Waterbuck in the isiMangaliso Wetlands Park
The isiMangaliso Wetlands Park, which extend north of the town of St Lucia, is a unique, precious reserve. There are five eco-systems. The shoreline is spectacular, with coral reefs and Indian Ocean fishes. Whales, dolphins and shoals migrate along the shores. The ancient coelacanth lives in the depths. Turtles lay eggs along the beach (despite 4*4s driving on them, until that was banned).
Gigantic dunes, some 200metres high, rise behind the beach, and, amazingly, support highly diverse coastal forests. Beyond the dunes are wetlands, fed by the dunes which hold water for 14 years, and a huge delta which is home to hippos and crocodiles. Such a diverse environment should be home to a fantastic wealth of flora, fauna and birds, especially migratory species.
In the 1980s mining interests applied to mine the dunes. These contain titanium. The miners planned to liquidise the dunes, extracting the titanium, and in the process destroy the forests. Without the dunes the wetlands would dry out during droughts. It would be the final destruction of this complex eco-system and all the life, local and migratory, that lived there.Conservationists fought an epic battle. A petition was raised signed by 1.5 million people.
Eco-tourism has proved a successful alternative to mining in St Lucia
I first visited the town of St Lucia in the late ‘90s, preparing an itinerary featuring the World Heritage Sites of South Africa. A few years before South Africa had embraced non-racial democracy and put an end to apartheid, but St Lucia was in a time-warp. The access road, over a bridge, was boomed, and it was clear that black people entering the town were under scrutiny. Down the road the old South African flag and the emblem of the neo-nazi AWB were painted on the walls. White men with beer swollen bellies drove old trucks towing boats. The tardy town looked like a cross between Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and a right-wing fishing resort.
It was soon apparent this place was going to be hard to include in an itinerary. There were no hotels, and the face-brick B&Bs and apartments were seedy. I was bemused that such an unwelcoming town should be the gateway to a newly proclaimed World Heritage Site. I walked down the road, hoping to find someone who showed a glimmer of enthusiasm for the Park just to the north. I was extremely fortunate to find Kian Barker and it was immediately apparent that he was a man on a mission. He believed that eco-tourism could radically change the town, and conserve an outstanding natural environment.
The last of the plantations were removed in 2006. Communities that had been removed from the park during apartheid were compensated and encouraged to consider the park an asset to be conserved. The park appears to be thriving, with excellent management, and growing numbers of animals and visitors. The dreams of a few years ago, to expand the park along the coast and over the borders to join up with parks in South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland, have become a reality, re-opening migratory routes for elephants. There is now an ambitious plan to extend the migratory corridors across the entire continent, from St Lucia in the east to the Richtersveld in the west, by 2020.
So what of the right wing, run down town of 1999? Ten years later it is vibrant. Every second house, it seems, is a guesthouse, some 4* rated. A R200 million Hyatt hotel has been proposed. There are smart new homes being built, often by foreigners wanting a winter home (migrants, like the birds). Best of all, black people are numerous, many employed, and the boom is long gone. Nature is celebrated - you even find hippos in the street. Eco tourism has worked.
A hippo wanders past an art gallery in St Lucia
Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 16 Mar 2010
Location: Southern Africa | South Africa
Themes: natural world, travel | conservation, parks and trails, safari guide