Witnessing the “Miracle” of iSimangaliso

In voyaging, weather is usually the single most important determinant of schedule. It is often said that setting  a firm schedule in voyaging is like setting yourself up for disappointment. On this Worldwide Voyage, we have learned to flexible in all things, but especially with timing. However, one thing that we definitely did not want to miss out on was the opportunity to visit the beautiful iSimangaliso Wetland Park in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa.

Zebras at iSimangaliso Wetland Park. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Zebras at iSimangaliso Wetland Park. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

This park – the first of its kind in South Africa – spans over 3,000 square kilometers and is home to an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. In 1999, the park was officially declared a UNESCO Marine World Heritage Site, signifying the tremendous importance that this park holds for the conservation of land and wildlife.  Nelson Mandela once noted that: “iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale).”

The UNESCO World Heritage Marine Programme currently has 47 sites around the world dedicated to conservation and stewardship. As partner organizations, the Polynesian Voyaging Society and UNESCO are both working to promote the importance of caring for planet Earth in their own unique way. Therefore, when we were invited to visit this amazing place by our partners at UNESCO, we jumped at the opportunity to learn about conservation and culture in the South African context.

Master Navigator, Kālepa Baybayan, joins in with Zulu dancers during the welcoming reception at iSimangaliso. (Courtesy of Polynesian Voyaging Society)

Upon arrival, we were greeted by Zulu dancers who eventually pulled some of our crewmembers up to dance alongside them. For the rest of the day, we proceeded to explore just a fraction of what the park had to offer, from the estuary to the grasslands to the ocean. Many crewmembers (including myself) saw animals that we had never seen in the wild before.  At times, it felt surreal that we – a small band of voyagers from Hawai’i – were on the opposite side of the world engaging with people and animals in Africa. We would often turn to each other and remind each other that this was really happening!

Aside from conservation of land and animals, one of the main stories at iSimangaliso, which means “Miracle” in Zulu, is the re-integration of Zulu people back into the lands that they were once forcibly removed from during the time of Apartheid. From offering jobs, education, skills development, and capacity building, the site managers and traditional leaders at iSimangaliso are striving to strike a balance between the needs of the Zulu community and the organization’s goals of conservation.

Induna Phillip Inkwanazi, a Zulu prince, was one of the gracious hosts that accompanied Hōkūle'a crewmembers during the visit. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Induna Phillip Inkwanazi, a Zulu prince, was one of the gracious hosts that accompanied Hōkūle’a crewmembers during the visit. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

We were lucky enough to spend the day with Induna Phillip Mkhwanazi and Baba Ephraim Mfeka, both notable leaders in the Zulu community at iSimangaliso. They told us the stories of their lands and their vision for the future of their people. These interactions are exactly what our voyage is seeking to cultivate, as we continue to discover different Great Navigators around the world. Their stories help to galvanize our cause and will serve to connect people across long spans of time and distance. If we’ve learned anything worth sharing in our voyages thus far, it’s that even with all the incredible diversity of people around the world, there are always more similarities than differences between us.

Crewmembers and community members take a photo together with community members and staff at iSimangaliso. (Photo by Nakua Konohia-Lind)
Crewmembers and community members take a photo together with community members and staff at iSimangaliso. (Photo by Nakua Konohia-Lind)


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Meet the Author
A photographer and National Geographic Young Explorer, Dan has spent his career trying to better understand the nexus between people in remote regions of the Asia/Pacific and their rapidly changing environment. Dan is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the Associated Press, and the Guardian. He believes firmly in the power of visual storytelling as a vessel for advocacy and awareness, which helps to better inform policy makers. In 2016, Dan started the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative seeking to empower the next generation of storytellers from the Pacific Islands. Additionally, Dan is a crewmember for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Fellow of The Explorers Club, and a member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. He received his Masters Degree from Harvard University