Just some photographs from a serene Sunday spent in our local Rietvlei Nature Reserve yesterday.
The treasure we know today as the Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site has a troubled recent history. In 1918 already the corner of our country where the borders of South Africa, Botswana (then the British protectorate of Bechuanaland) and Zimbabwe (then still the British colony of South Rhodesia) met was set aside as a botanical reserve due to the area’s unique plant communities. It soon became known as the Dongola Botanical Reserve. In March 1947, with its size much reduced to placate the local farming community, the South African government proclaimed the Dongola Game Reserve at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. A change in government the following year however resulted in the fledgling conservation area being deproclaimed in its entirety almost immediately. A tiny portion of it, surrounding the Mapungubwe Hill, became a provincial nature reserve, Vhembe, in 1967. Then, in 1995, with South Africa now a multiracial democracy and Botswana and Zimbabwe independent countries in their own right, and after many years of a strict military presence on the border, this arid corner of our country was once again afforded the highest level of protection as the Vhembe-Dongola National Park. In September 2004, the park was opened to visitors and renamed the Mapungubwe National Park, in recognition of the fact that this area and its rich cultural heritage centred on Mapungubwe Hill was inscribed as a World Heritage Site the year before.
Mapungubwe’s human history dates back to hundreds of years before the colonial period however and is extremely fascinating. Visits to the interpretive centre near the gate and the archeological site on Mapunguwe Hill are not to be missed. Read more about it here.
Today, Mapungubwe covers 28,000 hectares and consists of two distinct parts, with private farming land isolating the two sections. Both sections adjoin the Limpopo River; the eastern portion is rugged and hilly – with beautiful baobab trees – while the western section is flat and dominated by a very different community of plants. Mapungubwe’s an arid place, with average annual rainfall below 400mm and summer temperatures that easily soar above 40°C.
Poacher’s Corner is an especially beautiful stretch of road through the riverine forest on the southern bank of the Limpopo.
Near Poacher’s Corner is Zebra Pan, itself a delightful place to park your vehicle and gawk at the constant stream of wildlife
The Maloutswa Pan and Hide in the west of the Park is yet another great spot to spend a few peaceful hours waiting for the birds and animals to come quench their thirst within easy reach of your lens.
Set atop a hill several lookout decks have been constructed from which to view the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers where the borders of the three countries meet. Near the car park there are also a few picnic tables and braai (barbeque) stands which are very popular with visitors to Mapungubwe.
The Treetop Walk on the bank of the Limpopo River is another place visitors to Mapungubwe National Park should not miss.
Mapunbuwe is home to a rich variety of wildlife, with records indicating a tally of 34 fish species, as many as 36 kinds of frogs, up to 75 species of reptiles, 460+ species of birds and 94 species of mammals, including the famed “Big 5“.
The South African National Parks provides an assortment of self-catering accommodation options in Mapunguwe National Park, ranging from camping sites at Mazhou in the riverine forest along the Limpopo River to the top-of-the-range Tshugulu Lodge. Guided drives and walks, including visits to the Mapungubwe archeological site, can be booked at reception, while there are several gravel roads available for exploration in your own vehicle (even more if you have a 4×4). Simple meals and firewood is available from the interpretive centre, but the nearest available fuel, and other services, to the Park is in the towns of Alldays or Musina, both about 70km from the gate.
Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site lies right at South Africa’s northernmost corner, roughly 470km north of our capital Pretoria.
On the 15th of February 1912 the Mkuzi Game Reserve was proclaimed in the north of the Natal Province. At that stage the reserve covered 251km², with its northern and eastern border being the river of the same name. In the west the reserve straddles the Lebombo Mountain and in the south it reached to the Umsunduzi River and Nsumo Pan. Before its proclamation the area was popular among hunters, especially in winter when the dangers of malaria and tsetse flies were diminished, and as a result several animal species, including white rhino, buffalo and eland, were wiped from the area. With a large and impoverished human population living around it, after the reserve was established it faced, and still does, a never ending war with both commercial and subsistence poaching.
