I stared at the storm of flies buzzing frenziedly around the steaming entrails. Trickles of blood were slowly creeping along the furrows of the dried mud track and I couldn’t rid my nostrils of the sweet sticky smell of death and voided bowels. I was having the best birthday of my life!
Hluhluwe Imfolozi. What a name! And if you can pronounce it first time around then you’re a better linguist than me (it’s Shoosh-loo-wee um foh-lozzi if you’re interested!). It was nearing the end of November (and our first South African epic) and Hubbie decided it would be pretty cool to spend my 29th birthday on safari. Who was I to argue? So we’d hot-footed it across the country from the Drakensberg Mountains to stay at Hill Top Camp in Hluhluwe for a few days. It was my first proper safari so I was stupidly excited, even though I was under no illusion we were going to be able to tick the ‘Big Five’ off our list. Hell, I’d have been happy with just a dung beetle! And maybe an elephant or two…
I was feeling a bit grumpy as we set off in the darkness on our first morning there…I mean what respectable girl really wants to be up before 5am on her birthday? Still, hubbie wasn’t taking no for an answer and bundled me into our hire car, along with a picnic and our binoculars. A little chill ran up my spine as I envisioned lions jumping out of the bush as we walked out to the vehicle in the blackness. Those flimsy bits of wire fencing around the camp didn’t really inspire much confidence. However we somehow managed to survive and hopefully Hubbie didn’t notice just how quickly I slammed the door behind me, just in case!
We were up so early we were the first into the reserve, even beating the park rangers with their morning game drives full of sleepy but eager tourists. Hubbie was driving as usual…he tells me he enjoys it but personally I think he worries about letting his wife behind the wheel. Especially in a foreign country. Still, it means I can concentrate on looking out of the window and don’t ever need to call shotgun first!
It was already beginning to get warm, although the cool night dampness lingered for a while, the dawn mists lifting to slowly reveal lush valleys and concealed peaks. All very beautiful, but just how were we going to spot any wildlife with all that greenery in the way? Damn the trees.
Following the road deeper into the park, I noticed a golden lump slightly out of place on top of a mound, right next to the road.
I yelled urgently in my excitement, causing Hubbie to bring the poor car to a halt in a squeal of brakes and dust. He turned concernedly towards me with a worried look on his face.
“Lion!” I explained.
Hubbie strained his eyes out of the window but was clearly having doubts about my eyesight, which admittedly is not at its best for long distance. Giving me a black look and telling me I was talking rubbish he started the car again and we moved on. I began jumping up and down in frustration, pointing, gesticulating and telling him what an oaf he was for not being able to see the HUGE great big golden cat sitting looking rather disdainfully right at us, no doubt cross we had shattered her morning peace. Of course if he hadn’t seen it, it couldn’t possibly be there!
Finally, just as we were about to pass her by, Hubbie opened his eyes and once again the car came to an abrupt halt. Thankfully he was happy to concede defeat if it meant front row seats at the best lion sighting in town! I mean how could you miss this…
After posing for a few shots, she slowly got to her feet, stretched luxuriously and with a flick of the tail turned her back and padded silently off into the bush. First lion sighting before 5am, not bad for a first timer!
Less than ten minutes later we rounded a corner and this time even Hubbie couldn’t fail to notice the pride of lions sprawled napping across the road. Now that was a sight only the first into the reserve would have the pleasure of witnessing. There were seven of them, presumably having spent the night on the warm tarmac.
We sat and enjoyed the show all by ourselves and gradually the performers began to move off into the undergrowth, some of the more confident cheeky-looking teenage lions remaining behind at the side of the road to get a closer look at the tourists. Potential breakfast perhaps?
Just as the last of them disappeared from sight, the game drive vehicles appeared in the rear view mirror. Part of me wanted to tell them gleefully what they’d just missed, but Hubbie was already off around the corner. They were eating our dust.
Now you may be forgiven for thinking the day couldn’t get any better, and whilst it was literally all downhill from there (Hluhluwe is higher up than the lowland Imfolozi) we racked up a tremendous number of sightings, including two black rhino (yes, black!), white rhino, grumpy fighting buffalo, tons of elephants (literally), giraffe, kudu and more impala than you’d know what to do with.
Hluhluwe Imfolozi is actually two separate reserves, but you can drive freely between them and they’re always spoken about as one. Hluhluwe is the northern park, with hills, river valleys and lots of lush vegetation. The landscape is more majestic and the element of surprise more pronounced, but because of this it is harder to spot the game. Makes it more rewarding when you do though!
Imfolozi to the south is much flatter and more open by contrast, making viewing a lot easier. We managed to follow one herd of elephants for quite some while as they made their way through the bush, correctly anticipating the point near the road ahead where they’d emerge. There are a few waterholes too that you can stake out if you have a little patience.
Several times we had elephants cross the road in front of us which was pretty cool. There were some tourists however who stupidly got far too close and when one elephant took a dislike to this we feared for their lives, or at least their car. Thankfully the animal decided the river was more fun to play with but part of me wished that he’d at least given their vehicle a poke to teach them a lesson.
