The sign in front of you shows a hippo grazing under a crescent moon and three stars. Beware Hippos at Night, it reads. Nothing makes you feel more welcome than to know that the mammal responsible for more human fatalities on the continent of Africa than any other roams freely on the streets of the town you have chosen to stay in!
Though the hippos of St Lucia are moderately tame, they are still very large and skittish animals, and extremely aggressive when agitated. The idea of encountering one on the suburban streets in the dark as they graze on the grass is not to be taken lightly, but it is a very unique and memorable experience. Though we weren’t lucky enough to encounter them, we did hear that they had been engaged in a territorial battle just a few streets over from where we were wandering.
St Lucia is the gateway town to iSimangaliso Wetland Park. This thin strip of coastline and wetlands is home to close to 800 hippos as well as Nile crocodiles, rhino, leopard, water buffalo, zebra, nyala, warthog and numerous other land based species. The ecosystem is a mixture of the world’s highest vegetated sand dunes, marshy estuaries and open plains. Off the coast are excellent snorkelling and diving waters on the migratory path of humpback whales and whale sharks, while the beaches are known nesting grounds for loggerhead and green turtles.
iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale) Nelson Mandela
There are two main ways to experience this area – either in your car or on the water. Driving up from St Lucia to Cape Vidal will take you right through the heart of the park. The key is to take every little turn-off loop from the main road which will take you past watering holes filled with hippos, up into the forested dunes and right to the edge of the inland estuary.
We were both extremely keen to see hippos so the signs everywhere warning visitors of them crossing the road made us even more excited. The idea of seeing something so large both on land and in the water was overly enticing and so we were thrilled when our first turn-off loop led us to a small pond filled with eight to ten hippos floating in the water!
At first all we could see were a couple of sets of eyes, some ears flapping away flies and the occasional snout. Before too long there were a couple of younger hippos play fighting, displaying their enormous mouths and sharp teeth. As the sun grew stronger the family of hippos made their way into the muddy shallows and spent hours basking in the warmth of the sun, laying so still they could have easily been mistaken for huge grey rocks.
One of the best ways to truly feel a connection to the hippos and get up close and personal with them is to kayak out on the estuary. St Lucia Kayaks will take you out for a few hours to look for hippos, crocs, birds and even sharks! Unlike the wildlife boat cruises, you have to do all the work, but it is something special to come across hippos in the water and to be at their level!
Within ten minutes of launching we spotted half a dozen hippos relaxing in the shallow waters. Much like the other ones, we could just see eyes, ears and snouts, but this time it was from fifty meters away across water. It was thrilling to momentarily be in the same water with these giants, steadily getting closer as the current pushed the kayaks towards the shore. Further up river we were treated to sightings of Egyptian geese, a kingfisher, herons and even a shark ever so briefly. As the temperatures of the water dropped headed into winter, the crocodiles were unfortunately well out of sight in the reeds trying to stay warm.
This little corner of KwaZulu Natal province is really quite special. Driving yourself up the coast and having close encounters with so many different animals is not necessarily unique in Africa, but the variety you can see here is special.
After a couple of hours watching hippo, and having up close encounters with a water buffalo, kudu and warthog, we popped out onto the huge expanse of sand at the top of Cape Vidal. There the warm waters of the Indian Ocean washed up onto smooth white expansive beaches nestled right up against the vegetated dunes.
It was the perfect place to poke around on the exposed rocks as the tide receded, looking for interesting crabs, mussels and other animals left in the rock pools. The waters were inviting, but as we looked north up the coast past the weekend tourists, we could see the desolate expanse of beach and knew we could wait for a more special swimming opportunities.
Exploring the park’s natural beauty, spotting wildlife in the wetlands and enjoying the warm humid air was a perfect way to spend a day in this hidden gem in the corner of South Africa.