Shadows moved quickly across the land and the blackness of night lurked on the eastern horizon. But right then, time stood still as three white rhinos drifted into view. The beasts emerged slowly from the acacia woodland onto the river bank, their horns scything the twilight air.
Not 20 metres of braided riverbed separated our campsite from the bull, cow and calf. Moments earlier, our group of hikers had been chatting away. Now we dared not move, nor speak. Like the resurrection of some ancient god, the rhinos held us in rapture.
They were unaware of us. These prehistoric creatures, which weigh up to three tonnes, have poor eyesight, but good hearing and smell. The breeze had carried evidence of our presence away. Now the rhinos came closer, their forefeet in the river, as they slurped big mouthfuls of water into their capacious bellies. We were witnessing a primordial ritual, something that has continued uninterrupted for longer than homo sapiens has been on Earth. At the end of each day for several hundred-thousand years, rhinos had come to drink from the White Umfolozi River.
Their thirst slaked, the rhinos ghosted back into the bush from whence they had come. We all looked at each other, wide-eyed in wonder, and nally blurted out our amazement with exclamations of ‘wow!’
Essence of wilderness
Here we were, camping in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, one of Africa’s three oldest protected areas, proclaimed in 1897. For five days and four nights we were hiking the Primitive Trail through the reserve’s dedicated wilderness area, 300 square kilometres of untouched bushveld in the southwest of the reserve.
There’s no evidence of people in the wilderness area: no huts, no telephone poles, no tourist facilities, no cars, no jeep tracks; not even rangers are allowed to drive their 4x4s here, unless exceptional circumstances require it.
‘Wilderness is the landscape which contains only the plants and animals native to it,’ game ranger Jim Feely wrote in 1957, advocating for a formal wilderness area at iMfolozi. ‘Where people are alone with the living Earth. Where there is neither fixed nor mechanical artefact. Once this environment was everywhere, now only relics remain. Yet in these places are the original bonds between mankind and the Earth.’
We had left behind the modern world and its contraptions such as cars, cellphones and watches. We were sleeping on thin mattresses under the stars. We cooked simple dinners on a small campfire, which also kept wild animals away during the night. An armed ranger guided us as we carried our backpacks and walked through the bushveld, following the tracks of other animals.
Nunu Jobe was our guide, a short but stocky Zulu with a guinea fowl feather in his hair and a smile as wide as the blue sky. After our spectacular rhino sighting, he hushed us, smiling understandably at our excitement. For many in the group, this was the first experience of camping in the middle of an African wilderness. For some, these rhino were the first we had seen on foot, eye to eye, and it was a sighting that may never have been possible.
Three hundred years ago, there were probably several million white rhino spread across Southern Africa, from the Namibian coast to the Mozambican floodplains, from the Karoo plains to the Zambezi River in northern Zimbabwe. By 1890, hunters had killed so many that no more than about 40 individuals survived on Earth and they all lived on a narrow wedge of land near the confluence of the White and Black Umfolozi rivers in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
After a hunter shot six of these rhino in 1894, the South African public finally woke up to the tragedy of so much slaughter. The area was proclaimed a reserve, rhino were declared royal game and hunting of them was prohibited.
For more than 50 years this was the only place in the world where white rhino could be found and by the 1950s the population had recovered to around 430 individuals. Over the next few decades, warden Ian Player and his team relocated hundreds of them from iMfolozi to other reserves in Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique, to repopulate their traditional range. They also sent several rhinos to zoos across the world to safeguard the species. Today, there are more than 20 000 white rhino, most of them in Africa, each one descended from those few that survived near the Umfolozi rivers.
After dinner we sat around the fire and Nunu put things into a philosophical perspective. ‘The animals here are living like their forefathers,’ the barrel-chested Zulu explained softly. ‘They haven’t changed at all over millions of years. But we have changed so much. Is that a good thing? What gives us the right to change so much? You decide.’
We listened carefully to his rhythmic voice, clear in the star-studded sky. His eyes reflected the flames of the campfire. A hyena howled in the distance. ‘Nothing separates us from the animals. We are made of exactly the same stuff. What gives us the right to destroy beautiful wild creatures like the rhino?’
