South African Safari
Our trip across the Indian Ocean was fast, sailing 45 out of 55 days, and when we arrived in Richard's Bay, South Africa we were ready to celebrate. And celebrate we did! But after a couple days we started to itch for a new adventure, this time on land. After a couple stops at a local travel agent and the tourist information office we decided that we wanted to do a short safari, and especially wanted to hike and camp in tents. I think most game watching is done from cars. We wanted to see nature on nature's terms. I had also read stories of people sleeping in tents and being woken in the middle of the night by roaring lions. That sounded exciting, and I craved for that experience. Eventually we decided on a trip to Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park.
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park is one of the largest game parks in South Africa, with a total area of 96,000 hectares. It is home to the 'big five' - elephant, rhino, cape buffalo, lion, and leopard. There is also a wide variety of birds and other animals. Hluhluwe and Umfolozi Reserves were both founded in 1895. The linking Corridor Reserve was founded in 1989 making is one continuous park.
A rental car was dropped off at the small boat harbor on Thursday evening, and we were off for adventure on Friday morning. Within about an hour of leaving Richard's Bay we were at the park entrance. The signs made it obvious that visitors need to be cautious - no motorcycles, no leaving the car, etc. There are beautiful, interesting animals here that might just squash or eat you.
We had about 15 miles to drive from the park entrance to the Mpila Camp where we needed to check in. We drove slowly, watching carefully for game. First we saw monkeys. Next it was an nyala (large deer like animal). Then there were cape buffalo. All of these were right next to the road. It was very exciting seeing so many new animals. After a few more miles we also saw impala and zebras, lots of impala and zebras. They were everywhere.
One of the hundreds of impala that we saw.
It was only 10:30am when we arrived at the Mpila Camp to check in, but we were already counting the trip as a success. In the office we were told to be at the Mndindini Trails Camp by 1:30. Since we still had plenty of time we grabbed a snack of biltong (dried meat) and sodas and were back on the road.
When Stacy was in the Peace Corps in West Africa she got to see giraffes. She has often described how graceful they are when they run. I was anxious to share the experience. After leaving Mpila camp the road turned from pavement to gravel. As we drove slowly we scanned for game. Then, way off in the distance, I thought I saw what I was hoping for. I stopped and pulled up the binoculars. Yes! Those distant shapes were giraffes. We sat and watched them for about 10 minutes, taking turns with the binoculars. Even though they were probably a half mile away, it was still exciting.
We continued down the road and continued to see game, including warthogs, wildebeest and more giraffes, this time much closer. Having seen giraffes, I now proclaimed that the next thing I wanted to see was a rhino, but it was now 12:30 and time to turn back and head for our camp. We drove back a little faster and only slowed down slightly when we saw impala or zebras next to the road. After a while we reached the road to the Mndindini Trails Camp. It was a rough, gravel road. We saw more wildebeest and nyala and then spotted a couple dark shapes in the brush. It was hard to see, but after a few minutes of scanning with the binoculars I could clearly see a horn and a couple thick legs. It was a rhino! We waited for about 5 minutes, but never really got a good look.
Around 1:15 we finally reached the Mndindini Trails Camp where we were to begin our safari. We were immediately greeted by Nigel, our guide, and Constance, the cook and housekeeper. There were about 8 sturdy 2-person tents on raised platforms to house the guests and staff. Inside the tents there were beds and even an impala skin rug. There was also a separate building with a toilet and a shower with hot water. After living on the boat, this was luxury! Finally there was a kitchen and a open structure with a fire pit in front where we could sit and talk and also take our meals. The whole camp is set on the bank of the White Umfolozi river, very scenic indeed.
After stowing our gear we joined our fellow guests, Franz and Heidi from Austria, and the other ranger, Kulengani, who would also be hiking with us. We also met Nigel's family including his son Garth who would be joining us. Garth recently turned fourteen, the minimum age for going on the hike, so even though he was very knowledgeable, this was going to be his first time. There was tea and coffee, and Constance came out with a huge loaf of delicious "bush bread". We ate and watched a couple cape buffalo and a goliath heron across the river.
Around 3:30 we set out on our first hike. Nigel explained the situation with potentially dangerous animals. If a rhino charges, run or climb a tree. If a big cat charges, absolutely DO NOT RUN. "If you run," Nigel explained, "he will eat you." If an elephant charges, get out of the way. While these are the general guidelines, Nigel stressed that he would tell us what to do depending on the situation. Our basic plan was to walk single file with Nigel in the front and Kulengani in the back. Both are experienced rangers and were also carrying very large guns (Winchester 458 magnums).
