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Safari on a shoestring: sensational South Africa

Dung beetles have right-of-way here! Nothing else, not even pedestrians. Just dung beetles.

I’m in South Africa and road signs proclaiming this law are everywhere. I first encounter the beetles in a game reserve, busily cleaning up after rhino drop their loads. The males roll the dung into huge balls to attract females. And once successful, he rolls the ball with all his might while his mate rides on top. Dung beetles are part of the natural recycling system in Africa that keeps the continent clean and fertilizes the soil.

“Are you as excited as I am?” I say when my travelling companions arrive in Durban. We’re all over 60 and beginning our South African adventure with two safaris. We had chosen two lesser known game reserves, which are home to the Big Five—lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo, as fascinating contrasts. Both are smaller and cheaper than the famous Kruger National Park, but have excellent accommodation choices, are malaria-free, and allow the use of private vehicles for game drives. Our first safari is an easy 280km-drive (150 miles) north of Durban at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, a local favourite.  It’s the oldest reserve in South Africa (est.1895), once the hunting grounds of Zulu kings, and pronounced “sh-shluey,” preferably with a spit! Here White Rhino rule.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park

Our excitement surges when a warthog family with tails aloft greets us at the park gate. We meander along the rust-red dirt roads up hills covered with lush vegetation and through valleys with rushing streams to Hilltop Camp. Zebra and Cape Buffalo, the most dangerous animal in Africa, ignore our passing but enchant us.

The thatched lodge, at the heart of Hilltop where Vervet monkeys play, overlooks a wide, green valley. I push open the door of our comfortable cottage and my first sight is a warning about marauding baboons. “That’s why the windows have thick grills.” Fred says. “Don’t leave the patio doors open—ever!”

By 5:00 p.m. in mid-January, it’s not cooled down much. Armed with camera gear and binoculars, we scramble into the back of a Land Rover for our first 3-hour dusk drive. The canvas roof provides shade, but otherwise it is a high, open vehicle that ensures we see over the tall grass and shrubs.  We’re off!

Suddenly we stop and the ranger points out a couple of Nyala (antelope) on a distant slope. Then over the next rise, a rare Black Rhino grazes not 50 feet away. We turn another corner and nearly run into a giraffe. It’s hard to not shout with delight but we stay quiet. After that, the game appears thick and fast until the sun sets. As a photographer, I welcome the “golden hour” but later the fading light is challenging. The supreme moment comes after dark when we disturb a lion in the middle of the trail. He hightails it into the bush but stops ten feet away, and with the aid of a spotlight, I can count his teeth when he roars.

For two days Hluhluwe never stops thrilling—in a pearly dawn, seven White Rhino on a hilltop and two cuddling in a wallow, an elegant Impala with his harem in a sun-dappled glade, seven giraffe with zebra at sundown, a half-submerged crocodile, and herds of jet-black Cape Buffalo.

We quickly learn where and how to spot game. Employing our new skills, we use our rental car on a self-drive through the southern section of Hluhluwe before returning to Durban. We never see leopard or elephant here, but the latter are to come.

After a short flight to Port Elizabeth, it’s 60kms (37 miles) to Addo, a small, very African village where I get my laundry done by hand for $7.00. The next morning dawns hot at Addo Elephant National Park where grey-green scrub covers dry hills—quite a change from Hluhluwe’s lushness. We book an afternoon guided tour, then head for a ridge overlooking the park, seeing little along the way. We stop at a viewpoint where a sign reminds us to “Beware of the lions” and spy an enormous herd of elephant in the valley below. Kicking up a plume of dust, we hurtle down to three waterholes. My long lens is useless—I’m now too close to the elephants. Two hundred strong, the herd surrounds us—some are grey and others covered in the rust-red dust. We marvel at their deep rumbles and grunts. A teen-ager leans on the car, while a monster bull trumpets a warning.

“I wonder if our insurance will cover a dent,” Jan muses.

“This herd is thriving,” Fred, the biologist, points out, never lowering his binoculars. “Just look at all the babies and juveniles.” He sports red circles around his eyes all day.

A nearly-newborn slithers down into a big mud hole and disappears underwater. Up comes his trunk as a periscope. A female rescues him by shoving him up the slippery bank. Soon I realize that this muddy waterhole is their swimming pool and each family group gets about half an hour playing in it. Some wallow, while others squirt liquid mud over their backs to cool down. All emerge glistening in the noonday sun. On the right is their drinking hole where the elephant stand at the edge sucking a gallon of water up their trunks before squirting it into their mouths.

Our cameras nearly explode—it’s steamy in the car with windows open as our shutters fire repeatedly. After two hours we need a beer and lunch. On the road back, inadvertently we get between a female in heat and a randy bull elephant—we hold our breath knowing that a male in musth can be unpredictably violent. Luckily the bull is more interested in a mate than us and, after five anxious minutes, he follows her into the bush.

It’s 40C in the open-air restaurant. “Make it three Heineken, please,” Fred says. “I’m having two!”

“And I’ll try the Kudu salad.”

We eat fast—the humidity is brutal—and Jan cancels our afternoon booking. The air-conditioned car is the only way to continue. On our way to Addo’s other waterholes looking for different game, the afternoon sun has bleached the sky and deepened the shadows.

“They’re probably all snoozing,” Jan says. But, no, we find a family of Red Hartebeest, Egyptian geese and Ibis on the edge of one pool, warthogs browsing at another, and several regal Kudu stare at us from the bush. [IMAGE: Ferguson09.jpg]

We are drawn back to the elephant at day’s end. Two juvenile males spar on open ground, while many gently touch trunks in greeting. Mothers hum to their babies to keep them close as they tear strips of bark off prickly brush.  I concentrate on photographing their eyelashes and wrinkles. Dung beetles scurry across the road, maneuvering their balls between massive grey feet that are constantly moving. Eventually we drag ourselves away, and mentally delete number two from our bucket lists.

The memories of Hluhluwe and Addo fill my dreams for months—Africa has captured my heart.

More by Julie Ferguson at her blog, or follow her on twitter.

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