Justin Fox entered a world of coral shores, wetlands and forested dunes frequented by whale sharks, nesting turtles and rhinos.
At last, after two hours of beach driving into a stiff northeasterly, we see tracks. The Land Rover halts and we follow the tractor-like trail up the dune. “She'll go into a trance when she starts laying, so we'll be able to get closer,” says our guide. “But show due respect.” The leatherback turtle, a giant weighing more than half a ton, seems unconcerned by our presence. A full moon emerges between black clouds that spit lightning, blitzing the ocean with a purple glow. In hushed tones our guide explains how vulnerable these gentle leviathans are. “In some places they're used for muti, people kill them for their shells, their meat. Long-liners and nets snare them too. Most tragic are the plastic packets, which look like jelly-fish and get stuck in their throats, suffocating them to death.” In two month's time the hatchlings from tonight's eggs will scamper down the beach in a mad dash to elude predators. Ghost crabs will block their paths, slaughtering them by the dozen; once they reach the water it will be the sharks' turn. Out of every thousand hatchlings, only a couple will make it to adulthood and return to lay on this beach. “Why can't you pick the babies up and carry them to the water?” asks one tourist, close to tears. “No, you see, during that scramble it's learning about the earth's rotation, taking on board the magnetic info – we're not exactly sure,” says the guide. “The little creature is working out its internal GPS so that in 15 years time it will be able to find its way back across the ocean to this spot. If you pick it up, it'll be lost.” Life's map in the first minutes after birth. Ah, Nature: clobbers you over the head it does. The hatchling spends years cruising the oceans' currents and growing to adulthood. Tracking devices have shown how some leatherbacks round the Cape and head into the Atlantic. Others have visited the Antarctic pack ice before returning to St Lucia. Finally the female has completed digging a hole and is testing the depth carefully with a flipper. Slowly, golf-ball size eggs begin to drop into the pit. A scientist moves in to affix a tag and measure her carapace. She seems unperturbed, far away. The watchers stand silently, almost at attention. Once she's done, there's an elaborate covering-up ritual, flicking sand all over the place to disguise the location of the nest from raids by robbers such as monitor lizards and honey badgers. Finally, exhausted, she heaves herself back towards the phosphorescent ocean where her mate will be waiting beyond the surf line. Her flippers strain; she pauses frequently, trying to get her breath. Ur-creature, sacred mother, you've traveled down the millennia to bless us and our mad age. For how many thousands of years have your maternal ancestors been coming ashore on the very beach? Critically endangered, there may be only 5 000 of you left. And we are to blame for your demise. It's at times like this one harbours thoughts of eco-activism, of joining Greenpeace or putting oneself in harm's way for the cause. The turtle stops just short of the water, dead tired. Come on, old girl. She turns her head to look at us humans with our lights and cameras: savages bloated with self importance, evolutionary newcomers (compared to her 60-million years). How trivial our concerns suddenly seem: interest-rate hikes, JU, Graeme Smith's form...ephemera in the face of such dignity, the fulfillment of Nature's imperative on this shore. “Forgive us,” I whisper, stupidly, emptily. “People, we must go, the tide is coming in fast,” says our guide. A wave wraps around her like a warm embrace. Lightning flickers and a roll of thunder ricochets off the sea. We scramble onto the Land Rover and pull away, the shore break chasing us up the beach. When I look back, she's gone, swallowed by the fathomless, moonstruck Indian Ocean.
A park of international importance
The Greater St Lucia Wetland Park has been inscribed as a World Heritage Site not only because of its vital turtle-nesting beaches, but also its exceptional biodiversity, its natural beauty and because of estuary and lake-land's unique ecological processes. The park is made up of five distinct ecosystems (providing habitats for an enormous diversity of biota): the coastal and marine system, the eastern-shore dune forests, the estuary and lake systems, the Mkhuze River papyrus swamps and the drier acacia savanna of the western shore. In turn, these ecosystems have tremendously rich microhabitats such as mangroves, coral reefs and raffia-palm forests. It's not only the geographical diversity that makes St Lucia worthy of heritage status. There is a staggering variety of flora (2185 recorded species), mammals (129 species), reptiles (128), bird life (526) and fish (1039). These statistics tell us why the park's preservation is so important in ecological terms. But for the lay visitor it is the particular atmosphere, the wild coupling of ocean and land in this corner of Maputaland, that is so captivating. You step from a log cabin and wander to the beach through a dunescape of casuarinas clacking their trunks in the wind like storks, and raining cones and needles. Over a rise...and before you is a coral-rimmed sea patrolled by sci-fi manta rays, tiger and whale sharks, and three species of turtle. In the black depths lurks a living fossil, the coelacanth, cruising the coast's prehistoric riverine canyons. You stroll along a beach bustling with confetti-like ghost crabs. Low, threatening clouds are adorned by a perfect rainbow. As if to stretch credibility, two migrating humpback whales breast past, so close you can hear their exhalation. Later you wander the thickly forested dunes of buffalo thorns (Zizyphus mucronata), Natal mahogany (Trichilia dregeana) and pigeonwood (Trema orientalis) strung with monkey ropes and old man's beard. Coastal strelitzias (Strelitzia nicolai) poke their shaggy heads through the canopy. On the lookout for elusive forest fowls, you hear a rustle: it's only a samango monkey or a red squirrel. But your morning's ticks do include green twinspots, purple-crested turacos and African emerald cuckoos. Behind the dune ramparts are grasslands scattered with lala (Hyphaene coriacea) and wild-date palms (Phoenix reclinata), roamed by rhinos and cantankerous elephants. Out on the plains, inquisitive kudus approach your vehicle with Medusa headgear seemingly too heavy for their heads You pass more reedbucks than you're likely to see anywhere else in Africa. At dusk you walk the wetland fringes. Pressing mangroves, the splash of wings, the disconsolate grumbling of and outboard engine. Even the most innocuous pond leaves you painfully aware of logs with teeth and barrels that grunt. Suddenly the salmon sky is filled with 10 000 flamingos staining the air an even deeper pink.