It was whilst watching the elephants cross the river that an Aussie dude in a jeep flagged us down and told us there’d just been a giraffe kill up on trail number 1, and it was breakfast time for the lions. Grateful for the tip-off we headed back up the reserve, me protesting at all the photograph opportunities and animals we were flying past, and Hubbie crossly pointing out we’d already driven down this stretch of road, and didn’t I have enough photos by now? An elephant’s an elephant, right?
We arrived at track 1 and found…absolutely nothing! We were fuming, now thinking that the Aussie bloke just wanted our viewing spot on the road to continue watching the elephants and had very effectively got rid of us. Hubbie was about to go back and give him a piece of his mind when I spotted there were in fact two trail number 1’s on the map, one in Imfolozi, where we were, but also one in Hluhluwe. Hopeful at the possible reprieve off we rushed, and to our delight came upon the fresh carcass of a giraffe, and a fairly big one at that. I know I was a safari virgin, but I didn’t realise lions could take down giraffes!
It was quite sad and frankly shocking to see the claw marks all across the rump of the unfortunate beast, but as Hubbie pointed out it was just nature working, and quite a rare opportunity to get to watch a lion feasting just a few feet away conveniently at the side of the road. We reasoned our morning pride of lions were the very ones who had made this kill, they’d gone off in this exact direction earlier and it was breakfast time after all.
I refused to let Hubbie wind down the window even a fraction for his photos, despite the fact we were way down the menu at that particular moment. He climbed into the back seat and did it anyway, whilst I fretted in the front. The lion however wasn’t interested in the slightest, he had exactly what he wanted right there. After about an hour it seemed he’d eaten his fill and went for a nap under a nearby tree, letting the vultures have their turn at the table. We decided it was time for our lunch too.
We found a bench near to Mpila Camp, in the middle between Hluhluwe and Imfolozi, and shared the spot with a warthog family, the four cute (yes, they were!) babies snouting around maybe hoping for a ham sandwich. Or not. We’d eaten warthog earlier on our trip – delicious!
A troop of baboons was next up and this time it was my turn to ignore frantic pleas to wind the window back up. Surely a baboon was less of a threat than a lion?! It appeared not, and you can see in the eyes of this crafty chap that whilst I’m innocently taking his picture, he’s considering a plan of attack. If I’d not eventually listened to Hubbie’s insistent demands I think we would’ve had several passengers in our car! They’re much more pesky than lions!
We carried on driving right around the reserve until the light started to fade again. Rather tired but more than happy with our day’s work we returned to our chalet at Hill Top Camp for a BBQ dinner and some kip. Not a bad way to celebrate getting a year older I must say!
Hill Top Camp
We stayed in a 2 bed self catering chalet (R660 per person) which was perfectly adequate for a few days, if rather too 1970s brown and orange with a bit of an institutional feel. However it gave us privacy and our own bathroom as well as cooking facilities so it did the job nicely. We had our own braai outside for cooking and hardly used the kitchen.
There are also catered rooms in the lodge as well as more basic accommodation in rondavels with communal ablutions and cooking facilities. The restaurant serves up a vast and delicious buffet in the evening for those who don’t want to cook, just make sure you don’t eat too much lunch so you can do it justice!
Self drive v game drive
There were morning and evening game drives on offer at the camp, and although we did try the latter it was rather disappointing and we much preferred the freedom of driving ourselves.
The main down side of the game drive is the lack of stealth. There were 3 or 4 vehicles all trundling along in a line, making a noise, scaring away the animals and throwing up clouds of dust so that the only people with a chance of seeing anything were the ones in front.
The only benefits are the knowledge of the guide and the ability of the safari vehicles to go off-road down some of the smaller unsealed tracks where tourist vehicles are not allowed. The reserves are so vast however that it really didn’t matter that we couldn’t venture down these tracks by ourselves, there just aren’t enough hours in the day! We hardly saw a thing on our evening game drive, and our ranger didn’t really seem to have much of a clue…he was more interested in getting out the beers when we reached a viewpoint where we had to wait for ages whilst everyone finished their drinks. The only slight bonus was an extremely brief but nonetheless exciting glimpse of a hyena running alongside our vehicle. We hadn’t seen hyenas during the day. It is worth noting that you can’t drive yourself into the reserve after dark (for obvious reasons) so if you want to do this an organised game drive is your only option.
In short, stick to driving yourself during the day, and perhaps try one evening drive just for the experience.
After you’ve seen all the big exciting animals over and over again, the rush and excitement of the safari experience does begin to wear off. It’s almost not good, seeing everything on the first day as that leaves you nowhere to go. However, never fear, we’ve come up with an alternative list for you to find…much harder than the ‘Big Five’ and almost as exciting!
The ‘Little Five’
Giant African land snail
Leopard Shelled Tortoise
Many people rave about the Kruger National Park as being the best in South Africa, but I would argue the Hluhluwe Imfolozi is a worthy rival with just as much wildlife variety yet concentrated in a smaller area with far more chance of sightings.
I was delighted with my experience, and you all know how difficult I am to please!