Stacy, Heidi, and Franz with Kulengani making sure nobody gets lost.
We were all very, very alert as we left the camp, but after about a half hour of otherwise nice hiking, I was starting to wonder if we were going to see anything. Then someone behind me started snapping their fingers, our agreed signal that game had been spotted. I looked in the same direction as everyone else, but didn't see anything. Years of looking for game in Wisconsin had trained my eyes, but the rules were different. Then I looked up. Over the brush was the neck and head of a beautiful giraffe. He just stood very still and watched us. Nigel explained that he could tell it was a male from the shape of the nubs on his head, and that his dark color indicated that he was old, probably around 14 years.
After watching the giraffe for about 10 minutes, we moved on in search of new game. We were all trying to be as quiet as possible. Suddenly Nigel raised his hand to get us to stop and then pointed in the brush ahead. There were 3 white rhino about 35 yards ahead. These are not nearly as dangerous as the bad tempered black rhino, but they are still large animals and dangerous if they are scared and panic. We crept closer to get a good view while trying to make sure we didn't get too close. This is why people are not allowed to walk around the park without a guide. Nigel and Kulengani helped us get close but made sure we didn't get too close. Later as we continued our hike we saw more white rhinos, probably a dozen in the next hour. At one point one of the rhinos got nervous and started to move towards us. One word from Nigel and we were moving back quickly. I can't say that it took much to convince us. Seeing a large horn backed by 3500 lbs of powerful flesh heading our way was plenty of motivation.
A white rhino
The hike continued and we saw impala, wildebeest, and warthogs. Nigel also pointed out trees that had been rubbed clean of there bark by elephants, tracks and scat from several different animals, and even pointed out insects such as the dung beetle. The game park is a lot more than just big animals. I can't over state how beneficial it was to have knowledgeable guides to point out and explain things that we were seeing (as well as making sure we didn't get stomped or eaten).
Nigel leading us back towards camp.
Once back at camp we took quick showers and headed down for dinner. Constance made sure we were not going to lose any weight. Dinner was fantastic. After dinner we sat around the camp fire for a while, but were all pretty tired. It had been an exciting day. We hit the sack early.
Constance prepared some fantastic meals for us.
The next morning we got up at 5:30am and had a quick snack. I had slept like a rock. There had not been any roaring lions, but Jo was woken in the night by the sound of something large walking through the camp. Nigel said that sometimes zebras come into the camp and eat at night. There were also baboons that made sure that none of us overslept.
We started off for our morning hike. The plan was to hike to a cliff that overlooked a bend in the river. As we headed out we saw game right from the start. There were impala, nyala, and water buck. It reminded me of deer hunting in Wisconsin, walking through the woods looking for these deer like creatures, except for the fact that we were seeing them everywhere. They were much more weary of us than they were when we were in the car, but even though we could not get quite as close as we did when driving around, it was much more enjoyable on foot. We continued on and next we got into the baboons. We didn't get real close but got a good view with the binoculars. They really let the whole area know that we were there with their howling.
After leaving the baboons we didn't see much for awhile. I was reflecting on what we had already seen. I had really wanted to see giraffes and had. Next I had wanted to see rhinos and had. Stacy and I were talking quietly as we walked, and I told her that now I was really hoping to see elephants. There are elephants in the park, but they are not nearly as numerous as rhinos. We continued our hike for another half hour without sighting anything. Then, just when it was starting to seem that we were all alone, Nigel pointed off to the right. Cape buffalo at about 50 yards! Man, those things are big and could set the standard for ugly. Nigel explained that in all his years as a ranger the only animal he ever had to shoot was a cape buffalo. That wasn't in Umfolozi. He has only fired his gun once in Umfolozi, and that was while being charged by a black rhino. He said that we would not believe how much paperwork has to be filed after firing a gun in the park.
We continued on and soon reached the cliff. We drank water and ate snacks while looking over the river bend. There was a rhino on the beach. He was cool to see, but was not doing much. I got the binoculars out and started to scan. There were a couple deer like animals way off, but not much to look at. We talked and rested while continuing to watch. Stacy spotted something way down the river and we were trying to make out what it was when Heidi spoke up, "Elephants!" Three male elephants were coming out of the forest across the river. It was magical. We watched as they slowly made their way towards the river, sometimes taking time to eat or throw dirt onto their backs. They walked across the beach at the inside of the river bend and then into the water. Stacy snapped photos while Jo and Franz took video. After crossing the river the elephants climbed the bank and silently disappeared into the woods. Once they were gone there was a flurry of discussion about what we had just seen. While we were not close like we were to the rhinos and cape buffalo, it was better in a way because those other animals were aware of us and nervous about our presence. The elephants had no idea we were there and were acting perfectly natural. Nigel also pointed out that elephants can be dangerous. He's been chased enough to be very happy seeing them from a distance.