The Elephant Coast
A visit to the park allows for a bush-and-beach holiday unlike any other in South Africa. For many visitors it is Maputuland's coastline that is the major drawcard. Most start their journey in the town of St Lucia, a centre for activities and convenient jumping off point for the region's attractions. It used to be a surf-anglers' haven, but since the ban on beach driving a new breed of eco-tourist has taken over, many of them foreign and lured by the area's status as a World Heritage Site. There's a wide, hummocked beach, an estuary thronged with wildlife, a cultural village, self-guided trails, whale-watching trips and boating activities as well as a fine crocodile centre run by KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife. Being a town within a park, you get the occasional leopard picking off the residents' cats and dogs, and you may well bump into a hippo on your way home from the pub. The estuary itself is suffering a severe drought at the moment and is a puddle of its former self. But rangers are quick to point out this part of a natural cycle and it would be foolhardy to tamper with the ecology by opening the mouth to allow in seawater. North of St Lucia town there are a number of excellent touring options. Cape Vidal Camp is an old favourite among those in the know and the Eastern Shores Reserve which surrounds it has forested dune and lakeshore habitats that are good for game viewing. Apart from a profusion of reedbucks, kudus, waterbucks and smaller antelopes – especially red duikers – there were plenty of sightings of white rhinos (wallowing in muddy pools due to the heat) and buffaloes (packed into the shade of insubstantial trees). Since the inscription of World Heritage Status, the Eastern Shores State Forest has been cleared of alien vegetation (leaving a landscape dotted with tree stumps), making the prospect of rehabilitation very bright. An astonishing six-million conifers have been felled and into the newly created grasslands locally extinct species such as elephant, wild dog and cheetah have been reintroduced. Further north, Sodwana Bay is the most popular dive spot on this stretch of coast, probably in all of South Africa. The place can get a bit overrun during school holidays, but the reefs are sensational. Beyond Sodwana, the coast is wild and beguiling. I stayed at Rocktail Bay, a venerable Wilderness Safaris lodge in the forest north of Lake Sibaya. Log-and-canvas A-frame is just over the dune and there are secluded bowers with hammocks where the monkey-loud foliage squeezes in from all sides. To the north, near the Mozambican border, is Kosi Bay, a series of eight lakes running north-south and graduating from salt to fresh water. It's a pristine corner of South Africa, rich in a diversity of habitats ranging from swamp forest to palm groves. One of the main attractions is the centuries-old fish traps of the Tonga people. These 'kraals' form a maze of wooden stockades that funnel fish into a basket-like net where they can be speared.
Inland: Mkhuze to Makakatana
Although Mkhuze Game Reserve is not officially included within the World Heritage Site boundary, it does form and integral part of the park. Any visit to St Lucia should include a detour into Mkhuze to get a rounded sense of the different habitats (including the Lebombo Mountains). The park offers better general game viewing that the wetland and some of the finest birding in South Africa (look out for specials such as southern banded snake eagle, African broadbill, pink-throated twinspot and Neergaard's sunbird). In addition, it has some excellent hides, notably at the fever-tree-skirted Nsumo Pan and at Kubube and Kumasinga. These are perched right over the water and are a photographer's delight, particularly in the dry season. St Lucia's western shore – effectively a relict coastline from and earlier geological period – comprises a number of smaller parks and lodges, such as False Bay, Fani's Island and Charters Creek. With the current drought, many of these are temporarily closed. However False Bay is still open, although minus the usual boating activities, and Dugandlovu Camp remains a lovely, rustic spot from which to venture out on day trails along the lakeshore. Heading south, my last stop was Makakatana Bay. It's a superbly designed lodge tucked away in a forest with boardwalks leading to a pool deck that overlooks the St Lucia Estuary. On the evening game drive to a hippo-haunted inlet for sundowners, ranger Nick van de Wiel enthused about how alien plantations were being removed. We drove through areas where stands of Sappi gum and pine trees were being felled and animals reintroduced. “A big eucalyptus drinks 2 000 liters of water a day...and they were planted absolutely everywhere,” said Nick. “Now that they're being removed – more than 8 000 hectares to go this year – we see ground water rising to the surface in many places, reintroducing the former marshlands. Just imagine the park in 20 years, when indigenous forest has returned and more animals – maybe even lions – have been reintroduced. I tell you, it'll be more popular that the Kruger.” Bush, beach and Big Five. Bigger than Kruger? Ja-nee...it's just possible.
Source: Getaway - 29 March 2007