In the early years there was lots of hostility to the reserve’s existence, with neighbouring farmers seeing it as a breeding ground for the cattle disease nagana (of which the tsetse fly is a vector from game, which is immune against it). As a result, the reserve was deproclaimed in 1939 and control of the land transferred to the government veterinary department. Subsequently more than 38,000 wild animals were killed, with only black rhinos spared, after which an extensive aerial spraying campaign with poisonous insecticides followed. The war to control the tsetse fly was won at great financial and environmental cost. The reserve was re-proclaimed, under the auspices of the Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife), in 1954.
Shortly after, the reserve faced a new existential threat when the Mkuze River and the pans it feeds at Nhlonhlela and Nsumo dried up due to dams and extraction for irrigation upstream. With no surface water available for the animals the reserve staff had to sink deep boreholes in the bed of the river to pump water to two waterholes deeper in the reserve to prevent animals moving out. One of these waterholes, Kumasinga, is still a major attraction for both game and human visitors.
In 1972 the Nxwala State Lands, on Mkuzi’s then south-eastern boundary, was incorporated into the reserve, increasing its size by a further 58km². The reserve boundary was later moved further south to beyond the Umsunduzi River to bring it to its current size. Today the reserve covers 400km² and uses the more correct traditional spelling of uMkhuze for its name. It forms an integral part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Have a read here for more about the history of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
uMkhuze is rich in scenery and biodiversity. Records indicate that the reserve is home to more than 700 indigenous plant species, 90 mammal species, 450 bird species, 64 kinds of reptile (perhaps as many as 85), 43 kinds of frogs and 32 fish species. The extensive Nsumo Pan, its shores lined by magnificent fever trees, is a watery haven for a myriad water-dependent birds and a magnet for other kinds of wildlife. Majestic riverine forest trees like the sycomore fig trace the course of the Mkuze River. Sand forest is a unique and endangered plant community in South Africa of which a tiny portion is protected in uMkhuze and the open plains of the reserve are covered by savannas and grasslands with a fascinating mix of plant species. Above this all tower the 600m high peaks of the Lebombos.
Elephants were reintroduced to the uMkhuze Game Reserve in 1994, and today number more than a hundred animals. They are however not seen very often.
While the founding population of uMkhuze’s white rhinos were translocated from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in the 1960’s, the black rhinos have occurred here throug the ages. What a pity that these enigmatic creatures are now again threatened by poaching
In August 2005, buffalo was reintroduced to Umkhuze Game Reserve (from Marakele National Park). Although numbering several hundred, they’re still not often seen and tend to remain in the wilderness areas far from human eyes.
After an absence of 44 years, lions were reintroduced to the uMkhuze Game Reserve in December 2013.
uMkhuze harbours around 300 of the rare suni antelope which finds refuge in the sand forest.
uMkhuze is well know for its sizable population of the beautiful nyala.
Other herbivores that occur in uMkhuze are hippo, giraffe, plains zebra, warthog, bushpig, kudu, blue wildebeest, bushbuck, impala, steenbok, common and red duiker, baboon, vervet monkey, thick-tailed bushbaby and scrub hare.
uMkhuze is considered one of the top bird-watching destinations in South Africa
Cold-blooded creatures abound in uMhuze too, and visitors can expect to see anything from fish to nile crocodiles while exploring the reserve.
In 1958 Mkuzi Game Reserve opened to the public, when three rustic huts were erected for use by overnight visitors. The reserve’s Mantuma Rest Camp today provides a variety of comfortable accommodation options in huts, chalets, safari tents and cottages with a swimming pool available to accommodated guests. Unleaded petrol and diesel is available and the reception office doubles as a small shop selling mainly snacks and fizzy drinks. The Rhino Din-o is a small cafeteria in Mantuma that sells light meals and offers excellent value for money. There is also a well-shaded picnic site for day visitors in the grounds of the reception office. Guided night drives and guided walks through the Fig Tree Forest departs from the main camp. The exclusive Nhlonhlela Bush Lodge, overlooking the pan with the same name and able to accommodate 8 guests, is located a few kilometers away from Mantuma, while the rustic Umkhumbe Camp in the far south of the reserve also accommodates groups of up to 8 guests. There is a spacious camping ground at eMshopi at the western entrance to the reserve. All these overnight facilities are booked through Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Malaria is still endemic in the area and precautions are strongly advised.
