As if our appetite for travel wasn't already at its peak, our South African berth neighbors, Alan and Margie, aboard the tiny day-sailer, Honey Bird, asked us if we'd like to take a daytrip with them to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (That's roughly pronounced Shloo-shloo-wee Umfo-low-zee). Our reply was a resounding “Absolutely yes!”
The park is located about 3-1/2 hours from Durban and Alan suggested leaving at 1:00AM in order to be at the gates by the 5AM opening time to ensure best animal viewing. We packed breakfast and lunch in a cooler, grabbed a thermos of hot tea and, all psyched for a day of adventure, we met them promptly at the marina gate in the early, early morning. The ride went smoothly with lots of chat as we headed north on the N2 highway and then turned onto Route 66 (yup, Route 66!) toward the Cengeni west entrance to the park. Though it was dark, the full moon shone brightly and illuminated the hillsides. A huge owl stood by the road and fluttered up as we passed. Alan slowed for numerous goats along the way that insisted on crossing the road just in front of us. Our arrival timing was excellent, and in fact we thought we were a bit early until we crossed the little bridge over the Hlinza River and the car got gobbled up by a huge pothole. An adventure of an unexpected nature developed.
As the car lurched out of the pothole, we heard a sickening whoosh and it was evident we'd damaged a tire. Alan and David got out immediately and surveyed the damage. By torchlight, they could see a huge hole in the sidewall of the right rear tire, but luckily no apparent damage to the undercarriage. They hauled out the spare, made the exchange and we were on our way … for about 10 meters. The right front tire was flat, too. Now what? We were no more than 500 meters from the park entrance, but Alan knew there were no services available in the park. A long story short ... Alan managed to drive on the flat front tire some 40 km until he determined the rim was in jeopardy. The men changed to the other flat tire and we continued into the town of Ulundi where a local Dunlop tire dealer, alerted by Alan's Audi-Assist representative, showed up on a Sunday morning to sell and install two new tires.
Not to be deterred by our little setback, we returned to the park and were at the entrance by 9:00AM … four hours later than anticipated, but still looking forward to a full day of animal viewing. Alan and Margie had visited many times in the past and were familiar with the gravel roads that criss-crossed the park.
We had barely paid our entrance fees when we spotted some impala grazing near the side of the road and nearby a yellow-billed kite sat high in a tree inspecting the landscape for possible snacks.
Spotting animals in the bush is not always easy. Their protective coloring allows them to blend easily with the foliage and landscape. When you're really tall, however, it's kind of hard to escape notice. We were thrilled when a giraffe poked his head up to give us a nod.
Around each turn, there seemed to be something of interest. We sat for quite some time being thoroughly entertained by the antics and interactions of a troop of Chacma baboons.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is the oldest park in South Africa and actually a combination of two reserves originally established in 1895 and covering 96,000 hectares (290,000 acres). It is home to the proverbial Big Five: lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo and leopard. It is dissected by the White and Black Umfolozi Rivers and as we neared the White Umfolozi, we spotted our first rhinos cooling themselves the water.
We stopped at the Mphafa Hide to check out a waterhole which in actuality didn't have much water. We were rewarded with great views of a blue wildebeest, vervet monkeys, several impala including a handsome male, mocking chats and yellow-eyed canaries.
We stopped for a picnic lunch overlooking the White Umfolozi River. We were on the look-out for large carnivorous animals on the prowl looking for humans, but none showed up. An orange skimmer dragonfly lit nearby and caught my attention. A pin-tailed whydah, its long tail feathers dragging behind, searched for insects. Raptors soared gracefully overhead and a Cape vulture stood sentry in a tree near the river.
The afternoon was hot and humid as we continued through the park. We were pleasantly surprised by the limited number of cars and tourists we saw and the diversity of animal life we viewed. A giraffe crossed the road in front of us, followed by several more. They joined up amiably with warthogs, zebra, wildebeest, and impala, all finding their own space and not infringing on others. We watched them walk off together, perhaps heading to a secret animal rendezvous in the hills.
Leaving the park provided just a few more surprises. We'd seen elephants in the distance, but an old bull was close-up near the exit and seemed fine with onlookers admiring him.
As we exited the reserve and headed back to the highway towards Durban, a beautiful kudu buck bid us farewell. A fitting ending to a great day.