Waving grassland plains frequented by elephant and giraffe … Sand forests abuzz with calls of narina trogon and purple-crested touraco … Shimmering wetlands where hippo and crocodile lurk … And you want to go ride in this ‘Place of Miracles and Wonder’? Of course you do!
– Photographs & Copy: Jacques Marais
There is this magical place known as iSimangaliso, situated way up high on the KwaZulu-Natal northern coast. Summer is the go-to season here, and you can bargain on heat and humidity for pretty much most of the year (this is especially true if you hail from anywhere south of the Tropic of Capricorn).
iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a 332 000ha natural playground, and it was officially declared as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999. The Zulu name translates to ‘Place of Miracles and Wonders’, and you’ll soon see why when you saddle up on your MTB here on what used to be known as the Elephant Coast.
This fat-tyre paradise delivers on slip-sliding riding along trampled hippo paths in the Western Shores estuary, or instead you can bomb wild and whippy-cattle tracks within the rugged Lebombo ranges. Further south, the Eastern Shores brims with single-track tripping through a mix of emerald sand forests and grassland plains, so diverse riding is the name of the game.
Sure, iSimangaliso may certainly not be ‘just around the corner’ for most of us, but if you’re in need of some serious summer lovin’, this is where you want to be on your bike. You do need to take into account that only key sections of the park are open to solo exploration.
Some facts before we get to routes: iSimangaliso rates as the largest natural World Heritage Site on the planet, stretching 230km from north to south, and encapsulating an astounding 8% of South Africa’s total coastline. This spectacular wilderness area encompasses half a dozen unique eco-systems, making it one of South Africa’s most diverse nature regions.
Various trail sections are open to visiting mountain bikers, but it is extremely important to first check with park management, as the park is home to all kinds of dangerous creatures. Hippos, crocs, elephant, rhino, mamba, bull sharks, pythons, leopard and the likes make iSimangaliso a special place, but not so much if you come face to face with them over the bars.
The ‘game park’ section adjacent to the Dukuduku Entrance Gate is easy to reach and safe, with a 99.9% chance you won’t bump into any bad-tempered beasties. Some of the tracks may be a sandy in places, but it’s an excellent spot for a quick play on the bike. Otherwise the option of group rides will appeal, either with locals who know the area, or an approved guide.
The Game Park Section …
This intermediate segment of trail traverses the Eastern Shores section of iSimangaliso, just to the north of St. Lucia. A mix of grassland and dense stand of sand forest, it stretches from the village to a fence demarcating the ‘Dangerous Game’ area, and makes for an easy pedal from anywhere in town.
Emerald forest loops, a few wooden boardwalk sections near St. Lucia, single-track, dirt road and a few tarmac connecting sections combine to make the ‘Game Park’ Route well worth a crank. All in all, you’ll ride in the region of 25km, while a few deviations or alternative routes here and there will allow for varied scenery along a second loop.
Some Game Park route highlights follow below …
The main road into St. Lucia – when coming from the R618 – will take you to a concrete circle at the entrance to town. Turn right here into the main drag (Mckenzie Street) and follow it to the end, passing through another traffic circle here.
You are now at the start of the Igwalagwala Trail, making for an easy 2km crank via gorgeous indigenous forest stands. Take your time and revel in the deep-forest sounds of abundant bird life (an incredible 526 species are found inside the park). Red duiker, mongoose, python and a variety of other small game may also be spotted.
You can also access the Igwalagwala Trail by following the road to the Ski Boat Club (there’s a great restaurant here, right on the banks of Lake St Lucia Estuary). On exiting the trail, you’ll cross a section of tar, but it is worth heading down to the estuary mouth to explore.
At the end of the tar road, look out for the estuary boardwalk adjacent to Sugar Loaf Camp site. Continue along the raised boardwalk for approximately 500m, passing through dappled shade cast by dense stands of mangrove trees growing right upon the water’s edge. Chances are excellent you’ll be forced to stop en route to check out hippo, crocs and an abundance of water birds.
At the end of the boardwalk and with the Indian Ocean glinting through the trees, continue on your way via a parking area surrounded by sand dunes. A quiet tarmac road stretches away beyond this, leading past the many beaches which makes St. Lucia famous: Lookout, Ingwe, Jabula or Main … go pick a beach and catch a tan!
Just before Main Beach, you can turn left up beach road for 1km, and then look out for a small servitude on the right-hand side. There’s no entry sign, but you can follow the concrete double track through tall grass for just on 80m. Turn left for 20m and you’ll see a vast open grassland with a perimeter of indigenous bush to your right.
You are now at the start of the Iphiva trail; follow the path in a northerly direction, keeping left when in doubt. The route will pass over a grassy dune before meandering into one of the many indigenous forest sections. There’s something really special about riding through this specific glade, as it is home to one of the park’s resident leopards … just thought I’d put that out there.
A scenic 2km crank eventually T-bones you onto the Iphiva Road; cross straight over and into the Game Park section, where some super single-track awaits. An abundance of plains game – including zebra, waterbuck, blue wildebeest, impala and warthog – await along just on 3.7km of game footpaths. Remember, animals always have right of way.
Once you reach the tarmac road, continue along the clearly visible trail to the lake side of the Game Park section. A mini-savanna awaits, with the route winding amidst grassy sand dunes dotted by verdant Umdoni (water-berry) trees. A junction after around 850m brings you to a fence and style.
It is not recommended that you cross here as you will then enter the Dangerous Game area, but do take the time to enjoy the magnificent views. Open grasslands and shimmering wetland pans unfold all the way to the lake shore, with plentiful game grazing upon the fertile plains.
Stay safe by turning left and choosing one of two options: an immediate right turn will follow the edge of a water pan, with a good chance of herds of zebra and waterbuck grazing here. Option #2 will traverse a dense section of indigenous forest, with a wooden bridge crossing a beautiful fern-fringed forest wetland.
From here, up the pace as you crank onto an open path running parallel to the fence line, all the way to the Lake St Lucia Estuary itself, a distance of approximately 2.8km. Both options will eventually get you to the Crocodile Centre near Dukuduku Gate. (This is a convenient and safe parking spot if you should do the trail in reverse).
One last word of advice: you may be outside the ‘Dangerous Game’ section, but both hippos and crocs frequent the estuary. These beasts are regularly spotted in the St. Lucia streets, bru … keep it tidy, especially if you plan on riding early in the morning or late afternoon.
Best time of Year
High summer can be very hot and humid so it is best to start out very early to avoid the heat. Be sure to check for thunderstorm activity before heading out. Winters are mild and dry although nights can be quite cool.
FAST FACTS BLOCK
|DURATION:||90 minutes – 2 hours|
|START POINT:||Main Street / Croc Centre|
||28º22’11.9″S / 32º24’38.5″E (St Lucia Bridge)|
|TERRAIN:||Tar, gravel roads and single-track|
||Open access ( no charge to ride)|
|BEWARE:||Plais game, hippo and crocs; sandy sections|
A 3hr drive from Durban will get you to St Lucia, a perfect launch pad into iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Follow the N2 north, then turn east on the R618 via Mtubatuba for 30km.