The first time that Isimangaliso national park's scenery caught our attention was in a television documentary prolific in aerial images.
The helicopter surprised herds that, far below, plowed through undulating pastures and the muddy water of swamps. They were crocodiles, suspicious buffaloes by the hundreds, hippos by the dozen, pink, like the leggy flamingos.
The third largest protected area in South Africa, Isimangaliso occupies an untamed immensity of marshes in a condominium with savannah and dunes that, over 300 km, almost enter the Indian Ocean into the interior.
Even called Lake St. Lucia, this landscape actually turns out to be the long winding estuary of the Umfolozi River, one of the largest in Africa, added by UNESCO in 1999 to its glorious World Heritage list.
Until some time ago, PN Isimangaliso was called the Greater Santa Lucia Wetlands Park. It is precisely at Saint Lucia that we arrive aboard the Nomad truck, coming from the high and rainy areas of Swaziland and the Lesotho frosts.
Alberthram TENK Engle, the guide and driver, and Ricardo Juris, the cook and assistant, were well acquainted with the village's holidaying aura, associated by South Africans with both rest and adventure.
In agreement, the sunny afternoon is still halfway through, they park the vehicle and inform through the microphone they used to communicate with the passengers: “Okay, folks, now it's time to settle down. Around four-thirty, we went out for showers.”
The Windy but Very Bathing Coast of Jabula Beach
We were happy to join the group. Twenty minutes after the hour, we were already facing an endless beach, Jabula. A wooden panel catches our attention.
It takes us back to something that had surprised and frustrated us years before in north-east Australia, Queensland, where bathing beaches proved rare.
The faunal nuisance of the sharks present in a large part of the coast of South Africa was not enough, in the warning, they were also joined by the threat of crocodiles and hippos.
In more remote areas of the park, also from elephants, rhinos and leopards. There, where we were, the first three appeared from time to time. It was something that didn't seem to worry a growing band of South African bathers eager for the pleasures of the sea.
If the South Africans – Tenk and Ricardo involved – ignored the threat, who were we to despise them. We slip into the darkened and somewhat frantic threshold of the Indian Ocean. The tide had gone out so that the depth of the water was visibly diminishing and precipitating the successive crashing of waves.
We felt that, on the whole, this would keep us safe from sharks and crocodiles, in those parts, on the Nile, not marine like their counterparts on the Big Island.
We weren't seeing hippos emerging from the middle of those successive waves either, and the beach was still full of people.
Supposedly safe, we continued to jump against the waves, drill through them and, whenever possible, ride them, in a delicious aquatic exercise with which we made up for the days before spent at the PN Kruger, the Blyde river canyon and other iconic but far from the sea.
Tenk and Ricardo, who are also used to life along the fishing coast in the vicinity of Cape Agulhas and in need of alleviating the stress caused by the responsibility for the journey and for the group, dived and splashed with us and to match.
The wind that blew along the coast, from south to north, swept the outside. In synergy with the tepidity of the Indian water, he postponed the end of the bath for a good twenty minutes.
When we returned to dry land, the seafront was already a kind of recreational park, full of families and their young offspring, couples and Zulu teenage friends, all given up to an invigorating conviviality on the soaked sand and unfurled spaces.
The sun soon fell behind the opposite forest and the beach abruptly cooled. Tenk waved us back to “Tommy”, the truck we were following.
Hluluwe-Infolozi National Park: Indian to Interior Kwazulu-Natal
We had dinner at the Shonalanga Inn, where we had checked in, with an ethnic show and a small lesson in Zulu dialect. Soon after, still early, we retired to the room that we had.
The next day, we would explore the Hluluwe-Infolozi National Park departing before dawn.
Taking into account the temperature of the past afternoon, the latitude at which we were and the proximity of the coast, we would hardly anticipate it, but as soon as we put our nose out of the room it was quite cold.
Two guides from the park received us and distributed us to the jeeps they were driving, with blankets, in case we were not going to freeze on the way.
The trip to the northwest interior took nearly an hour. Upon arrival, during the day, while guide Sipho Mtshalo explained to us what we were going to find in the park, we were able to contemplate it with eyes to see. We were in charge of what the group immediately identified as an Eddie Murphy lookalike.
A clone of the actor, himself the creator of jokes after jokes but that, due to the closed and monotone way he spoke, no one could understand.
Much like Murphy in “A Prince in New York”, Sipho proved to be, more than sure, something vain. He was buttoned up immaculately in the blue trench coat that served as his uniform, with a small South African flag sewn over his heart.
