iSimangaliso Wetland Park (formerly the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park), South Africa's first Natural World Heritage Site, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 as a result of its unique ecological processes, superlative natural phenomena and exceptionally rich biodiversity.
This 328 000 hectare (800 000+ acres) park with 280km of coastline also has 2 sections which have been registered as Wetlands of International Significance under the Ramsar Convention. The park includes four of South Africa's Ramsar sites - the St Lucia System, Lake Sibaya, the Turtle Beaches and Coral Reefs of Tongaland, and the Kosi Bay System.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park (IWP) is situated on the eastern coast of the Elephant Coast, stretching from beyond the St Lucia estuary mouth in the south to the Mozambique border in the north. Lake St Lucia itself, at 38 000 hectares in size, is the largest estuary in Africa. For a clearer idea of the vastness of the park have a look at the map.
Habitats in the IWP range from the Lebombo Mountains to grasslands, forests, wetlands, mangrove swamps and vegetated dunes, as well as magnificent beaches and coral reefs. The diversity of habitats supports an abundance of wildlife, including: Black Rhino, Elephant, African Buffalo, Leopard and many species of antelope. The Park supports the largest populations of the following species in South Africa: Hippopotamus (over 1 000), Red Duiker, Nyala, Reedbuck and Nile Crocodile. 55 species of fresh water fish and 212 species of estuarine fish have been recorded in the park.
Birdlife is prolific as a result of the varied habitats, providing a fantastic selection of species - over 500 species have been recorded in the park. The lake is one of the most important waterbird breeding areas in South Africa. For a large number of migratory birds, this is the end of their route - some flying several thousand kilometres to reach St Lucia. Estuarine fish use the lake as a nursery, and the threatened Leatherback and Loggerhead Turtles swim thousands of kilometres back home to lay their eggs on the beaches.
The IWP comprises a number of conservation areas (the oldest of which was established in 1895) including the St Lucia Game and Marine Reserves, False Bay Park, Cape Vidal, Sodwana Bay, Mkhuze Game Reserve and the Maputaland Marine Reserve.
The St Lucia Estuary is one of the tourism focal points of the IWP and is the gateway to the eastern shores of Lake St Lucia.
The village of St Lucia is nestled between the Indian Ocean and the St Lucia Estuary.
There are designated swimming areas along the beach at St Lucia and, although there are no shark nets, the surf is considered safe for swimmers. The most popular beach activity is fishing and St Lucia has long been a favourite for many anglers. These beaches are also the breeding grounds for the Leatherback and Loggerhead Turtles and tours can be booked to see these amazing creatures (November - February). Whale-watching tours can also be arranged (June - November).
One of the most popular activities in St Lucia are the boat cruises on the estuary. These cruises, which are about 2 hours long, allow you to get close-up views of the resident Nile Crocodiles and Hippos, as well as the wide variety of bird life. Large flocks of White and Pinkbacked Pelican and Lesser Flamingo may be seen together with Woolly-necked Stork, Caspian Tern, Goliath Heron amongst many others. A special bird that may be seen here during the winter months is the rare Mangrove Kingfisher.
The Crocodile Centre in the village was first established to conserve the diminishing numbers of Nile Crocodile and has now expanded into an education centre and includes a curio shop, snake display, cycad garden and restaurant.
Birding around St Lucia Village and up towards Cape Vidal can produce many special species, not found further inland.
The Eastern Shores is the ideal beach and safari destination. A number of game viewing roads offer access to varied habitats including dunes, grassland, lakes, pans and coastal dune forest. Popular beach destinations are found at Cape Vidal and Mission Rocks.
False Bay Park is situated along the western shores of Lake St Lucia and forms part of the IWP. Most of the 2200 hectare (5400 acres) park is covered with sand forest, mixed woodland and patches of open shoreline.
Marine fossils can be viewed in an attractive interpretive centre, while the variety of habitats provides excellent bird-watching and game viewing. Grey and Red Duiker are common while the rare and diminutive Suni Antelope can be seen in the sand forest. Hippos and Nile Crocodiles occur throughout the lake.