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Original Source: yearinthewild.com

The Kosi Bay area of northern iSimangaliso Wetland Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal is one of the most photogenic and beautiful in the country. Just south of the Mozambican border, this tropical place of land and water has an air of paradise about it.

The coastline of iSimangaliso
The coastline of iSimangaliso

The Kosi area is not easy to get to know, however, mostly because of the complex landscape. The area is dominated by four interconnected lakes of differing sizes, running south to north, where an estuary flows out into the Indian Ocean. Between the sea and the lakes are forested dunes and empty beaches. The lakes are fringed with marshlands and raffia palm forests, while further inland to the west are rolling grasslands and pockets of swampforest. You’ll need a 4×4 to drive the sandy jeep tracks, unless you stay at a local lodge whose guides can take you around. Getting around is not as easy as it seems (a good GPS is important).

The coastline of iSimangaliso comprises mostly endless beaches, with parallel forested dunes. The far northern sector beaches near Kosi are famous for it’s turtles, both loggerhead and leatherback turtles, which come to nest here in November and December (the hatchlings emerge in February and March). The western inland areas of the Kosi Lakes are mostly grasslands and pockets of forest, with beautiful waterberry trees. There is not much wildlife here; instead you’ll mostl likely see cattle grazing. This part of the park isn’t fenced, and there are Thongan communities living on the park’s borders. It’s not clear as to where exactly the park’s boundaries are located in the Kosi area, so if you’re used to a more formal park experience (with gates, fences and formal security measures), you’ll be surprised by the somewhat nebulous integration of communities and protected land at Kosi Bay.

The Kosi lake system has been used for at least 700 years by local fishermen. Fish traps, made with thin branches tied together and impaled into the shallow lake floor to form a roughly circular enclosure, allow smaller, juvenile fish to swim through the gaps in the circular fence. The larger, adult fish – heading out of the lakes into the estuary and ocean – are guided into the traps naturally by the ebb and flow of the tides.

iSimangaliso - KZN - South Africa - copyright Scot Ramsay - www.yearinthewild.com

While the system has been sustainable for centuries, recently there are serious concerns that fish stocks in the lakes are being overly depleted, driven largely by the change from subsistence fishing to commercial exploitation. The fish traps are handed down from generation to generation of Thonga fishermen, who are allowed to fish in the lakes, but as happens with most natural resources, capitalism came along and turned a subsistence tradition into a money-generating enterprise. Conservation authorities are now somewhat betwixt and between as to what to do, given that the communities are seemingly entitled to continue their fishing traditions, and yet at the same time, the lake system is in need of greater protection from exploitation. Extensive gill netting also occurs, further depleting the fish stocks.

Thongan fisherman
Thongan fisherman

I recently stayed at Kosi Forest Lodge, which is located on the western border of the park’s Kosi section. I’d highly recommend a stay at Kosi Forest Lodge, because of the few places to stay in the area, it is closest to the enigmatic and largely unknown Fourth Lake (or Amanzimnyama, meaning “black waters”). This is the most southerly of the four lakes, and is off-limits to fishing or motorized craft, and its wilderness atmosphere speaks more to me than the larger and far more popular Third Lake (also known as Lake Nhlange, where the Ezemvelo campsite is located). While the accommodation, food and service is very good at Kosi Forest Lodge, I’d come back here again mostly to canoe on the lakes and walk in the forests with guides Joseph Sbiya and George Makhoba.

Kosi Forest Lodge
Kosi Forest Lodge
My kind of bathroom
My kind of bathroom

Kosi Forest Lodge’s park concession entitles them to take guests onto the beautiful Fourth Lake. This is the most southerly, and smallest, lake and probably the most pristine, because no fishing at all is allowed, and no motorised craft either. It’s also pure fresh water, whereas the other three more northerly lakes have varying levels of salinity, because of their direct connection to the ocean estuary. Fourth Lake is fed by the Siyadla River, a narrow channel fringed with thick forest and raffia palms, which are the favoured habitat of the rare palm-nut vulture (which you can sometimes see – I didn’t on this trip).

