When I tell people that there’s a town in South Africa that hippos often wander through, they either think I am lying or am pleased that I’m re-affirming their belief that wildlife lives among all Africans. Whichever category you fall into, the truth is that there is a town where you can go hippo watching, on safari and do countless other activities. All you need is a vehicle to drive you there.
And what a stunning drive it is. As you head in Nothern KwaZulu Natal, you pass through vast fields of sugar cane, offering a cacophony of green hues, even in the midst of Winter. The successful growth of cane in the province is how my ancestors were lured here from the Indian subcontinent; where laborers were shipped out to the area as early as 1860 to cut the cane.
Northern KwaZulu Natal is what we call Zululand. The home of the legendary Zulu armies and in particular the ruthless, legendary King Shaka Zulu. It is in this part of Africa that Shaka forged the Zulu nation with his massive army of warriors (Impi’s). The Tugela River marked the boundary between the Zulu’s and the English colonizers. It is this river the British crossed in 1879, and in doing so invaded Zululand, bringing the onset of many prolific Anglo-Zulu wars!
After around 3 hours (if you’re coming from Durban), you make it to your destination. The wandering hippopotami (yes that’s the correct plural for a hippo) can be found in a quaint town called St. Lucia. And while they aren’t always roaming the streets of the town, they have been known to wander around, particularly at night. St. Lucia is a small town located in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park; it’s one of the country’s largest conservation areas, and is considered a highlight for any trip to South Africa. The jewel of the wetland is the vast Lake St. Lucia, home to large numbers of hippos, crocodiles, pelicans and flamingos.
What’s my starting point to visit St Lucia?
The starting point for this journey would be the city of Durban. International and domestic flights are served by King Shaka International Airport (DUR). If you live in Durban and have your own vehicle, St Lucia can easily be a day trip, although it would be a long day!
How do I get there?
The most convenient way is to rent a car and drive yourself. You can rent a car in Durban if needed. Public transport will not take you all the way to St Lucia from Durban. If you don’t drive, North Coast Runner is a private company that offers shared taxis from Durban to the Southern to the Northern Coast. Have a look at their schedule and pricing here.
Where should I stay?
The options for accommodation in St. Lucia is endless ranging from budget to luxury. We stayed at a midrange self catering option called Lake View Cabanas Resort. The location was ideal and suited our needs perfectly. A quick search on booking.com will show many options suitable for all budgets and preferences.
Why visit St. Lucia?
- Hippo Watching!
You will need to book a boat tour to see the hippos as they are not viewable from the shores. There are a multitude of companies offering these tours and I strongly suggest you book when you get to the town instead of online. The prices on the internet are more expensive.
We ended up going with Shoreline Boat Safaris mainly because their tour timings worked for us. The guide- Mdu- was very knowledgeable and ensured that we saw as many hippos as possible.
Check all options to see what works for you. Most companies have their premises on the main street in St. Lucia with boards clearly advertising what they offer. If you’re staying overnight, your accommodation will most likely also offer discounted rates.
Cost: Between R250 and R350
Duration: 2 hours
Panda’s rating out of 5:
- Safari at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve
Established in 1895, Hluhluwe game reserve is one of South Africa’s oldest – older than the Kruger National Park. Despite my many safari opportunities, I have to say that a safari in Hluhluwe – iMfolozi Game reserve is one of the best you can do. You are guaranteed to spot at least 2 of the so-called “Big Five” (Lion, Rhino, Leopard, Buffalo, Elephant) as well as some other beautiful animals in their natural environment. It also hosts the world’s largest population of white rhinos, despite poaching being a daily problem.
We visited Hluhluwe-iMfolozi on a half-day guided safari departing from St. Lucia at 5am. We spotted all five of the big five (even the leopard, which is very difficult to come across) plus a lot of giraffes, stunning kudu specimens, warthogs, vultures, zebras, and plenty of other species of antelopes and other animals.
While it is possible to do a self drive game drive in your own vehicle- and I have done this many times- I strongly recommend taking a guided safari as the guides are constantly in touch with each other ensuring that you get the best possible sightings. They also have very keen eyes and can spot things that you don’t immediately see. Not to mention all the valuable animal facts they educate you about.
We used Heritage Safaris and Tours for our 8 hour safari. I can’t recommend this experience enough; our guide- Lindo- made sure we had an incredible time and the breakfast they provided was also lovely.
Cost: Between R1150 per person
Duration: 8 hours
Panda’s rating out of 5:
- Sunset at iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site
Further away from St. Lucia is Cape Vidal- a seaside town known for pristine beaches and snorelling opportunities. While we didn’t get to that this time round, we instead drove to wards Catalina Bay lookout point which offers a stunning viewpoint from where to watch the sunset. Find the Google Maps link here.
The entire area surrounding the lookout point is actually a reserve and you’ll spot many animals as you drive along. This is also where we were charged at by an aggresive male elephent but that’s another story for another day!
Unless you’re staying in iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site, you’ll have to exit before 6pm to make your way back to St. Lucia (or elsewhere).
Cost: R60 per person + R65 per vehicle
Duration: As long as you want
Panda’s rating out of 5:
A visit to St Lucia should feature on your South African itinerary. It’s off the regular tourist track so those who like to holiday where the locals relax will enjoy the relative quietness of the area. Beyond just the hippotami viewing, St. Lucia can- and SHOULD- be combined with a visit to Hluhluwe Game Reserve to see elephants, giraffes and leopards inhabit the grasslands nearby; and of course driving further towards Cape Vidal will showcase beautiful viewpoints and beaches. There is something for everyone to enjoy making it essential to visit St Lucia as the perfect weekend getaway for locals or an ideal add on to a South African trip.
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Have you considered a visit to St Lucia? Or have I just put it on your list? Let me know in the comments below!