The iSimangaliso Wetlands became South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999 in recognition of its superlative beauty and unique global values. The name means ‘miracle and wonder’, which aptly describes the place. Nelson Mandela referred to the wetlands (at the time known as the St Lucia Wetlands) in a speech, saying “The wetland park must be the only place on the globe where the world’s oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest land mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marina mammal (the whale).”.
Within the wetlands is Lake St Lucia, Africa’s largest estuarine system at 80 kilometres (50 miles) long and 23 kilometres (14 miles) wide at its widest point. The 360 square kilometre (139 square miles) lake is home to over 800 hippos and 1,200 crocodiles. It is South Africa’s largest inland body of water and is flanked by the highest vegetated dunes in Africa (second highest in the world), which are covered with forest and grassland.
We set off on the double decker cruiser for an afternoon of spotting hippos, crocs and all sorts of birds on Lake St Lucia. We have only been on the water for a few minutes when we pass a pod of hippos resting in the shallow waters. Hippos gain their name from the Greek for ‘water horse’ and can spend up to 16 hours a day submerged to keep their massive bodies cool under the hot African sun. At sunset they leave the water to graze and can travel 10 kilometres (6 miles) per night and consume 35 kilograms (80 pounds) of grass.
Every few metres we see more pods of hippos, sometimes with only they eyes and ears visible above the water. Each female has only one calf every one or two years and soon after birth the mother and calf join schools, which provide some protection from predators including hyenas, crocodiles and lions. Newborns can suckle underwater by closing their nostrils and ears and wrapping their tongue tightly around the teat and instinctively suckle in the same way when on land.
A goliath heron wades through the shallow waters. This is the largest of the herons and can be found in Africa, the Middle East and also the Indian subcontinent. It is an aquatic bird that inhabits shallow waters including rivers and lakes (both salt and fresh), marshes and swamps, tidal estuaries, reefs and sometimes mangrove creeks and even waterholes in woodland savanna, from sea level to 2,100 metres (6,890 feet).
A grey heron rests on a nearby branch. The grey heron is a very vocal bird and can be recognised by its many different types of calls. The heron is primarily a colonial nester and, although colonies are generally quite small there have been records of colonies as large as 800 to 1300 pairs. Above us another grey heron is giving a ‘Rwo’ call, known as an advertising call. This is part of the courtship process and is usually accompanied by various types of displays, creating an elaborated ceremonial.
As the lake begins to narrow we turn and head back towards the dock. We pass more pods of hippos and a young bachelor that throws open its mouth and snorts at us. Hippos can open their mouths almost 180 degrees wide and their strong jaws can crush a watermelon without any sign of exertion. As these giant creatures are herbivores, this ability is used to show off their formidable weaponry and dominance. When involved in territorial disputes or defending themselves (or their young) they must open their mouths wide in order to be able to effectively use their huge, forward-facing bottom incisors that can grow up to 70 centimetres (2 feet) long.
CRUISE: Silversea‘s Silver Cloud from Mombasa to Cape Town.