When one thinks of South Africa one imagines the vast plains of the bushveld, the vines of the Cape Winelands, wave-washed towns and Table Mountain. Some visitors come for the country’s deserts. Major lakes of South Africa rarely spring to mind.
But South Africa has lakes. One just has to know where to find them.
A lake is a large body of water localised in a basin or occupying a land depression that is surrounded by land.
Generally speaking: a lake is a lot larger than a pond. Most lakes are freshwater, but being salty doesn’t disqualify a body of water from being called a lake. One definite characteristic of lakes is that they’re not man made (no dams on our list)…
The major lakes of South Africa are beautiful. Many of them are havens for birds – water birds and otherwise – and they are found across the country, though most are close to the coast.
Factoid: South Africa has its very own lake district – a series of around 270 lakes and pans concentrated within a 20 kilometre radius near the town of Chrissiesmeer.
A guide to the major lakes of South Africa…
Known locally as Chrissiesmeer (Chrissie’s lake), Lake Chrissie forms the pinnacle of the lake district of Mpumalanga. The shallow lake is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country. It’s 9 km long and 3 km wide and renowned for its birdlife – around 80 different aquatic birds and 180 other species have been spotted in the area.
And there are no shortage of frogs. In fact, one of the area’s former names – Matotoland – is Swazi for ‘land of the frogs’. So, it naturally follows that the locals hosts an annual ‘frog hunt’, also known as ‘frogging safaris’, where you get to slosh in the mud in an attempt to retrieve one of the 13 local frog species to prove they still exist, before putting them back again.
Stay in the area at Chrissiesmeer Accommodation
Lake St Lucia
Lake St Lucia is huge. Functioning as the fulcrum of the World Heritage Site of iSimangaliso (meaning ‘miracle in Zulu) Wetland Park, it is not only South Africa’s, but Africa’s, largest estuarine system at 80 km long and 23 km wide at its widest point. 50% of all KZN’s water birds nest and roost here, the waters are home to 155 species of fish, while on its shores you’ll find hippo, waterbuck, kudu, reedbuck and other antelope.
The estuarine lake system has been under severe threat from drought (in 2016 the Narrows – narrowest part of the lake – dried up) but the park has begun an engineering project to remove dredge spoil which will save both the lake, and the livelihood of the people living on its shores).
Stay in the area at St Lucia Accommodation
Lake Sibhayi, (alternatively spelled Lake Sibaya), lies in between Lake St Lucia and Kosi Bay within the Greater iSimangaliso Wetland Park. It’s considered Southern Africa’s largest natural freshwater lake, but more interestingly for visitors is its exceptionally large population of hippo (and crocs – you don’t seem to find the one without the other).
Like Lake St Lucia, and Kosi Bay, it’s a Ramsar site with an incredible bird life. Best of all is the knowledge that the area is so well protected, you can’t even stay on the lake. Nothing but pristine lake.
Stay close to Lake Sibhayi at Elephant Coast Accommodation
This rather large, for a city lake, 250 hectare body of water lies in the south-western corner of the Cape Flats – a highly densely populated part of Cape Town. Back when Zeekoeivlei was first spotted by Van Riebeek, in 1656 when it took him a good two hours to walk around it, it was full of hippos.
Now the hippos wallow over in neighbouring Rondevlei, with only the occasional ‘escape’ when the odd confused young hippo wanders into the Strandfontein birding area and then into Zeekoevlei, trying to get home.
The ‘lake district’ of the Garden Route is a five lake system extending between Wilderness and Sedgefield. The lakes formed over time as water naturally dammed in the valleys between two dune ridges.
They’re a Ramsar site and an important wetland system for local water birds, particularly during winter – they head here when inland wetlands make it difficult for them to stay. Paradoxically the area is severely water-stressed and Sedgefield was the first town in the country to get a desalination plant.
One of the secrets of the Overberg, Flamingo Lake is a 1 000 hectare lake that forms the estuary of the Bot River. Between it and the sea is a narrow strip of sand dunes, and every now and again the mouth breaks open and the lake empties into the sea. So, it’s not surprising to see the odd jellyfish in the lake. It lies surrounded by nature reserve and wetlands so the birdlife and the sea and lake experience, despite holiday homes on its banks, is incredible.