Where nature sets the tone
St Lucia, which lies in the heart of South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, has a long, splendid and sometimes stormy history. Recorded history goes back to almost a century before Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape, when it was christened Rio de Areias de Ouro (River of Golden Sand) in 1554 by survivors of the stranding of the Portuguese ship São Bento, but when the St Lucia River was renamed Tugela in 1575, the town became St Lucia.
Nature plays the lead role in the story of the town. You will find not only five biomes here – grassland, wetland, salt-water lake, forest and sea – but also four of the Big Five (no lions, but then you will easily spot whales if you’re ticking off the Big Six) and an estimated 2 000 crocodiles and 1 000 hippos.
An area of 368km2, including the lake, was declared a nature reserve on 27 April 1897, making it the oldest declared reserve in Africa. The name was later changed to the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park and eventually to iSimangaliso in 2007.
The past few years have seen major disagreements between the sugar-cane farmers of Monzi and park management, resulting in a drawn-out court case. In brief, the farmers want to artificially breach the mouth of the iMfolozi River so that sugar-cane fields established on the floodplain are protected, but the conservation authorities say this means millions of litres of fresh water then run into the sea, whereas it’s really needed to restore the balance between fresh and salt water in the lake. (In 2015, in particular, there was a major crisis when the drought resulted in the lake drying up. Dead fish by the thousands were scattered across the dry bed and the lives of the hippos, crocs and countless other animal species were under severe threat.)
In May 2017, the Durban High Court dismissed, with costs, the farmers’ application to use bulldozers to open up the river mouth. The court found that nature should be allowed to take its course. A few townspeople even believe the only thing that will rescue the situation is a severe storm, like Domoina in 1984, that will bring a lot of water and wash out the whole system.