In the seat next to mine, Luke is panicking. “Where’s reverse? I can’t find reverse!” he cries out. In the grainy twilight a white rhino and her calf are standing less than a metre away. And they’re not impressed. Mom blinks her eyes, stamps her feet and lifts her horn threateningly. Two, three times.
What do you do in a situation like this? Abandon the rental car and run? Dim the headlights? Wave your arm out the window? Wind up the window?
The more I look at the rhino, the more she resembles a tank. Horrific scenes flash through in my mind: a horn puncturing the car door, the car on its side, Luke and I up a tree…
It’s after 6.30pm in the Hluhluwe section of the park and we’re on our way to Hilltop Camp, where we’re planning to spend the night. At the moment it doesn’t look like we’ll get there.
“You try!” Luke says earnestly, his voice an octave higher than usual. I grab the gear lever from the passenger seat… and put the car into fourth. Luke drops the clutch and we stutter forwards, closer to the rhino. Mom swings her head, confused and irritated.
Luke shoves my hand away, finds reverse and we slither backwards out of harm’s way.
We sit quietly for a while and wait for our hearts to stop racing. The rhinos stand their ground in the road for another minute or so, then they vanish into the bush and we can continue on our way.
An encounter with a white rhino in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is pretty much a given. And as much as I’ll retell my close-encounter story around the braai fire for years to come, I secretly wish it had been black rhino. We’ve got two full days in the reserve. Will we be lucky enough to see one?
Part 1- Black rhino, please
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is a Big Five park. If you want to see elephants, the Hluhluwe section is where you should look.
Luke and I have a (very basic) game plan for our time here: First we’ll explore Hluhluwe Game Reserve in the north-east of the park, and tomorrow Imfolozi Game Reserve in the south-west. The “border” between the two sections is the R618 tar road that cuts through the park.
Hluhluwe and Imfolozi were proclaimed in 1895, and since 1989 they have been managed as one park. Their history goes back even further. Before 1895, this was the hunting territory of Dingiswayo and Shaka. Hunting was limited to royals and was only permitted in winter.
The two reserves are quite different. Hluhluwe has densely grown, green hills and is said to be the best place to see elephants. Imfolozi is flat and open. You’ll see plains game like impala, kudu, blue wildebeest and zebra. And predators like wild dog and lion, if you’re lucky.
It’s early morning and we’re on the Magangeni game-viewing route, about 10km from Hilltop Camp. The first animal we come across is a buffalo in a mud hole next to the road. He’s caked in mud from head to hoof. He ruminates slowly, lifts his head and gives us a nonchalant stare. Luke, who is taking photos out the window, gets the fright of his life when the buffalo suddenly stands up. But he’s just stretching. He finds a new spot and thuds down again.
About a kilometre further we come across three rhinos in a pool, lolling about like the front row of the Blue Bulls in a post-game jacuzzi. Fortunately they seem to be in a better mood than the angry lady we encountered yesterday evening.
Rhinos and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi are synonymous. After all, this is where the massively successful Operation Rhino kicked off in the 1960s, with the aim of saving the white rhino from extinction. From humble beginnings, they now number about 2000 in the 960km² reserve.
Black rhino, however, are seldom seen. According to the latest count, the reserve harbours about 200 in total. They’re shy creatures and there are lots of places to hide. You have to have an eye for detail to distinguish a black rhino from a white rhino. Don’t be fooled by the names; both species are the same shade of grey. The most obvious difference is that a black rhino has a pointed upper lip and a white rhino has a wide, square upper lip. The name “white” rhino is apparently a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word for wide – “wyd” – in reference to the lip. A black rhino also has a concave back, whereas a white rhino has a flattish back. And although white rhinos are bigger, black rhinos are more aggressive.
So we’re basically looking for an animal that weighs as much as a Hilux and that has the temperament of Bismarck du Plessis on a bad day. How hard can it be?
A blue Golf stops behind us. Two people chattering in German get out, armed with cameras and binoculars. It’s against the rules of the reserve and a stupid thing to do, but it seems their first sighting of the horned creatures in the wild has knocked all the sense out of them. They speak in hushed tones behind their hands.
You’d expect such reverence from tourists who’ve probably only seen a rhino in a zoo, but we also find ourselves staring in wonder. They really are magnificent creatures. An hour later – during which we encounter a parade of zebras, a mob of baboons, a volleyball team of giraffes and another surly buffalo – we see about 15 grey shapes against a green hill. Elephants! There’s a baby in the group and whenever he falls behind, the group waits for him to catch up.
