The ancient protective wilderness of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park
Almost at the right time, after passing through one of the gates of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi (HiP) park, I see a rhino. Not the suspicious and instinctively aggressive black of the species, which would normally have excited me, but its placid white cousin, grazing not far from the road, against the light. It does, however, make you smile.
I haven’t been to the park in about 30 years; the last time as an elementary school student on a family vacation. Our holidays were almost always in Natal, camping in the Drakensberg and the parks and nature reserves in the north of the province. When I was 12, in Joburg, I was reading Game Ranger on horseback by legendary Zululand conservationist Nick Steele, and, while riding with my mum and sister on the weekends near a koppie called Lonehill, I imagined myself as Nick. Ride with the rhinos.
This time my few days in the park involve no horses, but lots of elephants, a few rhinos, beautiful scenery, a homestay village and the only private lodge in the Hluhluwe section of the HiP.
Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge is what piqued my interest. Private lodge concessions in the two million hectare Kruger National Park are plentiful and standard – a source of revenue – but at 100,000 hectares, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) has limited the number of such concessions to three, the two others being in the iMfolozi. section of the HiP.
“Go past Hilltop Camp, take road number seven and it will take you to Rhino Ridge,” says Memorial Gate’s gate security guard. He is not an officer of EKZNW, but of a private security company. I have fond childhood memories of Natal, remembering the Natal Parks Board (NPB) staff, black and white, in their khaki green singlets and shoulder pads, at the gates and in the offices. But change is constant and, when it comes with a smile, all is well with the traveler.
“It will take you about an hour,” the officer said. I wondered if we would do the afternoon game drive at the lodge, but after consultation with the proverbial better half, it was agreed that it was a game drive anyway.
Ride with the Elephants
The roads are in good condition, despite the recent torrential rains, and it’s a quiet road, populated by little more than the odd busy warthog. After taking route number seven and meeting guide Simo Buthelezi at the lodge, it turns out that it might be best not to encounter any elephants along the route, as the herds over the next two days display behaviors that some would call interesting and others downright scary. .
“Memorable Angus moments,” Simo wrote later in response to my Facebook post, “I won’t forget the elephants who put us to the test by not allowing our plans for the ride.”
As the guests of our vehicle – a recently graduated young doctor from Pietermaritzburg and his mother, and an elderly solitary traveler from the Midlands of England – are moderate birdwatchers, Simo chooses a route to the River Nyalaze. Turning into the corresponding loop road, we come across a herd of elephants, with tiny young ones among them, spread along the road. A big bull in musth – overdosed on testosterone, excited and aggressive – walks ahead. Simo recounts how he was once caught in the middle of a breeding herd.
“They weren’t aggressive, but it was getting dark, like it would be soon, and then they relax to feed. If we suddenly restart the engine, because they are protecting the youngsters, we might have a bad reaction. So it’s possible to be stuck among them for two or three hours, like me. Simo stops a private vehicle returning to the gate and warns the woman of the danger.
“Haibo,” she said, her eyes wide open, “but where should I go?” I think back to the adrenaline produced in a standoff on my tripod with a big bull at a camp in Tanzania’s Tsavo National Park, and appreciate Simo’s insight, wishing the driver silent divine speed as she walks towards the herd.
The hill of hills
As an alternative, we head for a sunset atop Mnqabatheki Hill, which offers one of the best sunset views in South Africa. “Even during the day after a rain storm, the views are great from there,” a fellow guide says, responding to a Facebook post.
Mnqabatheki overlooks waves of hills, legendary hunting grounds, first of Shaka Zulu, then of early colonial hunters. Framed by iconic marula trees, the view begs to be photographed against a sunset.
The valley bushveld and montane thickets in the Hluhluwe section of the park are thicker than usual at this time of year, making spotting game a bit more difficult. Yet the park’s well-maintained road network offers wild treasures to our eyes. During our two days there, depending on the route taken, we see brilliant Cape starlings in their iridescent beauty, magnificent Nyala bulls performing a pre-fight dance display, and white rhinos, warthogs, impalas, baboons, reeds, giraffes and lions. In fact, it was our safari companions who saw the lions, three large-maned males, on a windy morning when we stayed indoors.
Game Watching Games
Such are the ways of the bush. Like humans, animals tend to take shelter on windy days, and since we have work to do, missing the car ride is a calculated gamble.
What we see together, perhaps 10 meters from the vehicle on the road, are a couple of giraffes in the bright afternoon light, the male with his short horns rubbed in battle, framed by the green hills dark from Hluhluwe. This park has a rare perspective, with its topography, sometimes similar to the Pilanesberg, featuring “common” animals in a new and different physical context.
Later, from the lodge deck above the valley floor, a small herd of giraffes stick out like tall yellow sticks in the same bushveld section of the valley, while a few hundred yards north of them, a herd of perhaps 20 elephants moves swiftly through the thickets.
With the land largely untouched since its proclamation as a reserve in 1895, it’s easy to believe it could be Africa’s oldest proclaimed wilderness, as has been claimed. Another constant in the area since then, dating back at least to the Stone Age, has been the presence of people, like our guide Simo and barefoot wilderness trail guide Nunu Jobe.
Nunu takes her guests on walking trails in the reserve and in the community of Mpembeni. He takes me to meet Zemani Nkosi, who, with his mother, runs the homestay village on the edge of the community, next to the park service gate, a 10-minute walk from the lodge.
The homestay is offered by Rhino Ridge as an experience, as a way to support Zemani’s business. She is now registered on Airbnb and, while explaining to me the life of the village, she tells me about a master weaver from the community, Angeline Masuku. She calls Angeline and Nunu takes me to meet her.
Her rustic studio is filled with elaborate baskets. Angeline is packing a shipment to deliver to the Decorex Expo in Cape Town and she shows me her brochure.
It is a reminder of the power of tourism and how it can change lives in South Africa. If the pavilion had not been built here, on the edge of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, as a joint venture with the community, attracting visitors and related businesses, it is highly likely that Angeline and her weaving would not have been discovered.
The park has changed a lot in 30 years.
Rhino poaching is brutal, but I believe it will – must be – brought under control. Yet local people, like Zemani, Simo, Nunu and Angeline, have hope and the opportunity to earn a decent living, thanks to the existence of the park. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly daily maverick 168 newspaper, which is available nationwide for R25.