Wild beauty of St Lucia and the oldest game park in Africa
Returning to the destination of numerous childhood holidays, CRAIG LEWIS discovers that the town of St Lucia in Northern KwaZulu-Natal and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park have lost none of their old charm.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for the quaint town of St Lucia on South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal north coast, which was the annual destination for numerous memorable childhood holidays.
So it was like taking a trip down memory lane when I recently returned to St Lucia for the first time in many years, and after an activity-filled weekend’s stay, it came as a pleasant relief to discover that the bustling town has lost none of its charm.
Serving as the gateway to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which is a world heritage site, the town of St Lucia has become an increasingly popular destination for local and overseas visitors alike.
We stayed at the comfortable Amazulu Lodge, a four-star accommodation situated in the heart of the St Lucia village, and within walking distance of the beach, nature trails and estuary, as well as a variety of shops and restaurants.
With so much to do, but so little time, we literally set our bags down upon arrival and then jumped on board a hippo and croc cruise with Advantage Tours — an activity that is synonymous with St Lucia.
Indeed, childhood memories came flooding back as we drifted past the prolific inhabitants of the St Lucia lake estuary, while the sunset backdrop turned the sky into a kaleidoscope of colour.
The next day, we made an early start with a 5am departure from Amazulu Lodge as part of an organised full-day trip to the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, the oldest game park in Africa, which is less than an hour’s drive from St Lucia.
And despite the early hour, we were soon wide awake when a couple of ever-elusive wild dogs treated us to a rare roadside sighting just minutes after our arrival, prompting one German tourist onboard our vehicle to cheerfully proclaim: “Zis muss be our lucky day”.
As part of the day trip offered by Heritage Tours & Safaris, we were also treated to a breakfast spread and lunch-time braai, with cheerful ranger, David (above), proving that he possessed some culinary skills to go along with his extensive knowledge of the reserve’s fauna and flora.
Considering the close proximity of St Lucia to Hluhluwe, a visit to this world-renowned “big five” park is most worthwhile, especially considering that the reserve boasts one of the largest populations of white rhinos in the world. This, we can attest to, as our sightings for the day tallied into the double figures.
Once back in town that evening, we took a stroll along St Lucia’s main street in search of a dinner destination, although unfortunately there was no sign of the pizza place my family and I would unfailingly visit on our annual pilgrimages.
Nevertheless, it was with this memory in mind that the pizza signs outside the Reef and Dune restaurant tempted us into this vibey venue, which seemed to be a popular spot among locals. And thankfully, their thin-based pizzas didn’t let us down.
Quite refreshingly, as the close-knit St Lucia community will tell you, it is quite safe to stroll through the streets at night. Well, from a crime point of view anyway, as locals also offered a word of warning to be on the lookout for hippos, with these giant animals having developed the habit of heading into town after nightfall to seek out some of the more succulent vegetation.
Yet all too quickly, our final day in St Lucia dawned, and after a hearty breakfast offered at Amazulu Lodge, we headed off on one final excursion to explore the nearby “eastern shores”, within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Although this can be done as part of an organised tour, we opted for the self-drive option, which allowed us to take a slow meander through the reserve, stopping at various viewpoints and watering holes, before ending at Cape Vidal.
This pristine bay is well-known as a snorkelling hot spot, while the nature reserve, which is nestled between the estuary and Indian Ocean, is teeming with wildlife — from zebra to to buffalo to an array of antelope.
In fact, it even contained some hidden surprises, as we found out when a pair of hyena quite literally jumped out of the bush alongside the road.
And while such a sighting was a fitting way to end our stay, we left St Lucia with the feeling that there was still so much we simply hadn’t had the chance to tick off our to-do list.
For one, time had run out to visit the new “western shores” section of the Wetland Park, which is said to offer scenery of a different kind with undulating hills, lush savannah and swamplands, not to mention potential sightings of elephants, buffalo, rhino and even leopard.
We had also arrived out of the popular whale season from May to December, while horse riding, night drives, kayaking and deep sea fishing were just some of the other activities on offer.
As Amazulu Lodge manageress, Robyn Canning, quite rightly commented: “Everything is on our doorstep, you have the Indian Ocean on one side, a big five game reserve not even an hour away, and pretty much everything in between. There is such diversity.”
And although we weren’t able to cram it all into a single weekend’s visit, I guess I’ll just have to make St Lucia an annual holiday destination once again.
Craig Lewis is a sports reporter for Independent newspapers in South Africa, including the Daily News in Durban. He also works as a freelance travel journalist.