The Place Of Wonder
African Birdlife|March/April 2021
Birding in iSimangaliso Wetland Park and St Lucia
Leon Marais

What makes for a good birding destination? Well, desirable birds are obviously a prime ingredient and that’s achievable throughout most of South Africa. But, as a tour guide, when I set up birding safaris for international birders, there’s a lot more to take into account. Birding venues suitable for international birders have many more boxes to be ticked than those that might meet the requirements of more ‘casual’ local birders, who may well be happy with a roof-top tent in a camp site. When a group touches down on African soil to kick off a trip (and hopefully that will start happening again soon), you need to know that you’ve got all the dietary intricacies covered, decent, budget-appropriate accommodation lined up, plenty of activities suitable for different levels of physical ability to keep them occupied, and a range of birds on hand that will satisfy all birders, from the beginner to the keen lister. For me, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and St Lucia in northeastern KwaZulu-Natal meet all those needs.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was listed as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999. This was ‘in recognition of its superlative natural beauty and unique global value’. The take-away of all this is perhaps the name – ‘isimangaliso’ means a ‘miracle’ or ‘wonder’ in isiZulu, so the park is a ‘place of wonder’. And it’s a miracle as well, considering that much of the land area now incorporated into the park was once covered in commercial tree plantations. These days, rows of rotting stumps sticking out of the reestablished coastal grasslands are the only immediately visible remnants of those terrible ‘green deserts’. The park includes a huge marine protected area, making a total of more than 1.3 million hectares, and thus it constitutes South Africa’s second largest protected area after the Kruger National Park.

The little holiday town of St Lucia is the ideal base from which to explore the region. It’s got a wide range of accommodation types and restaurants, as well as beaches and shops to keep the nonbirding folks happy. So, with all those boxes ticked, let’s have a look at the important stuff– the birding.

My visits to St Lucia are usually based on a two-night stay as part of a multi-week regional tour, so there’s a lot to cram in. We generally arrive at about lunchtime to settle in. When you’ve been sitting in a car for a morning it’s great to stretch your legs, so we see out the afternoon with a stroll in iGwala-Gwala Forest. The lush coastal forest is undoubtedly more alive with birds in the early morning, but we try to get a head start on the specials nonetheless.

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