Magical Maputaland

Imagine discovering a wonderful wilderness world where lush wetlands verge on bountiful coastal forests. Visualise a region overflowing with game reserves and nature conservancies teeming with a rich and diverse blend of fauna and flora.

Picture a pristine marine ecosystem where sultry saltwater currents swirl against unspoilt coral reefs, caressing tropical beaches stretching as far as the eye can see. And within this perfect paradise, for one moment envision governmental organisations and private enterprise forging a partnership with rural communities, working together towards a common goal. Imagine all of this is not a dream ... now imagine Maputaland.

Once one of South Africa's best-kept tourism secrets, the past decade has seen Maputaland fast evolving to become one of our country's most popular wilderness destinations. Game fishermen, 4x4 fundis and eco-tourists have long journeyed into these northernmost parts of Kwazulu-Natal, but it is only very recently that the many attractions inherent to the region gained widespread appeal.

Most notably, this tourism upswing may be attributed to key developments in the region, foremost the declaration of the greater St Lucia wetlands system as a World Heritage Site and the re-introduction of the elephant into the area.

Encompassing a vast swathe of Northern KZN, Maputaland stretches from the scenic splendour of St Lucia in the south to South Africa's border with Mozambique in the north. Enfolded between the azure shimmer of the Indian Ocean in the east and the rugged Lebombo mountains in the west, the region is blessed with a diverse range of ecosystems and a fitting degree of natural splendour.

St Lucia Wetlands

©Roger de la Harpe

Together with the world-renowned St Lucia wetlands, the Kosi Bay estuary and majestic Lebombo ranges, the turgid flow of the Pongola shapes the topography of this ancient land. Surging from the sluice gates of Lake Jozini - a 17 000 hectare body of water once known as the Pongolapoort Dam and regarded as one of the follies of the old regime - the mighty river meanders along the eastern base of the Lebombo mountains.

En route to the ocean, the Pongola merges with the Igwavuma and Usuthu Rivers along a course graced with placid natural pans and spectacular pockets of sand forest. Both the waterway and dam have become integral to the sustainable development of agriculture and conservation projects in the region, and partnerships between the Department of Water Affairs, KZN Wildlife and private operators aim to unlock its full potential through careful planning and consultation.

Where oceans once submerged the land millions of years ago, the valleys and plains and mountains of Maputaland now reverberate with a history rich in cultural diversity. The simplistic lifestyles of the Nguni and Thonga people contribute to a human tapestry brimming with myth and legend, none more so than the lore surrounding Border Cave.

Set in the brooding recesses of the Lebombo massif, this cave is reputed to be the site of the longest continuous habitation known to humankind. Archaeological relics span an incredible 120 000 years - more than three times longer than any other known site - and plans are underway to sensitively develop sections of the cave as a tourism information centre.

Contemporary life for most of the people of Maputaland still revolves around subsistence farming and fishing, thus compelling KZN Wildlife to incorporate their fate, and that of future rural generations, into land management strategies concerning the parks and reserves under their control.

Wonderful Wildlife of Maputaland

©Roger de la Harpe

Together with the St Lucia Heritage Park and the Pongola Game Reserve (the oldest game reserve in South Africa and the second oldest in the world), Maputaland boasts further conservation success stories in Tembe Elephant Park and Ndumo Game Reserve.

Add to this Mkuze Game Reserve and the renowned Big Five reputation of Phinda Game Reserve, and everything indicates a resounding conservation achievement. All of this will however be to no avail if the large local population, some of them living under extreme conditions of poverty, do not benefit from the financial proceeds of this initiative.

But look beyond the game fences and so much more of Maputaland's magic will beckon. Discover the serenity of Kosi Bay and its coastal lake system, observing young Thonga men patrolling their fishing kraals with a spear in hand; walk along secluded beaches where shy leatherback and loggerhead turtles lay eggs during their annual migrations; marvel at Sibaya's mystical inland lake or scuba into technicolour, underwater wonderland along some of our planet's last pristine coral reefs.

Imagine Maputaland... you can be sure it will deliver more than you can imagine in even your wildest of dreams.

By Jacques Marais

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