Needless to say, the Kosi Lakes are a bird lover’s paradise. More than 500 species are found here, and probably the best way to see them is on canoe with guide Joseph Sbiya. He’ll take you out on a canoe in the early morning to explore Fourth Lake and the Siyadla River.

Paddling on the Siyadla River...a really excellent activity, especially if you are a birder
Paddling on the Siyadla River…a really excellent activity, especially if you are a birder

It’s a wonderful experience! I was able to photograph several African Jacana with my 500mm lens (yes, I took it on the canoe!), and the low angle of the canoe and early morning light made for rewarding photography.

iSimangaliso - KZN - South Africa - copyright Scot Ramsay - www.yearinthewild.comThe only way to get half-decent photographs while sitting on a canoe and photographing birds or animals is to use AI Servo focusing and a really fast shutter speed of at least 1/4000 of a second. This may mean you’ll have to push up your ISO, but I’d rather have a slightly grainy image than one with motion blur.

Pied kingfisher taking off
Pied kingfisher taking off
Purple heron standing sentinel alongside a channel
Purple heron standing sentinel alongside a channel
African darter drying off alongside the Siyadla River
African darter drying off alongside the Siyadla River
Pied kingfisher with his breakfast
Pied kingfisher with his breakfast
White-breasted cormorants sunning themselves on poles of old fish traps
White-breasted cormorants sunning themselves on poles of old fish traps
White-breasted cormorant in flight
White-breasted cormorant in flight

On the boat trip across Third Lake with guide George Makhoba, we were able to get really close to a fish eagle, which was perching on one of the Thongan fish traps, no doubt waiting for an easy meal to present itself. I was amazed at how close we actually got before it flew away… we probably got within two metres or so, but credit to George who had cut the boat’s engines so we could drift right up to the eagle without it being alarmed.

A perfect autumn day on Third Lake, the largest lake in the Kosi area.
A perfect autumn day on Third Lake, the largest lake in the Kosi area

iSimangaliso - KZN - South Africa - copyright Scot Ramsay - www.yearinthewild.com

George Makhoba took me around the lake system, and across to Bhanga Nek, where the Indian Ocean meets long, pristine beaches and high forested dunes. When there’s no wind and the sun is shining, there are few other places I’d rather be. Very tempting to swim, so just watch out for the hippos and crocodiles! 

So, it's a Tuesday morning, 8am, and this is rush hour on the Kosi lakes. Guide George Makhoba coming to pick me up to take me across to Bhanga Nek
So, it’s a Tuesday morning, 8am, and this is rush hour on the Kosi lakes. Guide George Makhoba coming to pick me up to take me across to Bhanga Nek

iSimangaliso - KZN - South Africa - copyright Scot Ramsay - www.yearinthewild.com

The Kosi Lake system, like the rest of iSimangaliso’s wetlands, are full of hippo. In fact, the park has the biggest population of hippo in the country, with several thousand moving through the channels, lakes and rivers. They play a critical ecological role, keeping the channels clear of sediment and vegetation, so that the wetland system is kept flush with flowing, oxygenated water, nutrients, invertebrates and fish. Without the hippos, which play an important “landscape architecture” role, the fragile ecosystem of Kosi would probably collapse eventually. So, these curmudgeonly dredgers of the animal world certainly deserve our respect (that’s if they haven’t overturned your canoe yet, in which case they’ve already got your respect! Actually, chances are they’ll leave you well alone… but just be wary nevertheless.)

Shenton Safaris
Scott Ramsay

Photojournalist Scott Ramsay focuses on exploring the national parks, nature reserves and community conservancies in Southern Africa, taking photographs and interviewing the experts who work in these protected areas. Through his work, he hopes to inspire others to travel to the continent's wild places, which Scott believes are Africa's greatest long term assets. For more, go to www.LoveWildAfrica.com or www.facebook.com/LoveWildAfrica. Partners include Ford Ranger, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart, K-Way, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Hetzner and Globecomm.