Elephants crossing the beach
We headed back to camp and had a large breakfast. It was amazing how exhausted we were. We had hiked for about 4 hours and there had been a lot of adrenaline flowing at times. We soon retired to the tent for a little nap.
When we got up from our nap Nigel told us that he had gotten a truck so we could do a night drive. We lounged around camp and had lunch. Around 3:30 we set off on a short afternoon hike. We saw a little game including a young steppe eagle and lots of impala, nyala, wildebeest, and zebra. Even without the game it would have been a most enjoyable walk in the woods. We returned to camp for dinner and then got prepared for our night drive.
We set out from camp in the truck just after sunset. The truck was rigged with two spot lights. Nigel drove and Kulengani road in the back with his rifle. The highlight was seeing a spotted eagle owl and lots of spotted hyenas. Hyenas are right up there with cape buffalo for being ugly. They are very nasty looking animals. I was really glad we were in the truck.
When we returned to the camp there were lanterns burning at the front of each of our tents. It was a very warm feeling returning to our camp. Once again we were exhausted and were soon sleeping soundly...............................................CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH. We woke up suddenly to the sound of tree limbs being ripped from a tree in the camp. IN THE CAMP! Just on the other side of the canvas tent wall, something very large was ripping a tree apart and eating it. Stacy and I laid very still and whispered. It smelled like a whole heard of sweaty horses. After listening for a few minutes we guessed that it was an elephant. We had heard about elephants tearing up camps. Whatever it was, it seemed to be pretty happy eating, so we decided to do nothing to change the situation. We laid still and listened. Eventually it moved off, and we tried to go back to sleep. I had dreamed of hearing lions roaring. This was a very similar experience and certainly a little scary.
When we got up for breakfast the next morning everyone looked a little tired. The whole camp had been awake listening to our night time visitor. Everyone had guessed that it was an elephant. Nigel said that he thought so also, but eventually was able to get a good look and could see that it was a black rhino. He was glad for this. As dangerous as black rhinos are, it was very unlikely that it would attack a tent. But if anyone had gotten up to go to the toilet......................?!? We were getting the full safari experience.
By the time we were setting out for our last hike on Sunday morning, we were all feeling like old friends. It was nice to have such a small group. We chatted more with Heidi and Franz. Earlier in the week Franz had hunted for and shot a warthog with his bow. Heidi isn't a hunter, but proved to have a very sharp eye for spotting game. Nigel and Kulengani were doing an excellent job guiding us, and Garth also added a lot, showing sharp eyes and knowledge of game.
Taking a break during the morning hike.
On this last hike we had some long periods of nice walking with out seeing any game. Nigel did point out a tree that had been knocked over by an elephant that had charged a previous group. It gave us something to think about. While walking Stacy asked what I wanted to see next. Three times in a row I had stated what I most wanted to see, and then we had seen that animal. I was thinking about big cats, but told her that I knew the chances were slight and did not want to raise expectations. We saw a large lizard (probably 3 feet long) right next to the trail, found a small leopard tortoise, and saw the usual impala, nyala, wildebeest, and zebras.
A spotted leopard tortoise.
After our final hike we had lunch and then sat around talking. Email addresses were exchanged. There was a warm feeling amongst the group. It was great to see all the game, but the best part of traveling is always the people we meet.
We were not anxious to leave, but it was time to go so we said our good-byes and headed down the road. We saw game on the way out, but were definitely driving faster than when we arrived. We were very happy that we had seen more than we had expected. In addition to everything else, we had seen three of the big five missing only the lion and leopard which are around but seldom seen. We passed a giraffe, impala, and zebras as we headed towards the park exit. Then we spotted a truck stopped along the side of the road. This is a sure sign of game. We pulled up behind and looked down into a dry river bed. There was something down there, but the binoculars were in the trunk and we could not identify it..........probably more deer like critters. Jo and I were ready to move on, but Stacy wanted me to get the binoculars. Then one of the shapes stood up. It was a lion! The binoculars were out in a flash. We spent the next 10 minutes passing the binoculars back and forth. Jo got out the video camera and tried to squeeze one more shot out of the nearly dead battery. The lions did what lions do best, laying around. Occasionally one would get up and stretch or walk around a little. It was an excellent ending to an excellent adventure.
We got an email from Nigel. A couple days after we left he saw cheetahs during a hike and a leopard right along the road to the Mndindini Trails Camp. We were happy to reply and tell him that we had seen lions on our way out of the park.