I went to sleep wondering about my true place in the world and reflecting on the past few days. We had seen not only white rhino, but the smaller black rhino too. We’d walked alongside herds of zebra and giraffe, curiosity emboldening them to stand their ground. Kudu, impala, buffalo and wildebeest seemed more skittish. A bull elephant had walked across the river, near to our campsite and one afternoon we watched from the top of a cliff as a pride of nine lions lounged lazily in the sun below. Spotted hyenas were regular morning visitors, coming to drink after a night on the prowl. And then there was the territorial leopard whose rasping call echoed in the early hours of each morning, a sound not easily forgotten.
Other wildlife wonders
We had experienced the essence of Africa’s wildness at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, which protects a full panoply of creatures. Not even five per cent of the size of Kruger, the reserve nevertheless conserves important populations of the Big Five, plus sizeable numbers of endangered species. There are close to 100 painted dogs, one of the highest densities in Africa, while viable populations of leopard and cheetah are also found. More than 600 elephants roam the reserve, introduced in the 1980s from Kruger after the local population was decimated by colonial hunters in the 1800s, and sizeable numbers of white-headed and lappet-faced vultures nest in the reserve. There are also some unique insect species, which have yet to be found elsewhere in the world, including such wonderfully named creatures as the gladiator-keeled millipede (Allawrencius gladiator) and Sternberg’s keratin beetle (Trox sternbergi).
One of the most important steps in the park’s development was the amalgamation in 1989 of what used to be two separate reserves: Hluhluwe in the northeast, and iMfolozi in the southwest. Today they’re one and the corridor between them has been incorporated into the reserve, even though it’s still owned by the Mpukunyoni and Hlabisa communities.
‘This is a very diverse place,’ ecologist Dave Druce explained of a reserve which is about 60 kilometres from north to south. ‘And that’s because there are huge differences in topography, rainfall and vegetation.’ The altitude ranges from just 60 metres above sea level in the hot, humid valleys of iMfolozi to more than 500 metres in the hills of Hluhluwe, where beautiful scarp forest thrives in a refreshingly cooler climate.
There’s no better place to appreciate the scenery than from Hilltop Camp, Hluhluwe’s main rest camp. While enjoying lunch or dinner at the excellent Mpunyane Restaurant, you can see almost all the way to Lake St Lucia (about 60 kilometres away) on a clear day. On the hills below, try spot wandering black rhino or elephant.
Mpila Camp in iMfolozi offers a real sense of wildness. There are no fences, so zebra, kudu and nyala wander between the bungalows and leopard, hyena and lion are sometimes attracted to the sizzle of meat on braais.
However, this wildness is restricted to within the fences of the reserve. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is an island of nature within a sea of humanity and development. This is perhaps the greatest challenge that the reserve faces, especially with predators living near to people, cattle and goats.
According to iMfolozi conservation manager Patrick Sibeko, about 50 000 people live near to its borders, and houses can be seen right on the fence line. Good relationships with these communities are vital and school kids are frequently taken into the reserve on educational trips, so they can appreciate the wild wonders on their doorstep.
Also on the borders are two anthracite mines. One evening on the trail we heard a distant boom, and Nunu explained it was blasting from Somkhele Mine. Although their presence is not ideal, the mines provide jobs to the communities and, according to Dave, the management co-operates as much as possible with the reserve.
Despite the pressures from outside, it’s still a wild place where animals rule. One night, Dave and two researchers were surrounded by a pride of 23 lions. Having darted three lions to take samples, they managed to keep the other 20 predators away by revving their vehicles. ‘Needless to say, that was memorable, if a bit too close for comfort.’
Other staff members have had equally impressive wildlife encounters. Members of the game capture unit, which was so instrumental in saving the white rhino from extinction, are used to unforgettable spectacles.
‘One day we were walking along the White Umfolozi River looking for black rhino,’ game capture specialist Jed Bird said. ‘We made our way up to a little rise and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were two elephants, a herd of about 200 buffalo, a white rhino and a leopard and her cub. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, a black rhino came out of the reeds and chased two cheetahs away from their kill.’
