Miracles in the wetland

Teeming with the natural wealth of five eco-systems, iSimangaliso is a revelation, writes Kate Armstrong.

Our African guide, Eugene, runs through the peculiarities of the local flora and fauna, from mahogany and corkwood trees to grasshoppers and dung beetles. A member of the group Europeans and we two Australians asks about the vine snake. "Ahhh," Eugene coos David Attenborough-style with a South African accent. "If it bites, you bleed out of every orifice and die."

We are on a short walking tour arranged by Thonga Beach Lodge in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprising 328,000 hectares and stretching for 200 kilometres along South Africa's north-eastern coast.

Appropriately "iSimangaliso" is the Zulu word for "miracles". Its wonders include five ecosystems, with forested sand dunes, pristine beaches and an ocean teeming with whales. It's South Africa's answer to the Great Barrier Reef and equal to that in beauty. There are more than 500 species of birds, as well as elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras and a variety of antelope.

The entire park is genuinely eco-friendly. Recently, 12,000 hectares of alien plants and commercial plantations were cleared and the park authority imposes strict environmental guidelines for all lodge and tour operators who offer a huge range of activities: turtle tracking, hiking and horse riding, to snorkelling, diving and bird and whale watching.

The iSimangaliso Park Authority promotes 10 "jewels", or specific destinations within the park: Kosi Bay, Coastal Forest, Lake Sibaya, Sodwana Bay and Lake St Lucia on the coast, and Eastern Shores, Western Shores, False Bay and uMkhuze and Maphelane further inland.

Not all are easily accessible by regular transport so airstrips service guests of the iSimangaliso's luxury lodges. We choose the coastal route down the one sandy four-wheel-drive track (the only other option is to enter and exit at points along the inland highway). Luckily, our local host, Roland Vorwerk, of iSimangaliso Wetland Authority, knows the way as there are no signs and sandy tracks head in all directions.

Our six-day journey starts at Kosi Bay, a string of four stunning lakes where a series of strange spiral fences extend from above the water; these are traditional fish traps, used for more than seven centuries by the local Thonga people. The area features lush mangrove, raffia-palm and fig forests. Hippos, Zambezi sharks and crocodiles inhabit the lakes.

One hour south (it's pointless talking in kilometres, the sandy tracks take time to negotiate) is one of the most remote areas, Coastal Forest, so named for its spectacular dune forest and rolling grasslands. Further south again we drive to Lake Sibaya, South Africa's largest natural fresh-water lake, covering about 70 square kilometres.

Fifteen minutes from Lake Sibaya is Thonga Beach, a long stretch of pristine sand and rough ocean where our home for two glorious days is Thonga Beach Lodge. Our arrival coincides with a pod of whales cruising past on their annual pilgrimage south. Our thatched rondavel (cabin) one of about 12 nestles within the dune forest; the beach is about 50 metres away. The cabin's decor is a blend of New York-meets-Africa, with natural materials, funky lighting, Taj Mahal-sized mosquito nets over the beds and a pond-size terracotta bath, complete with candles.

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Luxury, including a lodge beautician, is on tap here. Gourmet meals a buffet lunch of salads, fruits and dorado, and an a la carte dinner are served on the massive indoor-outdoor deck, with views over milkwood trees and the sea beyond.

A daily smorgasbord of activities includes walking, kayaking, snorkelling and tracking of loggerhead and leatherback turtles (between November and February).

It's October when we visit, so few turtles are venturing to lay eggs on the beaches. We rely on feedback from our fellow guests who see one turtle. The Portuguese guest thinks it's cruel to be in close proximity to a turtle, distressed (they say) and straining to lay 100 or so eggs.

The French couple are in awe, comparing it to their own child-birthing experiences.

Our final stop is Eastern Shores, several kilometres from the pleasant town of St Lucia and the most accessible entry. This region features coastal dunes, lakes, grasslands and water pans (great for bird watching). A loop road enables visitors to do a safari circuit to see antelope, hippos and zebras.

