St Lucia: The Wetland Park

'Dark shadows move below...'

Arriving in the sleepy town of St Lucia, it is difficult to imagine that I'd wandered into the largest estuary system in Africa. It's an unassuming little holiday resort, a tiny grid of B&Bs and bait shops swathed in tropical foliage. But at night, local revellers leaving pubs have learnt to check where they're walking: hippos regularly wander into the centre of town.

Arriving in the sleepy town of St Lucia, it is difficult to imagine that I'd wandered into the largest estuary system in Africa. It's an unassuming little holiday resort, a tiny grid of B&Bs and bait shops swathed in tropical foliage. But at night, local revellers leaving pubs have learnt to check where they're walking: hippos regularly wander into the centre of town.

It's just one hazard of living within a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, as I learn on a boat trip up the estuary. My group, made up of holidaying couples and headed by the deeply-tanned Deiric, drifts along the southern end of 328,000 hectare of rivers, lakes and sand dunes. The murky coastal waterways, straggling north to Mozambique, are home to thousands of hippos. Three-metre-long crocodiles live in the shallows (and grab a couple of anglers from the banks every year). Leopards prowl between the mangroves, and ragged-tooth sharks slip over from the ocean to prey on shoals of cob salmon.

Despite the shadowy creatures that call this home, the area has a serene beauty to it, best enjoyed from a boat. St Lucia town is invisible from our cruiser, hidden by a dense snarl of black and white mangrove trees, and we engine out into a wild expanse of chocolate-brown water stretching beneath a cloudless sky.

On the banks, we see bright yellow flashes amidst the reed: weaver birds, flitting in and out of their nests. Dark shadows move beneath the surface, but it is too hot for crocodiles. Turning a bend in the river, an altogether larger shape looms in the shallows. A pair of ears twitch above the surface, followed by two fleshy nostrils. Our first hippo, a mother with a two-day old baby bobbing by her side. She is nervous, and watches us from beneath pink lids, thrusting her head below the surface in a huff as we pass.

We drift on and Deiric points out a stately goliath heron standing stock-still on metre-long legs. Flocks of sandpipers whip over the water, fish-eagles call from the trees, and glossy black storks float in from the dunes. Close to the bank we pass weather-worn rocks gleaming in the sun, but a twitch of movement tells us it is a pod of hippos resting in the shallows, their heads beneath the surface.

Nearby is a larger pod, a frisky bunch who heave vast rounded jaws out of the water in a display of strength. They don't welcome onlookers, and rise up, breaking the surface with mottled backs and pink flanks. A young male sets the example and gives chase, snorting and creating a considerable wake. Our boat glides away, and Deiric explains that hippos can reach 12km per hour in water and a startling 25km per hour on land. Hippos kill more people than any other animal in Africa; they are aggressive and territorial, and have more pressure in their jaws than great white sharks; they can bite a man clean in half.

Our cruiser swings back towards town, and gliding downstream we come across a tiny fishing boat bobbing in between the banks. Deiric throws a bottle of rum into their net, and they whoop. We drift by, and I imagine crocodiles and sharks gliding beneath them as they settle back in the sun, flipping out lines waiting for the cob to catch.

St Lucia Safaris (00 27 35 590 1047) runs trips up St Lucia estuary for R110 (£10), and organises game drives and tours of Cape Vidal.

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