Visitors who explore the reserve in their cars will be equally impressed by the density of wildlife and today the stakes are as high as ever to conserve it for future generations. The reserve protects more than 10 per cent of the world’s white rhino population and close to five per cent of all black rhinos. Rampant poaching across Southern Africa is threatening to undo the good work of Ian Player and his team in the 1960s and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi isn’t immune; it has lost more than 30 rhinos in the past few years.
The glory of Africa’s wildlife – and its precarious, fragile state – is on full display at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, perhaps more so than any other reserve I have visited during my Year in the Wild. And nowhere can visitors absorb the wild wonders more than on the Primitive Trail. It’s undoubtedly one of Africa’s quintessential experiences and must be done at least once in your life.
Despite sleeping in the open among wild animals, I felt safer than ever before and a sense of belonging and calmness permeated my head and heart. Somehow the modern world – even with its conveniences and benefits – seemed foreign, noisy and scary. On our last morning of the trail, as we walked back to so-called civilisation, I remembered some words from Ian Player’s book, Zululand Wilderness. The former warden of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi had walked the first trail back in 1959 with his friend and mentor, Magqubu Ntombela. Now five decades later, the wilderness had stamped its same indelible mark on me.
‘Africa had soul, and my own soul was linked to it,’ Dr Player wrote. ‘In the wild places that I had worked in and tried to protect, the ancient soul of Africa still lived. I looked at the wildlife with different eyes and heard the music of the bush with other ears. It was as though an opening had been hacked into my consciousness and there was overwhelming joy at this discovery. From that evening on I trod the earth differently.’
Drive north from Durban on the N2 for about 230 km, then turn left onto the R618. Continue for about 25 km until you cross a cattle grid into the reserve. The turn-off to Nyalazi Gate is about 3 km further on.
Gates open from 05h00 to 19h00 (November to February) and 06h00 to 18h00 (March to October). There is a daily conservation and day-visitor fee of R60 an adult and R30 a child.
Mpila Camp has 34 self-catering chalets, cottages and safari tents and costs from R385 a person. There’s no restaurant, but visitors can buy basic food items at a small store. Masinda Lodge is an eight-sleeper house with a kitchen and lounge and costs R4 000 a night for eight people. Gqoyeni Bush Lodge, Hlatikhulu Bush Lodge and Nselweni Bush Camp are several kilometres apart on the Black Umfolozi River. Gqoyeni has four units and a communal kitchen and costs R5 400 a night for eight people. Hlatikhulu is a self-catering house, with a cook provided, and costs R4 800 a night for eight people. Nselweni has eight two-bed self-catering chalets and a communal kitchen (cook provided) and costs R1 130 a night for two people.
Hilltop Camp has 69 self-catering chalets and rondavels, sleeping from two to four people. From R495 a person a night. The nearby Mthwazi Lodge is an eight-bed luxury self-catering house, with a cook provided. Costs R4 320 a night for six people (R360 for each additional adult). Muntulu Bush Lodge on the Hluhluwe River is an eight-bed self-catering house, including a cook. Munyawaneni Bush Lodge has four units sleeping up to eight people as well as a communal lounge and kitchen, with a cook. Both bush lodges cost R4 330 a night for six people (R720 an additional adult and R360 a child).
Guided morning walks are offered at Hilltop (R250 a person) and Mpila (R215 a person), while game drives from Hilltop are R300 a person and from Mpila for R270 a person. Two-to five-day wilderness trails cost from R2 250 a person. The four-night Primitive Trail costs R2 770 a person, including food and participants share cooking responsibilities. Minimum age for children on wilderness trails is 16 years if unaccompanied by parent, and 14 years if accompanied.
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Tags: game reserves, Gqoyeni Bush Lodge, Hilltop Camp, Hlatikhulu Bush Lodge, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, Ian Player, iMfolozi, KwaZulu-Natal, Masinda Lodge, Mpila Camp, Mthwazi Lodge, Muntulu Bush Lodge, Munyawaneni Bush Lodge, Nselweni Bush Camp, Year in the Wild