The rumble of tour buses and the somewhat raspier rattle of open game viewing vehicles are a constant through the small town of St Lucia, perched on a narrow strip of land between the Indian Ocean and the Lake St Lucia estuary.
Just three streets wide, the town’s main thoroughfare is packed to the gills with accommodations, restaurants and curio shops to feed an house the seemingly endless flow of (mainly) foreign tourists all eager to snap a photo memory of the ‘real’ Africa.
And, real it is! Only recently a Cape town doctor and his wife were walking back to their lodgings after dinner and were attacked by a hippo. Fortunately, a passing motorist gave the beast a nudge with his vehicle, the hippo releasing the doctor with a nasty but not life-threatening bite.
Having hippo and other wildlife wandering around the streets at night is not uncommon and we got the feeling something the locals rather enjoy – and so they should, as the story could have worked out quite differently.
Lake St Lucia is an eco-wonderland, home to more than 80% of all the bird species in South Africa and the playground of hundreds of hippo and crocodile – along with about 60 Bull sharks that became trapped in the lake.
The last time the lake was full was in 2000 – also the last time it was open to the sea and the sharks – and the savage drought that raged since then reduced the surface area of the lake to just 10%. With no fresh water coming in the hippo and crocodile that could, moved back into the uMfolozi River, while thousands of fish died in the chronically increasing saline waters.
By November 2016, with good inflows from the uMfolozi River, 90% of the Lake’s surface area was covered and levels are maintaining. Salinity is low and the hippos and crocodiles have returned in numbers – but the eco system is not yet out of the woods.
The restoration of the Lake St Lucia system is now making a visible difference to the landscape and nature. From the vantage point of the St Lucia Ski Boat Club and Estuary Boardwalk, the view across to Maphelane is dramatically different to that of several months ago, as the dredge spoil and other deposited material is steadily removed.
Lake St Lucia forms part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and its CEO, Andrew Zaloumis, says: “The removal of the first 96 842 cubic metres of material obstructing the natural course of the uMfolozi River has begun to reverse its negative impact on the hydrological and ecological functioning of the 350 km2 Lake St Lucia estuarine system.
“This is South Africa’s largest and ecologically most significant wetland rehabilitation project. Water levels in the Lake St Lucia system have increased dramatically on the back of the recent rains, which resulted in strong flows from the uMfolozi River into Lake St Lucia.
“Ninety percent of the Lake’s surface area is now covered and the Lake is once again a single body of water no longer compartmentalised and joined via the Narrows to the mouth.”
For now the crisis has been averted and the right things are being dome to restore the natural workings of the system – and, thankfully the tour buses rumble on.