After our rainy boat trip to see the hippos we awoke the next morning to a better day – although at 4am it was still dark! We packed up the car and waited for the safari jeep to arrive. We didn’t want to stay in St Lucia for a second night and had booked a place near the northern gate of Hluhluwe. The plan was to follow the jeep to the eastern gate, leave the car inside, rejoin the jeep for our safari after which we could drive ourselves through the park to the northern gate. Our jeep arrived with Steve our guide. We had booked an elite safari with Euro Zulu safaris. This meant there were only 6 in our jeep and the middle seats weren’t filled. We had our friends Davina and Antony with us and a couple called Andy and Emma also joined us. At 6.15 the sun was out and we were ready to see some animals. I’ve been wanting to do this since I was a little girl.
Hluhluwe-iMofolozi (pronounced shloo-shloo-wee-im-for-lozi) park covers 960 sq km (3 times the size of the Isle of Wight) a lot of which is mountainous landscape so unlike ‘safari parks’ (read zoos) back home it’s quite difficult to spot the animals. Its possible to drive yourself but you’re much higher in the jeep. The first animals we came across were impala, pretty little things, as common a sight as sheep in our countryside, but Steve said their tails form a letter M on their bottoms which he said stands for MacDonalds, yes these dear little creatures are the fast food of the game park. All of the big cats eat them.
I had already told Steve my favourite animal was the giraffe and I really wanted to see one so as we continued along the road several were spotted in the distance grazing with some zebra. Their long graceful necks were very distinctive. There was a 4×4 track heading off towards them which Steve took. It was a bit rough but the jeeps are built to take it, a hire car wouldn’t have been able to use the track.
As luck would have it as we were driving along the track a crash of rhinos were spotted (sounds like a Camomile quiz question to me!) the collective name for a group of rhinos. They were white rhinos, black rhinos are smaller and very hard to spot, sadly we didn’t see any of those. Despite the parks best efforts these creatures are still hunted for their horns. As we watched the rhinos helicopters were circling in the distance watching out for poachers from Mozambique. Steve said there is zero tolerance towards poachers and they are shot on sight. No beating about the bush in South Africa These were our first sighting of one of the big 5.
The Big 5 are Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo. I asked why those particular animals and its because they are the ones most difficult and dangerous to hunt, in other words they are the ones that bite back! This group were all female with one male rhino standing on his own close by. One of the ladies was particularly attractive to him and he wanted his way with her but her sisters were having none of it and wouldn’t let him near her despite several charges. We sat and watched them for about a quarter of an hour before they ambled away with the big fella following them.
In the distance Steve spotted a herd of buffalo – our second of the Big 5, and he drove closer to them. Even though there are quite a few roads around the park there aren’t a lot and it’s difficult to get close to some of the animals. Remember none of these animals are fed in any way, it’s not a ‘safari park’ but part of the wilds of south Africa. The outer fence (which we didn’t get any where near) is to protect them and keep poachers out.
As we got closer a dazzle of zebra (hope my sailing buddies are taking notes) appeared. They didn’t seem to be worried about the buffalo behind them. Zebra really are the most striking animals. Their makings are unique to each animal. Many of the females were pregnant. These ungulates (hoofed animals) weigh between 230 – 380kgs and their length is 260 – 300cms but they are not ruminants (haha, look it up)
In amongst the zebra were some wildebeest. Another ungulate and these ruminate, and as they have horns they are bovine. Wildebeest also find themselves on dinner menus of the big cats.
We were doing really well for animal sightings and we hadn’t even had breakfast yet. Steve drove to the top of the track where we were all allowed to get out and stretch our legs while he laid out a breakfast for us on the little drop down shelf on the back of the jeep. We had yogurt and cereal, fruit, muffins, rusks and tea or coffee while we were busy looking out on the surrounding area. The buffalo heard were getting closer. My camera was in the jeep but suddenly we turned round and we were being stared at by several hundred buffalo no more than 50 meters away from us. Steve wanted us to quietly and slowly get back in the jeep, just in case, but fortunately they crossed the path and went down the other side of the hill and melted into the undergrowth.
Steve packed up the picnic and we continued on our journey. After returning to the main road our journey took us over the Black Umfolozi river which was very swollen after the rains of the previous couple of days. A lot of debris had floated down the river and was caught up by the bridge. The water was only a few inches below the bridge. Once on the other side the scenery flattened out a bit and many of the smaller trees had been bent over and snapped as though a storm had gone through.
Steve explained it was the elephants, the males were ‘in must’ and wanted to mate. As some of the lady elephants have other ideas the males get frustrated and go stamping around the bush. Steve was certain there were some males close by. You think it would be difficult to hide elephants but we spotted this big boy hiding.
A second elephant appeared and they both started moving closer to us, so lucky. The third of the big 5. You can see the elephant on the right was definitely looking to mate but these two were both males. Oddly enough they both had a tusk missing. We sat and watched them for ages while they were tearing us grasses and pulling leaves off trees. They looked so much bigger than the ones we had seen in Sri Lanka. Male African elephants can weigh between 4000-6300kg and are 3-4m in height. Often referred to as King of the Beasts but it’s actually the elder females that rule in elephant society – can’t argue with that.
His ears were so big. The Asian elephants have smaller ears but the African elephant’s ears are much larger.
As we drove on we came across a family of giraffes, a little closer this time.
We drove for about an hour without any sightings then suddenly Steve stopped the jeep and started reversing. ‘What’s he seen’ we were all thinking. Steve said to look through the bush to see what we could see. It was a lion – A REAL LION our 4th Big 5. A wonderfully handsome male lion. How Steve saw it from the cab I don’t know but that’s why we had paid for a guide. We watched him for a while through the bush then realised there were two of them.
Steve said they were probably a mating pair the way the female was behaving, she kept rolling around and putting her legs in the air. It was difficult to photograph them because we just had a shielded view through the bush. Sadly some cars came along and stopped to see what we were looking at but didn’t turn their engines off, an absolute golden rule. So the lions got suspicious and started looking around. Steve said they mate every 20 minutes when the female is season!! But there were too many cars and they were getting distracted so we carried on.
All we needed now was the leopard to complete the 5 but Steve was doubtful because it was coming up to midday and although it wasn’t that hot it was sunny and the leopards go for shade that time of day. There were lots more impala with their stunning horns….
…. and an even closer giraffe. They are such elegant creature. They walk like solders – both the left feet forward followed by both the right feet. This one is a female because she’s got little pom poms on her mini antlers.
We had completed our circuit and it was time for lunch. Steve cooked a delicious braai (bbq) with steak, sausages, salad and a bottle of wine. We were so lucky because right next to our braai site by the river there were a pair of rhinos grazing completely ignoring us although Steve warned against going any where near them. As we drove back towards the gate Steve was scanning the trees for a leopard but sadly we didn’t spot on. Maybe another day.