully fitted kitchenettes and a veranda opening onto a tropical garden. Hippos, and even leopards, are often spotted from your room, and there is an on-site restaurant boasting quality local cuisine with an international twist.

Contact: Tel: 035 590 1082 | www.stlucia-ecolodge.co.za

Top 5 Rocktail things to do

1. Swim in the turbulence of the Indian Ocean on a deserted beach; there is an easy 1 km trail to the beach from the lodge.

2. Go birding at Lake Sibaya; we watched two ospreys (also known as fish eagles) engage in an aerial ballet, while a woolly-necked stork strutted about the water’s edge.

3. Do the Forest Walk; Gibson showed the kids how to make toothbrushes from palm twigs, while he shared his encyclopaedic bush wisdom in his trademark, measured way.

4. Run wild; roughly 8km of forest trails meander amidst indigenous trees, teeming with bird- and wild-life, and can be extended onto the windswept beaches for a full day.

5. Scuba-dive pristine coral reefs in the Maputaland Marine Reserve; you will be the only group of divers as this area is open to only two dive concessions. Between the months of November and March, you have the opportunity to witness the Leatherback and Loggerhead turtles laying their eggs; and from January onwards, the chance to see the hatchlings make the long walk to the water.

Top 5 Western Shores things to do

1. Hike onto the uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk and viewing deck overlooking the Lake St Lucia Narrows, for spectacular views of the forested dunes as far as Cape Vidal in the north and Maphelane in the south.

2. Explore the various loop roads – uMphathe and uMdoni – which are accessible to 2×4 vehicles as a self-drive option; or join licensed operator Heritages Tours and Safaris (www.heritagetoursandsafaris.com) for a sunset- or night drive.

3. Birders can bank on excellent sightings of greater egret, goliath heron, spoonbills, blue cheeked bee-eaters and European blue rollers, to name but a few.

4. Take a break from the vehicle at eMgadankawu Hide or uBhejane Picnic site, or visit Charters Creek picnic site to stroll on the jetty for the spectacular views across the lake.

5. This is your best bet to see elephant in iSimangaliso; listen out for their sub-sonic rumblings in the dense bush.

Top 5 Eastern Shores things to do

1. Hike onto vegetated dunes more than 25 000 years old, on an organised outing with armed rangers. Experiencing this incredibly rich and varied grassland ecosystem up close is a unique nature experience that adds an exhilarating adrenaline edge.

2. Go beachy along less dangerous terrain by sticking to the coastline, and choose from walks ranging from easy to endurance along one of Africa’s most seductive shores. Don’t miss out on Mission Rocks, Perrier’s Rock and Cape Vidal, key points along these beach routes, while you explore deserted beaches, rock pools and rugged, volcanic coastal features.

3. If a safari game drive is your thing, the Vlei Loop rates as your best bet of encountering a leopard. According to Kian Barker of ‘Shaka Barker Tours’, the stretch of road up to Cape Vidal has the highest leopard density in KZN, and we missed three of these spotted cats by less than a minute one morning. What a fantastic feeling it is to know that they’re lurking in those Jurassic Park forest patches out there. Check out www.shakabarker.co.za for info on their night- and guided drives.

4. The Bats Cave is a short hike from Mission Rocks, but provides a classic outing. This big, ocean-facing cavern is home to a breeding colony of Angolan free-tailed bats, and they whirl around like tiny flying foxes. iSimangaliso is home to nine species of bats.

5. Snorkelling at Cape Vidal with the ‘Safari & Surf’ operators should top your must-do list in the Eastern Shores section of the Wetland Park. Even though we had a grey and blustery morning, their crew made this outing into an incredible adventure for the whole family. A beach-side briefing orients you before you fin into the magical Big Blue to identify dozens of marine species; you might even spot the resident moray eel: www.safariandsurf.com

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