There are two access gates into the uMkhuze Game Reserve. In the west, 15km from Mkuze town, lies eMshopi Gate. In the east, providing easy access from Sodwana and the R22 road, is the newer Ophansi Gate which opened in 2006. Visitors have access to a road network spanning 100km within the reserve for game viewing, much of it tarred. There is a beautiful picnic site with braai facilities on the shores of Nsumo Pan. Photographic hides at kuMalibala, kuMasinga and kuMahlahla as well as two on Nsumo Pan are well maintained and very popular. The Lebombo Lookout Tower, just a few kilometers south of the main camp, is another spot not to be missed.
First, a bit of history about the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Lake Saint Lucia is Africa’s largest estuarine system. When fully inundated the lake is approximately 65km long and 21km across at its widest point and covers approximately 360km² (Google Earth view here). On average the lake is around 1m deep, reaching up to 3m deep in places. It is fed by several major rivers, including the Mfolozi, Mkuze and Hluhluwe, and dozens of minor streams, and seepage from the high dunes separating the lake from the Indian Ocean. This intricate system maintains a treasure trove of habitats and biodiversity.
In 1822 the British Navy surveyed this coastline with three ships, with a Lieutenant Vidal (see Cape Vidal below) being the master of one of them. In the ensuing years big game were decimated by white hunters and explorers and in less than a hundred years most of the wildlife of the area were entirely eradicated from the lake shore. Elephants and hippos were especially targeted for export of their ivory tusks.
From the 1880’s Christian mission stations were established at Cape Vidal, Ozabeni and Mount Tabor (the latter being close to present-day Mission Rocks). These operated until the 1950’s when the government forced the local population to move.
Britain annexed the area around the estuary of Lake St Lucia in December 1884 and St Lucia town was proclaimed only a year later, becoming a popular resort already by the 1920s when the first hotel opened. Until the 1950s, when a bridge was built across the St Lucia estuary, the town was connected to the outside world by a pont.
St Lucia Game Reserve, 368km² in extent and comprising the lake and its islands, was proclaimed a protected area in April 1895 when it was realised that the local populations of almost all big game species had been virtually wiped out.
The Mkuze Game Reserve was gazetted in 1912 (originally 251km² in extent and later enlarged to 400km²). (Note: We’ll delve into uMkhuze’s history a little more in our next installment).
From 1911 the Umfolozi flats were planted with sugar cane, leading to the mouth of Lake St Lucia silting up by the early 1950’s. To alleviate this, the Mfolozi River’s mouth was manually diverted away from the lake, cutting off 60% of the vital freshwater supply for the estuarine system and requiring the St Lucia mouth to be dredged continuously to keep it open. This situation was reversed between 2012 and 2016 when the Mfolozi River was again rerouted to empty into the lake. Flow in the river however is now substantially depleted by users upstream and the lake’s mouth remains closed except during periods of exceptional rainfall. This in turn is leading to conflict with the sugar cane farmers who feel their livelihoods threatened by the lake backing up into the Mfolozi River and flooding their fields.
In 1939 a half-mile (800m) wide strip surrounding most of the lake was proclaimed as St Lucia Park, which includes the popular fishing destinations of Charter’s Creek and Fanie’s Island.
In 1943, at the height of the 2nd World War which saw 163 ships sunk around the South African coast, the Royal Air Force established a base for Catalina Flying Boats at Lake St Lucia to patrol for enemy submarines. The base was abandoned in 1945 after hostilities ended, but the area is still known as Catalina Bay. From the viewing deck erected here by the Park authorities visitors have a wonderful view over the waters of Lake St Lucia.
A section of the lake shore in the False Bay area was declared the False Bay Park (22km²) in 1944.
Sodwana Bay (4km²) was proclaimed a national park, under the auspices of the Natal Parks Board, in December 1950.
The Kosi Bay Nature Reserve, later 110km² in extent, was proclaimed in January 1951.
