As a native South African it was very exciting to return to my homeland after an absence of four years – after a decade of democratic rule in South Africa – a nation blessed with rich culture and untold beauty. Tourism has definitely taken off in South Africa – to the main cities and, of course, the game parks being the big draw card. These I had never experienced, growing up in the city of Cape Town and I had always wanted to return to explore them. Now was my chance – a family wedding took me back to South Africa and a region I had never seen before. With most tourists flocking north to the ever – popular Kruger National Park, it was good to get some ‘inside’ information and go to the less crowded Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Park.
The park is made up of two connected parks, Hluhluwe in the north and Umfolozi in the south. The park is situated in the heart of KwaZulu – Natal, some 250 kilometers north of Durban and is the province’s premier reserve, and one of the biggest in South Africa, covering over 96,000 hectares of stunningly beautiful landscape.
Entering the park just before sunset, we were keen to get to our lodging before it was completely dark, but the short 14km to get there took longer than expected due to the diversity of animals encountered. Impalas just beyond the gate and some female kudus were the first surprises. A little further on, herds of zebra were crossing the road accompanied by some giraffes. I had no idea we would see so much so early in our trip. What would tomorrow then bring? In the end we really did have to press on as light was fading fast and we didn’t fancy losing our way or having to unpack in complete darkness. Before entering Mpila hilltop camp we also came across some nyalas ( a type of antelope) and warthogs. The excitement was mounting….!
The stars were coming out just as we drove into the camp. A list on the ranger’s office had our ‘tent’ details on it. We drove quickly, avoiding the impalas that casually wander through the camp. Solid wooden structures with a thick strong canvas covering give you the tent experience, but with hot showers, flushing toilets and a kitchen to boot – this is the luxury tent experience! A deck with a view and with a personal barbeque, the next couple of days were going to be incredible and all this for R250 (about 22 pounds pp per night). The calls of the wild would be our lullaby that night.
Up early for sunrise game viewing is a must – the animals are still out from their feasting under the cover of darkness. With easy maps and many different routes to take, it was common to be the only car on a particular stretch. Literally thousands of buck (impala and nyala) roam the park and it was all about seeing what else lurked beyond them. Zebra and giraffe were common too. Then far in the distance we spotted two white rhinos. The fate of the white rhino is one of the great success stories of South African wildlife conservation. One hundred years ago these animals were almost extinct with only about 20 left on the planet, but with the early game laws of the Natal colony and some inspired conservation strategies, these numbers grew to such an extent that the white rhino was the first species to be taken off the endangered list of the World Conservation Union. Now the park has over 1,600 – one of the largest populations of white rhino in the world, with many more being transferred to other protected areas.
Frantic picture taking ensued, edging closer in our vehicle. To our surprise, these beasts held their ground and stayed very calm even as our car approached within 30m of them. They did give us a good looking at though!
We parked our car at one of the animal ‘hides’ and walked the short distance (protected by wooden fences) to the lookout points. These hides are usually overlooking a water source and a focal point for thirsty animals during the warm afternoons. Some turtles and birds sunning themselves by the rock pool were out first ‘guests’. Then the soft sounds of a buck cautiously approaching. Absolute silence. The slightest sound would cause these animals to bolt. It’s easy to forget that predators could be lurking anywhere and this is a life and death situation – something they face every hour of every day! At first some impalas approached, then nyalas accompanied by kudus. The camera did not seem to be bothering them. Then behind a bush we spot a wildebeest (gnu), then another and another. They appear like soldiers in a line marching down to their drinking hole. There are over 30 of them and after drinking their fill, the frolicking in the mud begins until the dominant male starts stomping the ground, indicating the end to the fun. On cue, they disappear in military fashion.
On to the next hide and first a herd of zebra appear. Baby zebras drinking alongside their protective parents keeping a keen ear for any signs of danger. It’s amazing to be able to observe these animals in their natural habitat a mere 20-30 meters away, the animals being completely unaware of your presence. It’s almost as if the animals are taking turns. As soon as the zebras depart, in come the kudus. As soon as they are gone, in come the rhinos! This is exciting! Two of them are covered in mud. Having had their fill, they wander off, ignoring the impalas that have just arrived for their turn.
Sunset and drinks on the deck is a fine way to end off the day. We had no idea the game viewing had not ended. An inquisitive hyena decided to pay us a visit, obviously hoping to score an easy meal from our barbeque. After initially holding back it crept closer and closer, until it was only a few feet away from us. Darkness had fallen and in many pictures just the glowing eyes are visible. From the safety of our closable deck, we watched in disbelief as the animal casually strode within a couple of feet to salvage the remaining morsels left on our barbeque grid. Then with a quick laugh it was back into the bush for the main course.
Another early morning start saw us wandering into the bush for a game walk. These walks are guided and are to be highly recommended. Stories of stumbling across lions kept us fairly focused and continually on the lookout for them. With our guide being very unwilling to use his gun unless absolutely essential, this felt like the real deal. There is something earth-shatteringly beautiful about being in the African bush – the early morning sun filtering through the scattered clouds illuminating the valley and the river below. It is something magical – something you won’t soon forget! Herds of buffalo were seen grazing on the opposite hill and although we didn’t see any lions that morning, we saw some fresh lion paw prints and knew that we weren’t far behind. I must say I was relieved, yet exhilarated to walk back into camp.
That night a sunset drive revealed the highlight of the trip. A lone wild dog was seen running in the bush to our right. It appeared to be hunting, but the target was out of sight. We were all straining to see in which direction it could have run when a look in the rear view mirror revealed about 15 dogs running in our direction along the dirt road. Suddenly the car was surrounded, but initial personal safety fears were alleviated with the realization that these animals were not interested in us, but a lone female kudu. These wild dogs have a staggering 85% success rate of the animals they chase in the wild. A remarkable feat! We followed the chase for some time, dogs working as a team to surround the buck, using the road as a good flanking point. At one stage the desperate buck crisscrossing the road, almost collided with our vehicle and only an agile side step ensured the chase continued. The dogs weren’t far behind and even though we eventually did lose sight of the chase, I’m fairly sure the dogs had their dinner that night.
Next day we made our way into the northern Hluhluwe section of the park. The vegetation changes remarkably with the dense thickets giving way to more grass-covered hills, making for easier viewing access. Our trip was not complete without seeing elephant, hippopotamus, waterbuck, monkeys and numerous birdlife including vultures, circling what must have been a fresh kill. Although the cats (lion, leopard and cheetah) eluded us, we heard enough stories from fellow travellers to know that they were around and only time prevented us from seeing the full ‘Big Five’ (Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo).
Although short, my trip back to South Africa and especially the game park, was inspirational – something you will never be able to get from a zoo. The real bush and its incredible offerings give you a feeling of awe and an earthy appreciation of natural beauty.
|Wild dog in rearview|
For a world that is full of shopping malls, neon lights and instant gratification, this is something that shouldn’t be missed. I can’t wait to go back….