Combined it with a fur hat, adventurous enough but elegant, of course. Well, as he confessed to us, Sipho already had a good part of what he wanted in his life, including four women and – he still boasted – many cows.
Even so, after just a few minutes, he was already insinuating himself shamelessly with one of the two Austrian participants on the trip. Jackie is not amused again. Let him see as much as he can without getting rude. Sipho conforms.
Finally, he was able to concentrate on the mission he was in charge of: detecting the park's fauna and telling us about its eccentricities.
Hluluwe-Infolozi, an Ancient Wilderness of South Africa
Hluluwe-Infolozi is Africa's oldest nature reserve. Dotted with shrubby hills, it's also the only state park in South Africa where visitors can see all the animals of the ever coveted Big Five.
We soon came across rhinos, herds of buffaloes and elephants. Sipho's companion guide even brought the jeep that was driving too close to some of the pachyderms. One of them, furious at the insult, forced him into an emergency reverse gear.
Lions, we saw them from afar, from a viewpoint that we shared with several families afrikaans, in the company of men forty and fifty who, despite it being just after ten in the morning and leading the families through the park, slurped beer at a strong pace.
After three and a half days at PN Kruger, Hluluwe-Infolozi did not add worlds and backgrounds to the safari history we already brought and which we continued to enrich. The park, however, is home to one of the largest populations of white rhinos in the world.
Without wasting almost any time in their search, we were dazzled by several specimens just a few meters away.
Combined with the spacious and gentle settings of those African confines and the smiling and caricatured character of Sipho, this gift ended up making up for the painful night awakening and the sleepy and frigid lethargy in which we found ourselves until the sun rose over the horizon.
We return to Santa Lucia around lunchtime and take the opportunity to investigate more of those places. If in Swaziland we were surprised by the predominance of Galp service stations, we should have already foreseen that the Portuguese Discoveries also in the Zulu coastal lands must have left a mark.
The Catastrophic Passage of Alvares Cabral to Largo
A little more than half a century after Bartolomeu Dias rounded Cabo das Tormentas, the Portuguese ship “São Bento” came from Cochim commanded by Fernão de Alvares Cabral (son of Pedro Alvares Cabral) and was overloaded.
It sank at the mouth of the Msikaba River, near the present-day city of Port Edward. Inspired by the abundance of yellowish dunes, the surviving crew for the first time christened the region at the mouth of the Umfolozi River the Rio dos Medos de Ouro.
Later, the navigator and cartographer Manuel Perestrello, renamed the Santa Lucia area, on this saint's day. The name ended up “borrowed” from the northernmost area of Zululand we were walking through, the unofficial region once led by the famous and respected King Shaka kaSezangakhone, better known as Shaka Zulu.
Isimingaliso National Park: the Lush Umfolozi River Estuary
Finally, we dedicated ourselves to the Isimingaliso National Park. Lacking the means for a comprehensive incursion into the amphibious immensity, we board one of the boats that travels along the Umfolozi River to the eminence of the Indian Ocean and then back.
By that time, the sun was approaching the horizon once more.
It gilded the water on the west side and, on the contrary, warmed the green of the vegetation. At the same time, the thick skin of the countless hippos that had taken over the river was fierce, indifferent to the Nile crocodiles and the bull sharks that also proliferated there.
From the top of the deck, we saw them all, including the sunken fins of opportunistic marine predators that had become used to brackish water and to ambush prey in the shallow stream.
At a certain point, between riverside cane fields and a forest dotted with fan palms and the like, the Umfolozi bumps into the sediment barrier that long ago robbed it of the Indian Ocean.
Then, with the big star falling behind the ocean and several hippos yawning with inertia and delight, the pilot reverses gear.
As we return to the embarkation point, thousands of fluttering swallows rip through the twilight above. And a second group of Zulu youths secure passengers with displays of warrior dances.
His display is rich in the attack and defense movements that made life so difficult for rival tribes in southern Africa, the South Africa's first settlers, the Voortrekkers (pioneers) boers from which Tenk and Ricardo are proud to descend.
And to the British who followed and who, at the cost of much blood and even more effort, aggregated and dominated the entire country, including the wild and tribal Zululand that had dazzled us for several days.
This article was created with the support of NOMADTOURS.CO.ZA and created during a 20-day South African Explorer itinerary between Johannesburg and Cape Town passing through Swaziland and Lesotho,