Saving Lake St Lucia

An ambitious new plan is underway to restore the hydrology of Lake St Lucia, centrepiece of iSimangaliso Wetland Park…

Words: Fiona McIntosh

Pictures: Shaen Adey and supplied

5 Lake St Lucia pic Shaen Adey_MG_1241“We can jump it,” announced Andrew Zaloumis. I eyed the stream dubiously. It was a metre and a half wide and both the take-off and landing were muddy and pocked by hippo prints. Neither of us were spring chickens, never mind long jumpers. “Perhaps we should wade?”

I encouraged. It was typical of Andrew. The CEO of iSimangaliso Wetland Park has never lacked ambition or drive. Lake St Lucia was drying up, so he was tackling the problem head on. Our walk – from the Western Shores section of the park through Mafuta (Brodie’s Crossing) to the Eastern Shores, the narrowest part of the lake – was designed to highlight not just the devastating effects of the current drought, but to outline the new approach to managing the hydrology of the system.

In late January 2016, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority signed a R10-million contract with Cyclone Engineering Projects (Pty) Ltd, to remove some 100 000m³ of dredge spoil that was obstructing the natural course of the iMfolozi River, an attempt to reverse the effects of previous intervention with the natural process of the lake. Work began in May.

“Very few people have ever walked across the Narrows without getting their feet wet,” Andrew explained, as he baited me into the crossing. “Although in 2005, during the last big drought (2002-2013) I took a group of Bhangazi elders across the lake from Catalina Bay to Charters Creek.”

It was a historic journey. Before the removal of homesteads from the area in the 60s and 70s, those men and women had spent their childhood days on the coastal, eastern side of the lake. The shortcut through the shallows used to save a lot of time on the journey to isitolo saMafutha (the oil store), the Morrison trading store.

4 Lake St Lucia pic Shaen Adey_MG_1232

This year  (2016) the Narrows all but dried up again. “Conditions will become extremely dire if we do not have good rains and get iMfolozi River water into the Lake St Lucia system soon,” said Andrew.

I felt the sense of history, and privilege, as we hopped out of the vehicle close to where the trading store used to be located at Makakatana Bay. On the drive in we had encountered the largest herd of giraffe I’d seen – 30 and counting. Then, as we set off on foot, a Fish Eagle called. Reedbuck, bushbuck, waterbuck and zebra eyed us curiously, and Lilac-breasted Rollers dazzled as they flitted past.

Walking east on a game path we passed an old oil rig, legacy of the early 80s when French company Elf Aquitaine tried drilling for oil. “Just about everything has been tried here – oil exploration, plantations, missile testing. It’s a miracle that we have such a magnificent park here today,” Andrew said, as we strolled through Serengeti-style plains dotted with acacia trees. “This was part of the original reserve that extended one nautical mile from the lake,” he continued. Despite the drought the grass was green, the scenery pristine.

The change as we stepped onto the baked soil of the dry lake bed was sobering. In ‘normal’ years, the water would have extended for roughly three kilometres from here to the tree-lined Eastern Shores.

20. Lake St Lucia IMG_4026

Ephraim Mfeka, chairman of the Bhangazi Community Trust, grew up on the eastern side of the lake. His father, a traditionalist, had a wife there, near Lake Bhangazi, and a younger wife at Nondweni on the western side, where all his children would stay during term time. As a young boy, Ephraim would cross the lake regularly as he moved between the homes, a journey that took more than 12 hours.

“I don’t know what age I was when I started school,” he mused when I interviewed him. “When you could put your hand over your head and touch your opposite ear, you were old enough.” The crossing would involve wading for about a kilometre, he thinks. The water was deep, up to his shoulders. He recalls holding his father’s hand and ‘floating’ with just his tiptoes brushing across the muddy bottom. Those conditions were a far cry from today’s – we were walking on dry hippo tracks that were sunken, dusty paths with a distinct middelmannetjie.

Andrew cautioned us to be alert as we approached some reeds. “The stress levels of the hippo have picked up because of the drought,” he explained. “They are more aggressive than usual as there’s nowhere for them to go.” We were searching for an easy passage through dense vegetation, the iMbobo (gap in the reeds) that Ephraim’s father and fellow walkers would also have sought. “We were not so scared of hippo,” Ephraim told me with a smile. “They were only there sometimes, but the crocodiles were in the water all the time.”

At the start and end of term, Ephraim’s family would prepare for the crossing, waiting for the right wind. When the wind comes from the south the lake crossing becomes shallow; from the north it fills. If it was a southerly, they’d start walking around 4am.

“When we reached the water’s edge the women would take off their shirts and wrap them around sticks so that if a croc attacked they had something to shove down its throat to stop it submerging.” One day tragedy struck. A crocodile took his aunt. Half a century later he still remembers her last words, “Ngiyabona sengifile, sala kahle.”
I can see I’m dead, goodbye.

Today there are no crocodiles in the Narrows. We see no hippo either. A desiccated fish is the extent of our aquatic wildlife sightings. Depressing. The Lake St Lucia estuarine system is one of South Africa’s most important areas for the conservation of the Nile crocodile. And the lake is recognised as having the country’s largest viable population of hippo, listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List.

