Visit Kwa-Zulu Natal’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park out-of-season, and have paradise all to yourself. You’ll find few other visitors, mild sunny days, and an abundance of wild animals scattered across wide open spaces.
We stayed in St Lucia, a tiny town on the north coast, wedged between the ocean and an estuary. A high volume of summer visitors ensures that the town is well equipped to cater for your every need, with loads of accommodation options, multiple restaurants, plenty of shops, and tourism services offering everything from estuary cruises and game drives to deep sea fishing and whale watching.
From town, it’s a five minute drive to the iSimangaliso park gate. Your entrance fee allows you access until 6pm, and you can expect to start seeing wild animals almost as soon as the friendly ranger waves you through the gate. A single tarred road runs the length of the park, from the gate all the way to the beach at Cape Vidal. If you can’t wait to dip your toes in the sea, you can drive straight from the entrance to the beach in about half an hour. But don’t! There are dozens of intriguing detours – loop roads and viewing hides – offering close encounters with hippos, rhinos, buffalo, buck, zebra, warthogs and all sorts of birds and creepy crawlies.
The pan loop arcs along to crystal blue dam full of wallowing hippos. The vlei loop meanders past lakes occupied by enormous purple water lilies and more lolling hippos. The Mission Rocks loop includes a breath-taking picnic spot overlooking the wide green plains of the estuary, dotted with grazing rhinos, and a pristine secluded beach full of rock pools, and knee high green waves just begging for paddlers.
At Catalina Bay, there’s a lovely shaded view point perched on the water’s edge, and two magnificent toilets enclosed in slate and wood, cunningly constructed to provide privacy and views of the surrounding bush.
In several places, the road is dense with trees that meet overhead. It won’t be long before you notice the thick silky webs stretched between branches, glinting and golden in the sun.
These are the super-strength lairs of the enormous golden orb spider. Once you’ve spotted one, you’ll quickly realise that they’re everywhere – their amazing webs gently undulating in the trees on both sides of the road and stretching overhead. If the multiple signs asking motorists to remain in their cars except in designated areas haven’t had an impact, the multitude of massive spiders ought to do the trick.
When you finally reach Cape Vidal, along a long winding road through dense forest, you’ll find a gleaming white beach and a calm clear sea. You can park and picnic under the shade of the pine trees, with a view across the dunes and the ocean. Keep an eye on the Samango monkeys – they’re all over the car park, and they’ll make off with your cooler bag given half a chance (we saw a couple making a concerted effort to detach the luggage from a roof rack).
Cape Vidal is renowned for snorkelling, offering clear water and an abundance of marine life. Equipped with mask and snorkels, you can loll about in the waves for hours – it’s really just like being in a swimming pool.
When you’ve had your fill of sea and sunshine, make sure that your afternoon includes stops at some of the fabulously serene bird hides that overlook the park’s various lakes. Sitting quietly at the Imfolozi hide, watching birds plopping about between water lilies and buck drinking shyly at the water’s edge, provides a very complete sense of peace and quiet.
The park’s closing time of 6pmin winter allows you to watch the sunset over the bush just before you have to leave. We were enjoying the spectacle of the sky slowing turning orange as we drove toward the exit, when two boulder-like shapes alongside the road resolved themselves into a pair of black rhino, grazing peacefully. It was both awe-inspiring and heart-rending to watch these two critically endangered colossuses munching away as if they hadn’t a care in the world, gradually fading to silhouettes against the darkening sky.