In our quest to visit all 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South Africa, we took a very slight detour on our trip to Mozambique. Just south of the Mozambican border sits Kosi Bay, part of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO site and an extraordinary place.
After driving seven hours, we pulled up to Utshwayelo Lodge after dark and checked in. We were led to a cozy wooden chalet set amongst the trees. It was basic, with an outdoor shower, but felt just right in such a remote place. We settled on to the deck and listened to the far off sound of the waves punctuated by the mysterious animal chorus of the African wilderness. I couldn’t take my eyes off the sky. Far from any city lights, the stars are so much more numerous, so clear and bright. One of my favorite things about southern Africa is that the night sky is a totally new one to me; the new tapestry of stars still catches me off guard any time I look up, expecting to see the familiar map of constellations.
Despite sleeping poorly because of oversized ants invading our mosquito net, we were up early the next morning and headed into the park. Utshwayelo is at the very northern end of the park, which is spread out over 220 kilometers, sandwiched between the indian ocean and a string of lakes. Kosi Bay is the only accessible point of this northern end, a drive of only a couple of kilometers down a sand road. Tired of driving, we set off on foot. It was a 45 minute walk, which gave us a chance to take in the unique landscape.
iSimangaliso became South Africa’s first World Heritage Site because of its ecological uniqueness. It holds 5 distinct ecosystems within its borders, Africa’s largest estuary and the last swamp forests in all of South Africa. It is a nesting place for sea turtles, home to 50 percent of the country’s bird species, and has precious offshore reefs. In 2001, Nelson Mandela neatly summed up what sets the park apart: “iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the world’s 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).”
The hike down to the water was quiet, and the only other people we saw in the park were fisherman and one other pair of tourists. Interlocking lakes spill into one another towards the ocean, and strung out along the lakes were small reed structures, weaving like a decorative fence across the water.
These were fish traps, used for hundreds of years by the local people. The posts are set up in a hook shape, which guide the fish into a pen through a cleverly designed gate of sticks. They swim right in, but swimming out is much more difficult for big fish. In the morning, the fisherman climb into their “kraals” and spear any fish who have been trapped. The traps, which allow smaller fish to swim through and limit the catch any one fisherman can make, are an ingenious and sustainable method of fishing.
Past the estuaries, we reached the small beach of Kosi Bay. Here we kicked off our shoes and waded through shallow waters until we reached a big sandbar at the edge of the Indian Ocean. Wide open with pristine sand, it was a beautiful and peaceful beach. The name iSimangaliso means “wonder” or “miracle,” and that seems just about perfect title for this gem of a park.