THESE beaches are made for walking. They stretch for golden miles, and you don't have to walk far before finding yourself alone. Fabulous. Of course, they are also made for fishing, lying about in the sun and sand-castle making. We're just walkers who revel in the wide, wild expanses; the lonely sea and the sky.
But, although Cape Vidal is synonymous with seaside activity, there is a second side to it that makes it one of the loveliest, most interesting places in South Africa. The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, based on its superlative natural beauty, exceptional species diversity and outstanding diversity of habitats - terrestrial, wetland, coastal and aquatic.
The 332,000ha park contains three major lake systems, eight interlinking ecosystems, most of South Africa's remaining swamp forests, Africa's largest estuarine system, 526 bird species, 25,000-year-old coastal dunes - among the highest in the world - and is the site of 700-year-old fishing traditions.
The sheer size means we can't claim to have experienced the whole of it - we stuck largely to the gorgeous coast (there is 280km of it), having promised our six-year-old a beach holiday.
It's a good place for a family holiday. Along with the wide, sandy beaches come wetland plains populated with red duiker, waterbuck, zebra, warthog, kudu and - when the park is considered as a whole - four of the Big Five. Only lions have not been introduced, and there are plans for that.
The lower section can be explored from the campsite or bungalows at Cape Vidal or, indeed, from the village of St Lucia, although this means you will have to drive into the park each day. The campsite is marvellous, with the park authority having spent several million rand upgrading it last year (camping is also possible at Kosi Bay, Mabibi, Sodwana Bay, uMkhuze, False Bay Lake, the St Lucia Estuary and Maphelane). The bungalows, however, are a tad tired and need similar treatment. Our return will see us camping or braving the bungalows again. Being "right there" is a privilege, and one of the loveliest "events" of our stay was getting up for sunrise on the beach.
We opted for mornings walking, swimming, snorkelling and boogie-boarding. During the heat of the day and into the afternoon, we explored the drives that loop across the wetland, some offering glorious views of the huge red dunes. Every bend brought us a bird, a herd of zebra, a kudu or some resting waterbuck.
One of the highlights of this section are the hides, especially for bird-lovers. Each is entered via a path decorated delightfully with spoor castings made by students who are part of the park's internship programme. Thoughtfully designed and beautifully built, some with more than one level, they offer a comfortable place to sit and rest your camera lens while watching grunting hippos and myriad birds, from malachite kingfishers to woolly-necked storks.
At Mission Rocks, yet another gorgeous beach in the south of the park, we walked north to a series of caves that are home to bats. Despite the noxious smell, it is a fascinating sight, and their ultrasonic squeaks can be heard from the beach. Walking back, we pottered about among the rock pools, gasping as a sea snake skittered away.
Apart from dropping in to get a permit for a gorgeous 4x4 drive north along the iconic and beautiful Lake Sibaya, we gave Sodwana Bay a skip. The drive, hooking north just outside the popular diving resort, takes you out of the park, then back into it to stop at the beaches at Nine Mile and Mabibi. From the park gate, you take a guide who doubles as a car guard while you spend time on the beach. Another rifle-toting guard told us "small boys" break into cars there, but his presence left our vehicle windows intact.
At Nine Mile Beach you walk, incongruously, through pine trees planted by the parks board in the 1950s to stop the dunes shifting. Their removal - and the removal of the pines that shade the Cape Vidal bungalows - is on the cards.
Our trip from Cape Vidal to Kosi Bay took us, thanks to iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis, through a part of the park's Western Shores area (the wetland on the western side of Lake St Lucia), which will open to the public next month.
Herds of buffalo munch away in fields of soft grass while hippos hunker down in deep pools and trumpeter hornbills make their eerie, baby-like cries in the branches overhead.
Then, just as we thought we had truly found paradise, we entered Kosi Bay, unpacked ourselves into a "six-sleeper" park-authority house and walked about 100m to the lake to watch the sun go down over its limpid waters.
The ancient fish traps that fill the Kosi Bay estuary are beautiful in their functionality and fascinating in their mechanics. The fish are not caught on their way into the four-lake system at Kosi Bay, but are guided by heart-shaped "arms" of sticks woven together into a porthole through which they swim into a "kraal". There, they are speared.
A lazy morning's boat tour of the lakes was a real highlight. The area is the only place where all South Africa's mangrove species occur, and it houses the country's only naturally occurring Raphia palms.
There is fishing at Bhanga Nek, which we skipped, but we did take an entertaining guided tour to Black Rock, a scoop-shaped bay with a short peninsula of terrifyingly rough black rocks and romantically pounding seas. But I hear it can be a wonderfully calm snorkelling venue.
Driving around the area is done under the guidance of a guide, quaintly called a "ghillie", as if you have incongruously landed in a hot and humid Scottish trout-fishing resort. At first it felt as though hiring a guide was taking the path of timidity, but he was a boon. Many of the roads are not signposted and ours told us he had met drivers anxiously shaking their GPS devices at yet another junction. It's entirely believable in that maze.
Back "home" at Kosi Bay, we braaied fish and enjoyed balmy nights under the stars.
The name iSimangaliso means miracle and wonder, which aptly describes this unique place.
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