Still, it seemed that authorities could not fully commit to the protection of Lake Saint Lucia and its environs, and exotic pine plantations were established on the western and eastern shores of the Lake from 1952 in designated “State Forests”. These thirsty exotics used up most if not all of the freshwater seepage from the surrounding dunes and marshes, further drying up the lake and pushing up its salinity.
Further sacrilege ensued in 1968, when the wilderness area of the lake was sacrificed for a missile testing range that operated until 1990.
In 1975, fortunes for Lake Saint Lucia finally started turning again. The South African government was one of the first signatories to the Ramsar Convention, and the Greater St. Lucia Wetland region was one of the first sites designated under the treaty.
The St Lucia Marine Reserve, extending 5km from the coast into the Indian Ocean along the stretch of coats between Cape Vidal and Sodwana, was declared in 1979.
Until 1969, Nile crocodiles were classed as vermin in the Natal province, and their numbers were severely depleted by hunters killing them for their skins and because of the danger they posed to people and livestock. By the time their vital ecological significance was realised in the mid-60’s the local population was almost completely wiped out, and the Natal Parks Board took steps to breed and release crocodiles into conservation areas where they were exterminated. So successful have these efforts been that Lake St Lucia alone today has a population of about 1,200 adult crocodiles. The St Lucia Crocodile Centre opened in 1979 at a site just 3km north of the town, at the Bhangazi Gate into the Eastern Shores section.
In early 1984, in the wake of devastating Cyclone Demoina, abnormally high runoff from the rivers feeding into the lake scoured clean the estuary mouth. This had a positive impact on the health of the lake system until about 1993, when a drought caused the mouth to close again, requiring the use of heavy machinery to keep it open.
The Maputaland Marine Reserve was established in 1986 to protect the stretch of coastline from Sodwana to Kosi Bay.
The Eastern Shores State Forest (now known as Mfabeni), Cape Vidal State Forest (now known as the Tewate Wilderness Area) and Sodwana State Forest (now known as Ozabeni) were transferred to the control of the Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) in 1987, allowing the provincial conservation agency to commence with the reintroduction of game indigenous to the area.
In February 1990, national government signaled its intentions to establish the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, which would be the third biggest conservation area in the country following the amalgamation of all the separate proclaimed conservation areas around the lake. A mining company, Richards Bay Minerals, however had plans to mine the ecologically sensitive forested dunes on the Eastern Shores for titanium. This resulted in one of the most comprehensive environmental impact studies ever undertaken in South Africa, and in December 1993, in the face of enormous public pressure, the panel reviewing the study recommended unanimously in favour of the area being declared a national park, eligible for World Heritage Status.
The proposed Greater St Lucia Wetland Park would incorporate the Cape Vidal State Forest, Dukuduku Forest, Eastern Shores State Forest, False Bay Park, Kosi Bay Nature Reserve, Makasa Nature Reserve, Mapelane Nature Reserve, Maputaland Marine Reserve (including Lake Sibaya, Mabibi, Lala Neck and Black Rock, Rocktail Bay), Mkuzi Game Reserve, Nyalazi State Forest, Sodwana Bay National Park, St Lucia Game Reserve, St Lucia Marine Reserve and St Lucia Park.
At the time the proclamation of the Park was promulgated it was decided that the exotic pine plantations that covered extensive parts of the envisaged Park would not be replaced when they were harvested, a process that would still take many years to accomplish. Today it is wonderful to see nature claiming back these ravaged areas after the exotic trees are felled, aided in no small way by fruit-eating birds and bats distributing the seeds of indigenous forest trees throughout these parts.
The Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in December 1999 in recognition of its “unique ecological processes, superlative natural phenomena and exceptionally rich biodiversity”, to quote three of the ten criteria UNESCO considers when including sites in this prestigious club. In 2007 the name of the Park was changed to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the isiZulu word meaning “miracle” or “wonder”.