Late afternoon, on our way back to Hilltop, more white rhinos gang up on our car in the road. They’re mellow and in no hurry – one grazes so close I could reach out and pick a tick from its rough grey hide. The rhinos eventually amble off into the bush and we carry on, only to run into another roadblock: a game-viewing vehicle chock-full of tourists that has stopped to watch a herd of elephants. The elephants make their slow, stately way across the road.
Now where’s that black rhino to complete a perfect day of game viewing?Close
Part 2 - Where lions climb trees
At reception at Hilltop Camp there’s a map of the reserve where visitors can indicate their sightings. Yesterday, lions and wild dogs were sighted on the banks of the Black Mfolozi River, near the northern border of the Imfolozi section of the park. We’re heading there today, maybe we’ll see them…
We set out early, because it’s a bit of a drive to the Imfolozi game-viewing routes: about 50km of tar road to Mpila Camp (the main camp in Imfolozi) and then another 12km to the lookout over the Black Mfolozi. On the way, I tell Luke about the legend of the Imfolozi lions.
The last remaining lion in the reserve was shot in the early 1900s. Then, in 1958, game rangers were astounded to see a huge male. He was believed to have walked south from Mozambique, dodging hunters out to bag “the last lion in Zululand”.
Safe and sound in the reserve, he spent a few lonely years checking out his new territory until a few lionesses magically appeared – apparently smuggled in by conservationminded staff. The rest, as they say, is history.
Certain prides in Imfolozi have developed an unusual habit – the lions climb trees. Reserve ecologists aren’t entirely sure why they do this. The most plausible theory is that the extra elevation allows them to cool down more easily. They might even do it for fun. Maybe they’re hiding from the black rhinos?
It’s lunchtime and we’re at a lookout point over the Black Mfolozi River, on the Thoboti Loop. Way off in the distance we see a yellow dot on an island in the river. A lion? “Can’t be,” Luke says. “Cats don’t like water.”
We drive on. At the next lookout point there are four vehicles and a group of people with binoculars glued to their eyes. They’re all staring at the same yellow dot. “You missed it,” says Roger Mason from Somerset in England. “The male is still there but the lioness has gone off into the reeds.” I glance at Luke accusingly and he looks suitably abashed. The big cat gets up, stretches and flops down again. It’s sweltering – what more can you expect from a lion at midday?
The Bhejane Hide on the Ngotsha Loop is busier than a tuck shop at first break. Impala, zebra, giraffe, a kudu and a nyala are gathered around the waterhole. Two warthogs roll around in the mud. All you’d need now for the perfect screensaver photo is a pack of lions, an elephant and a wild dog. And a black rhino, of course, but they’re proving to be Hluhluwe- Imfolozi’s hide-and-seek champions.
On our way back we run into more white rhinos. Something big stirs on the right of the road, just before the Sontuli picnic site: a cow and her calf. The calf gambols like a hefty Jack Russell, splattering his mom with mud.
We never did get to see that black rhino, but you know what, it’s okay. I’ll go game viewing again. It’s the element of surprise that makes wilderness areas like Hluhluwe-Imfolozi so special. Every game drive is different. To see an animal doing its thing, completely unaffected by the encroaching shadow of human development, is special – even if that animal has a wide lip instead of a pointy lip.
Rhino poaching has escalated dramatically in the past few years and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi’s population has been targeted too. Rhinos have been killed, despite the best efforts of the reserve authorities to curb the scourge. To spend time with a rhino in the wild – white or black – is yet another reminder of how fragile our natural heritage is, and how important it is to preserve it.Close
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
How to get there.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is about 250km north of Durban. Both the Nyalazi Gate (Imfolozi) and the Memorial Gate (Hluhluwe) are accessed from the N2.
Best time to visit.
It’s hot, humid and wet during the summer months (September to April). Game viewing is better during winter (May to August) because the bush isn’t as dense and more animals visit the waterholes. It’s also cooler.
It’s a medium risk area, depending on the season. Consult your doctor and take precautions.
Where to stay.
There are nine camps in the reserve. Accommodation ranges from rondavels and safari tents to chalets and luxury lodges. We stayed in the two-sleeper rondavels at Hilltop Camp (R480 per unit per night). Camping is not allowed in the reserve. Visit www.kznwildlife.com for all the accommodation options.
Hilltop and Mpila camps both have a shop, and there’s a restaurant at Hilltop.
Other things to do.
Game drives (from R270 per person), guided hikes (from R215 per person) and multi-day wilderness hikes (from R2 200 per person).
R55 per adult per day and R23 per child under 12 for SADEC residents; double the rates for international visitors. Free with a Wild Card.
035 562 0848 (Hluhluwe); 035 550 8476 (Imfolozi); 033 845 1000 (KZN Wildlife central reservations)