The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is situated approximately one hour by car from Richard’s Bay (approximately two and half hours from Durban) and is home to Africa’s Big Five and other wildlife including cheetahs, wild dogs and nyalas. It is the oldest game reserve in South Africa and was established in 1895. Today the reserve is renowned for its variety of animal and bird life and its white rhino conservation. The park covers some 96,000 hectares and is the only one in KwaZulu-Natal where the Big Five (African lion, African elephant, cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros) can be found.
We arrive at the game reserve, climb into the back of the open safari vehicle and set off for a day of wildlife spotting. No sooner have we entered the park than a warthog with her three piglets wander past us. Warthogs use dens to have their young and, as warthogs only have four teats, the litter sizes are usually contained to four. Each piglet has its own teat and even if one dies, the others will not suckle from the available teat. They suckle for about four months and continue to live with their young until they are ready to give birth to another litter. The young may then join up with another solitary female for a short time before they go off on their own. Males usually live by themselves, only joining groups to mate, however females sometimes join up with a family group.
A few metres further down the track we spot a herd of southern Burchell’s zebras to our right. The Burchell’s zebra is also known as the plains zebra. They are widespread and inhabit savannahs, from treeless grasslands to open woodlands. The southern Burchell’s zebra has a distinctive brown stripe in the white stripe. This characteristic diminishes the further north they occur.
A herd of lesser kudu slowly crosses the track in front of us. These animals are considered to be the most beautiful antelopes. Males have long, spiral horns and occasionally females will grow small ones. Lesser kudus can be distinguished from greater kudus by the number of stripes on their back, their size and the lack of a beard on the males. Lesser kudus have between 11 and 15 vertical white stripes, while greater kudus have between six and 10. Females tend to form small groups with their offspring and males only join the females during mating season. Young kudus are red and males will turn grey when they reach between one and half and two years old. When alarmed these antelopes take abrupt flight with soaring bounds while emitting loud, hoarse barks to warn others of the danger.
A little further on a herd of impalas are grazing by the side of the track. Impalas are one of the most common and graceful of Africa’s antelopes. They can leap over 10 metres (32 feet) in length and three metres (10 feet) in height and run at speeds of over 60 kilometres per hour (37mph). Most impalas are born at around midday, as their predators are usually sleeping making it the safest time. Females can delay giving birth if weather conditions are harsh, such as during the wet season. Females and young impalas live in large herds of up to 100 individuals, while males live in bachelor herds of up to 60. They need to drink every day but often do so at the hottest times, as this is when their predators are most sluggish. Constantly alert to danger, these antelopes can release a scent from their heels, which helps them to stay together, and will leap and scatter in all directions to confuse their predators if attacked.
We continue deeper into the park and soon reach a point, overlooking a small valley with a watering hole. Making its way into the valley from the other side is a herd of elephants. Our guide stops the vehicle beside another two safari trucks to form a triangle and, following his instructions, we climb out and follow him to the edge of the hill. We watch in silence as the elephants reach the watering hole and begin to bath in the muddy water. The younger elephants splash around in the water, rolling over and covering themselves in mud while the mothers splash muddy water and dust over themselves. The mud keeps their skin cool but also protects them from the sun. Since elephants do not have must hair on their bodies they can actually get sunburn, however the layer of mud will protect their skin from the harmful UV rays. Younger elephants have particularly sensitive skin and so in addition to coating themselves in mud, they also regularly seek shade underneath their mothers. The mud also acts as a good adhesive for dust, which they will throw over themselves later on.
It is lunch time and so we drive to a picnic area where a buffet has been laid out for us. We enjoy a cold beer and some food before taking a wander around the picnic area and spotting a herd of buffalo lying in a muddy patch not too far away. Some kudu arrive at the muddy area and drink from the small pools. Nearby a monkey skips across the grass and climbs up a tree to join its troop. What a great place to have lunch!
We have almost reached the end of our morning in the park and we climb back into the truck for one last attempt to find the lions that killed a gazelle just yesterday. We see the carcass and couple of vultures but no sign of the king of the beasts. Our guide seems to be more disappointed than we are as we drive back down the lane from the site where the lions were last sighted.
A short way down the track our guide slows down and signals for us to be quiet. He points to the side of the road, towards three white rhinos. Two females are grazing by a tree and behind them is a male. The white rhino actually gained its name from the size and shape of its mouth, not from its colour. It is, in fact, no whiter than any other rhino. The name originated from the Dutch word ‘wijde’, meaning ‘wide’, which was used to describe the ‘wide-lipped rhino’. The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is famous for its ‘Operation Rhino’, which saved this animal from extinction. The operation started in the 1960s and, since its initiation, over 10,000 rhinos have been translocated world-wide. We watch these gigantic creatures as the male approaches one of the females, who chases him away with a series of grunts. A few minutes he approaches the other female, only to receive the same reaction. It is not his lucky day – he bows his head and retreats…for a while. The seven of us in the vehicle, including the driver, are the only ones to witness this private show and we feel truly privileged.
What a special ending to a great day safari in the oldest game reserve in South Africa!
CRUISE: Silversea‘s Silver Cloud from Mombasa to Cape Town.