Here, Bhangazi Horse Safaris offers a novel way to view the wildlife from the back of a horse. Unfortunately, I hung up my riding boots long ago, after breaking two bones thanks to frisky nags. But that doesn't stop me accepting an invitation for one night to enjoy the trip's de-saddling aspects, equivalent in golfers' terms to the 19th hole.

It's dusk and we're running late to meet Bhangazi owner-operator Richard Daugherty near his camp on the shores of Lake St Lucia. We are nudging the speed limit.

Suddenly, we spot something on the road ahead. It's loping, feline-like. My partner and I spontaneously turn to each other. We squint. "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

We slowly approach the moving creature and stop the car. Astonishingly, a leopard a rare sight here, despite its prevalence not only pauses but lumbers towards the car and flops in the grass beside us, completely unperturbed. Then, as though to taunt us, it moves another metre behind long grass so that all we can spot is a twitching tail. (Don't ask: the camera is in the boot.)

On our eventual arrival in horse territory, Richard ushers us into camp like old friends and introduces us to the camp's three employees. The horses, fed and watered, are silhouetted against the sunset. Three jodhpur-clad British couples (all honeymooners as it turns out) are sipping on gin and tonics around a fire.

We dump our gear in our safari tent, which is equipped with beds, port-a-loo and hot bucket shower. Richard announces "supper". In the dining mess, an open-sided safari tent, a table is set with crystal glasses and silver cutlery.

Over dinner of ravioli, kingklip and chocolate-filled bananas, the delighted riders boast about their wildlife sightings from the back of their steeds. Envious of their exploits and having milked the leopard story for all it's worth, we relate our last morning at Thonga Beach.

On returning from the beach, I stop to brush the sand from my feet. Out of the corner of my eye I spot something on the boardwalk's railing. My subconscious registers a pale brown vine uncoiling. It suspends itself between the railing and a vine, onto which it eventually slithers. By now it's indistinguishable from the plant. Shaking, I race to find Eugene to confirm my sighting of the infamous vine snake. Eugene simply nods. He announces that first, despite possible fatal consequences, it takes a lot to agitate and therefore be bitten by one and second, how lucky I am: it's rare to see one around the lodge.

Rare sightings? Give me the leopard and iSimangaliso's stunning beauty any day.

TRIP NOTES
GETTING THERE
South African Airways, (www.flysaa.com) has daily flights from Sydney to Johannesburg. Prices are from $2000 return.

STAYING THERE
Budget: Mabibi Camp, phone +27 35 474 1473, see isibindiafrica.co.za, camp site $13. Remote, basic and very beautiful, BYO everything. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, phone +27 33 845 1000, see www.kznwildlife.com. The equivalent to Australian national parks, this organisation runs great-value campsites and fully equipped log cabins. Prices from $10-$40 a person.

- Upmarket: Thonga Beach Lodge, phone +27 35 474 1473, see isibindiafrica.co.za, from $347 a person (double) a night. Rocktail Beach Camp, in Johannesburg, phone +27 11 257 5111, see www.safariadventurecompany.com, from $210. Kosi Forest Lodge, phone +27 35 474 1473, see isibindiafrica.co.za, from $255.

TOURING THERE
Approved eco-friendly activities and operators available include:

-  Themba's Birding & Eco Tours phone +27 71 413 3243; $16 a person, takes experienced or novice birders through St Lucia's lush surrounds.

- Bhangazi Horse Safaris phone +27 35 550 4898; see horsesafari.co.za; safari trips $216-$460 a person, offers fabulous week-long riding safaris in the Eastern Shores.

- St Lucia Kayak Safaris phone +27 35 590 1233; see www.kayaksafaris.co.za; half-day $40, full-day $68, is a fun way to experience the wetlands around Cape Vidal.

- Advantage Tours phone +27 35 590 1259; see advantagetours.co.za; trip $111 a person, runs daily whale-watching tours.

- Shakabarker Tours phone +27 35 590 1162; 43 Hornbill Street, operates out of St Lucia and offers a range of wildlife trips, including a chameleon tour.

- Most lodges offer turtle tracking experiences ($60).

FURTHER INFORMATION
See isimangaliso.com.

The writer was a guest of Isibindi Africa and Bhangazi Horse Safaris.

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