Our escape from Durban is steady but swift, a driving rain hurrying us on along the road unspooling ahead of us like a dark wet ribbon through rural Kwazulu-Natal (KZN) province. Emerald foliage cascades down either side of the highway, the scent of rain on dust greets us as we down our windows and thrill to the prospect of exploring the wilderness in the legendary kingdom of Zululand. These ancient vistas are home to some of South Africa’s finest game reserves— Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, Thanda Private Game Reserve, Thula Thu la Private Game Reserve, and more.
Our destination is Hluhluwe-Imfolozi. We spend a good part of the drive trying to get our tongues around Hluhluwe—‘shlu-shlu-wee’. We are travelling to the great expanses where King Shaka (1816-1887) hunted animals with inordinate fearlessness and rose to become a charismatic warrior king. It’s not unlikely that during his forays here he was inspired to reinvent the ‘buffalo horn’ formation which the Zulu army used so effectively to surround the British camp and destroy it at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879.
The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Centenary Capture Centre sets a benchmark throughout Africa, we learn. It has cast in stone its huge success in the conservation of the white rhino, which was close to extinction before they stepped in with a programme for their survival. This is the reserve where Operation Rhino took birth in the 50s and 60s. (India too is involved with the conservation of its own depleting rhino population under the umbrella of Operation Rhino.) Today the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve is host to the largest white rhino population in the world. White rhinos differ from black only in the way they feed, we learn: the former graze on grass, the latter munch on tree leaves and other foliage.
We turn off the highway to follow the trail towards the park precincts. In the distance we spy undulating elevations rising from the plains. These wooded hillsides are home to the 96,000-hectare sprawl of Hluhluwe Game Reserve. This is one of the best places in Africa to view the ‘Big Five’. A mere three – to four-hour drive out of Durban city, the oldest game reserve in South Africa was established in 1895. Back in the day Hluhluwe and iMfolozi were separate wildlife precincts, which were then established as a protected game reserve as the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.
To the north lies Hluhluwe (umHluhluwe—‘thorny rope’—a ubiquitous climber here). Hluhluwe’s sweet grasslands are punctuated by a brilliant diversity of vegetal terrain. In the south, lies iMfolozi (‘uMfula walosi’—‘river of fibres’ streaming out of the mighty sycamore trees, found aplenty at the confluence of the Black Umfolozi and White Umfolozi rivers) and featuring a fabulous spread of vast open spaces favoured by cheetahs, wild dogs and, of course, the Big Five.
Birding trips are also rewarding in the reserve given its record of 300 species of avifauna. Bouncing down a slightly rutted patch along the safari route up a hilly slope from the Nyalazi Gate, we pass a jeep heading out for one of the reserve’s several viewing hides that overlook waterholes for up-close sightings. There’s been a drought in the parks this year and the rain that we encountered earlier, instead of driving the animals into hiding, as we feared, has brought them out in goodly numbers to feed on the fresh shoots. The wonder of the game drive was that the safari routes were uncrowded and so we could stop at leisure, take pictures, breathe in the unspoiled air. And oh, those vistas… A dark silhouette against the lush foliage and the doughty skyline greets us as we turn a bend. Welcome to my world, the black rhino seems to say, as we goggle at this magnificent creature. During our game drive we are lucky to encounter them time and again, singletons and small families.
We encounter too families of giraffe and Burchell’s s zebra aplenty; in fact, there were clusters of these engaging creatures, happily browsing through the growth together by the acacia trees—clearly there are no territorial issues here. But what was interesting, a bit later in a secluded vale where we came upon a small coterie of nyala feeding, was the behaviour of two young male nyala. The only form of aggression we witnessed as they passed each other was a gradual change in body colour to signal intent—a warning to the other one to keep out of his way by the obviously more aggressive male.
Body-colour change as a warning signal is very common in the animal kingdom—be it lizards, fish or nyala. High up from our perch on a hill, close to the Hilltop camp, we stopped to savour the breathtaking views. On a clear day you can see the hills of Zululand stretching all the way to Lake Lucia. Beyond that lies the Indian Ocean. My eyes turned from the skies to the bush, anxious for sightings of its legendary lions or fleet-footed cheetahs.
The craving to see these precious creatures of the wild thundered through my mind, as the safari drew to a close. And the gods were kind. Holed up behind a spreading tree appeared to be a predator with a kill, judging from the wheeling eagles overhead. The beauty of the park is that there are no ‘jungle traffic jams’: a lone stationary jeep with a couple stood by the dirt road, a cautious distance away from the mysterious creature. It was only as we edged closer that we discovered, through the lens eye, a massive but dead Cape buffalo all but hiding a sunshine-yellow lion protecting his banquet and looking straight at us without moving a muscle… We blinked first.
The creatures who had been the first to greet us were the last to see us off. Not so shy this time, a pair of rhinos came pushing up the hillside close to us in the jeep. Posing obligingly with great horns in profile, munching leisurely on a tasty morsel plucked off the bough, they gave us a beady onceover, before turning away as if in farewell. The spotted beauties remained elusive though. Gotta go back.