Today, the Park protects 230km of the Indian Ocean coastline and adjacent interior as well as a marine reserve, stretching from Kosi Bay on the border with Mozambique to Maphelane in the south, covering a total of 13,289km² of marine and terrestrial habitats (the marine component covers 10,700km² of the Indian Ocean). Within its borders the Park accommodates at least 115 mammal species, 526 kinds of birds, 100 reptiles, 48 amphibians, about 90 freshwater fish species and more than 1,200 kinds of marine fish (including the coelecanth), and 282 kinds of butterflies!
The Park and surrounds attract around 2-million visitors annually and tourism and associated services is a major source of employment in an otherwise severely impoverished corner of the country.
The Eastern Shores, including Mission Rocks and Cape Vidal
By the time the Portuguese seafarers “discovered” the mouth of Africa’s biggest estuarine system and named it Santa Lucia in 1575, the area had been settled by Nguni pastoralists for several hundred years already. They were responsible for establishing and maintaining much of the grasslands on the Eastern Shores, which in turn supported many species of animals.
The Eastern Shores of Lake Saint Lucia is among the most diverse ecosystems in the country. Here, rocky intertidal pools and sandy beaches are bordered by some of the highest vegetated dunes in the world, densely covered by forests of tall tropical trees and luxuriant undergrowth. Where the dune forests end, grasslands and marshes, punctuated by dispersed trees, clumps of palms and seasonally inundated pans take over. Stands of swamp forests line small water courses and, on the shores of Lake St Lucia, dense beds of reeds and papyrus are interspersed with stands of mangrove trees. Rainfall averages as high as 1200mm annually of which two thirds fall in the spring and summer months.
Lake St Lucia and surrounds has a large population of Nile crocodiles, probably the most significant population in the entire country.
Hippos survived the onslaught of the 19th and 20th centuries, and today there are about 1,000 in the lake and surrounding pans and wetlands. They’re also regularly seen on the Eastern Shores. Hippos are considered ecosystem-engineers, playing a vital role in cycling nutrients back to the wetlands and opening channels through marshes, preventing them from clogging up and stagnating.
The last elephant in the region of Lake St Lucia was killed in the Dukuduku Forest on the western shores in 1915. Twenty-four elephants were reintroduced to the Eastern Shores in 2001, and today the population of elephants around Lake St Lucia has grown to over 100. The current elephant population follow the same ancient migratory paths across the lake that elephants used for millennia before they were wiped out from the area.
Most of the white rhinos on the Eastern Shores have been dehorned to deter poachers.
The Eastern Shores is a stronghold of the black rhino, but owing to their solitary and nocturnal natures they’re not seen often.
Buffaloes are one of the most commonly seen large animals on the Eastern Shores.
The Eastern Shores has a healthy leopard population and these beautiful cats are seen fairly regularly.
The population of spotted hyena on the Eastern Shores seems to be growing, as sightings have become much more frequent in recent years.
Four of South Africa’s five primate species occur on the Eastern Shores. It holds one of the country’s largest populations of the rare samango monkey, in addition to baboons, vervet monkeys and thick-tailed bushbabies.
Almost all the other herbivores that once roamed the area are now represented once more.
There’s an extraordinary variety of bird life on the Eastern Shores, and especially forest and water-dependent birds are well represented.
Aside from crocodiles, the tropical environment of the Eastern Shores sustains an impressive variety of reptiles and amphibians. It is a crucial nesting place for endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles.
The diversity of insects – particularly butterflies – and other invertebrates that thrive on the Eastern Shores is simply astounding.
The multitude of species to be seen on the beaches and in the rock pools along the Indian Ocean coastline is equally impressive, and there are even huge marine mammals to be seen just offshore!
The small holiday town of St Lucia is the gateway to the lake’s estuary and the Eastern Shores section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The town offers all the amenities you’d expect from a holiday destination, with shops and restaurants, doctors and dentists, a police station, and several accommodation and camping options. There are outdoor market stalls where the locals sell curios and fresh produce. The beach just outside town is excellent for fishing and swimming and general beach activities. Guided boat tours are available on the estuary and deep sea fishing excursions can be arranged. Guided drives, horse rides, and walks on the Eastern Shores are offered from St Lucia and in season whale watching trips and night-time visits to turtle-nesting sites are very popular. A forested portion of the town is traversed by the Gwalagwala Trail.