The most important nursery ground for juvenile marine fish and prawns along the KwaZulu-Natal coast, Lake St Lucia Estuary is also an important feeding and breeding area for many other endangered and endemic species. More than 50 per cent of all waterbirds in KwaZulu-Natal feed, roost and nest here, and, thanks to its shifting states of salinity, the variety ranges from freshwater species like ducks to pelicans and flamingos.

But the lake’s hydrology has proved a huge ecological challenge. After five years of far-reaching research it became clear that previous management decisions to prevent damage to the system from the canalisation of the iMfolozi River by sugar cane farmers had negatively affected the functioning of the Lake St Lucia system.

The dredge spoil deposited near the mouth to separate the iMfolozi River from the St Lucia Estuary, and the artificial breaching of the iMfolozi River into the sea to the south, starved the system of precious fresh water. (The iMfolozi should account for 58 per cent of the lake’s fresh water.)

“Things were worse in the severe drought from 1969 to 1972,” Andrew explained. The northern rivers ran dry and evaporation of the lake water and the influx of sea water (caused by dredgers keeping the mouth artificially open) brought huge amounts of salt into the estuary system.

13 Lake St Lucia pic Shaen Adey_MG_1404

With no fish in the estuary due to the high salinity, starving crocodiles had to be airlifted out. Hippos were unable to find fresh water to drink. The steady flow of water from the sea maintained higher lake-water levels, resulting in hyper-saline water that killed the shoreline vegetation. Without the stabilising effect of the vegetation, islands and shorelines were eroded, leading to the extinction of species.

It was a disaster. The centrepiece of South Africa’s first World Heritage Site (proclaimed in 1999 and now called iSimangaliso Wetland Park), Lake St Lucia is the world’s oldest protected estuary, first proclaimed in 1895. It was declared a Ramsar site – a Wetland of International Significance – in 1986.

Appropriate conservation strategies are of fundamental importance if the lake is to maintain its status as the one and only place of its kind on the globe. “When it was listed as a World Heritage Site we also looked at where else in the world there was a place with the same or similar biodiversity, ecosystems and superlative natural beauty,” says Andrew. “To me, quite simply, nowhere.”

He explained that droughts are part of the natural cycle. “But as the management authority we have to try to mitigate their effects on this fragile and biodiverse environment.” The removal of plantations and roads in wetlands, and the reintroduction of bulk grazers like rhino and antelope in the park, were integral to that process. But the big change has been the acceptance that conservation management must work with natural processes.

“The decision to remove the dredge spoil, and allow the iMfolozi to pursue its natural path northwards, marks the beginning of nature’s renewal and a return to wholeness for the Lake St Lucia system,” said Andrew.

We were now walking through sand, which was hard work. Pausing at a small rivulet, Andrew explained that the coastal dunes contribute about three per cent of the freshwater flowing into the lake system. In crunch periods like this, the lowest rainfall in 65 years, this freshwater creates seepages and small pools that give freshwater plants and animals a lifeline.

Ironically, as he finished his sentence the heavens opened, and a rainbow arced across the dark clouds. Unprepared, and without rain jackets, we quickened our step. The vehicle that would pick us up on the far shore was still a tiny speck in the distance.

We stopped again to inspect the remnants of a flamingo feeding ring, before the final push to the other side. My mind wandered back to Ephraim’s story. The Morrison store was roughly halfway between the two wives’ homesteads. “After crossing the lake we would stop at Morrison’s for umbhubhudlo (sweet water),” says Ephraim.

The Morrisons put a 20ℓ, galvanised-iron bucket of sugar water outside the store for customers, who would buy bread from the store to dip in the bucket. “The knife that was used for cutting the bread is displayed on the wall of Makakatana Bay Lodge, which is owned and run by Hugh Morrison and his wife Leigh-Ann,” he said.

“I recall my grandfather, Jock Morrison, describing how, during the crossing, the men would beat the water with sticks to ward off the crocodiles and hippos,” Hugh told me when I paid him a visit. Later, Hugh’s father and mother, Jimmy and Ursula, acquired a lifeboat from a ship in the Durban harbour, which was used to transport customers back and forth between the eastern and western banks of the Narrows.

25 Lake St Lucia pic Debbie Cooper

When I commented that I struggled to imagine this vast extent of baked mud and sand covered with water, Andrew was upbeat. “The signing of the contract with Cyclone Engineering is a moment that will stand alongside the day in 1996, when former president Mandela and his cabinet saved Lake St Lucia from dune mining,” he insisted. The removal of dredge spoil will enhance and improve the resilience of the system ecologically and, with it, the livelihood strategy of the 15 000 or so families living in walking distance of the lake.

That said, there’s no quick fix, he emphasised. “We’re putting the science into action, but natural forces are unpredictable.” We’re all holding thumbs.

Did you know?

During the drought of 1969-1972, with dredgers artificially keeping Lake St Lucia’s mouth open to the sea, salinity levels in the lake were three times higher than the sea. There were significant hippo and crocodile deaths. The pictures show some of the luckier animals being extracted by helicopter (to fresh water areas) by legendary conservationists Ian Player and Paul Dutton. The current management strategy meant that this kind of catastrophe was avoided even though, in the first few months of 2016, the area experienced its lowest rainfall in 65 years.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

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