We headed off early to make the 6 hour drive from around Bergville, and headed southeast along R74 to connect with the N2, which would take us north along the coast to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve. The drive took us down out of the highlands of the Drakensbergs to the more tropical coastline passing sugarcane farms, banana trees, and countless Zulu villages. The warm air was a nice change and the humidity was very tolerable since it was their wintertime. We stayed at the Insinkwe Bush Lodge & Backpackers that had an excellent location and facilities. They also had some resident Bushbabies that crept around the grounds in the darkness. On occasion they leave a few bits of banana out for them. Only enough for them to “have a quick snack” so it doesn’t disturb their natural feeding habits. It provided me a glimpse of an extraordinary animal I probably would never have gotten to see on my own. The Bushbaby relies on its stealth, and excellent hearing to avoid predators and the shutter of a camera was enough to make it flinch.
We got up bright and early at 5:15 A.M. and left in the dark along the sandy pothole filled road in order to make it to the gate of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi when it opened at 6:00 A.M. We crept in the gate as the first light came over the hills, eager to find a Rhinoceros. The park is a well known rhino sanctuary and might be our best bet to spot either a White or Black Rhino. The biggest difference between the two is the shape of the mouth. White Rhinos have a broader flatter lip for grazing on grasses while Black Rhinos have a much more pointed lip for eating foliage. The first 2 hours of the morning we followed the banks of the Hluhluwe River in the eastern portion of the park with little to show for our effort except a few interesting birds and a couple shy little Red Duikers. Just as things were beginning to look bleak we decided to check out one of the viewpoints overlooking the river. Two turns in the short road Sarah spotted it from the car, while I, in disbelief, was slow to react. I put it in reverse and pulled ever slowly backwards to see in a small clearing a absolutely massive male White Rhinoceros with a 2-3’ long horn to match just laying down. Knowing how unpredictable Rhinos can be at times we were both a bit nervous. We were about 300ft away or so, a distance that he could easily cover in seconds. Rhinos can run up to about 45 mph over short distances despite their lumbering appearance. We sat and stared in disbelief until the initial shock and nervousness dissipated and we could sit and enjoy his presence. The rhino was clearly not threatened by our appearance as he remained on the ground, leisurely enjoying his morning while each exhaling breath out of his huge nostrils kicked up clouds of dust from the dirt he was in. He finally rose, and ambled farther into the bush like a miniature tank until he disappeared from view. It was only about 9:30 A.M. and our day had been made already.
We left full of anticipation for what else was to come and more then satisfied for what we had just witnessed. As we continued along more and more animals seemed to come out of the woodwork: Nyala, Impala, Warthogs, and Buffalo. Little did we know we were just getting our feet wet. Being winter, and the dry season parts of the park were being burned to mitigate large wildfires spreading through the tall grass, so large patches of land were freshly black and charred. It was coming up a hill through one of these patches that I spotted a head just above the crest of the hill even with the treetops. A lone male Giraffe was just casually standing in the burnt landscape taking in the hot African sun. Standing head to shoulders above the landscape, he wasn’t going to hide anytime soon. This was one animal for which having a zoom lens was more detrimental then helpful, for if he were any closer I would have struggled to fit him in the frame. Two Red-Billed Oxpeckers casually hopped up and down his long neck picking off insects as they went. Sometimes even venturing to the top of the Giraffes head until they were shaken off. The giraffe stood at least 15-20’ tall. Our luck just never seemed to run out as we continued on, past another Giraffe, and own into a small valley that was a veritable feast of wildlife. Impala, Wildebeest, Warthogs, Baboons, Zebra, and a large male Elephant all grazing in roughly the same area. Needless to say we found a good spot and put the car in park and took it in. During this time a passing car shared a hot tip on some lions they saw about an hour ago. Before we could follow on the trail of the lion another White Rhino emerged out of the bush making the Baboons scatter, and the Impala shuffle over. We couldn’t leave now, and got sucked into watching this rare sight.
The day was slowly beginning to close and we decided to use the last remaining time we had to get to where the passing car had spotted lions in hope that the napping cats hadn’t awoken and left. We got to the viewpoint as the sun was just beginning to set and an absolutely massive herd of buffalo about 60 strong crossing the Black Mfolozi River. It was not until the buffalo passed that I saw the two Lions, curled up on a little sandy island in the middle of the river not 300ft from where the herd had just crossed. One young male lion and a female lion were lying partially hidden in the reeds. One could not wish for a more perfect end to a day, the sun setting on a pair of lions sleeping on a sand bar island in the middle of the Black Mfolozi River. I could have stayed all night but we had to leave the park by 6:00 P.M. before the gates closed. The drive back to the gate was far from ordinary though. As I was coming around a bend in the gravel road I soon found myself face to face with another huge male White Rhino in the middle of the road. Luckily he was just as startled as me and made a hasty retreat into the bush. It did not end there. We continued toward the gate and spotted another group of 3 more White Rhinos curled up together in another small clearing. I wish I could’ve stayed, but was now under a bit of a time crunch with all the extracurricular activity. It would have been a great note to end on but there always has to be one more. We saw the last, and 7th rhino of our day in some tall grass no more than 200ft from our car near the banks of the river to finally cap off our thrilling day at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi.