The route we chose as a conduit between Hilltop Camp and the Nyalazi Gate in South Africa had us experiencing a couple of close calls on our last morning in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve . One incident was when we came head-to-head with a pair of massive White Rhinoceros.
The Game Reserve covers a vast area, 96,000 hectares of wilderness, so a person would have to spend a lifetime there to explore every corner of the vast Reserve, if that were even possible.
There are 300 kilometres of roads in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi that include optional side roads and loops to hides, water holes, etcetera. Bob and I began on the main road that runs the length of the Reserve but intended to add a few side trips before exiting the Park.
The north part of the Game Reserve, Hluhluwe, is more mountainous and rugged with dense forests and grasslands. Route 618 bisects the Park with the larger part of the Reserve, Imfolozi, lying to the south of it.
Bob and I meant to make the most of our remaining hours in Hluhluwe. We started off by driving up the first side road onto a knoll for a view of the countryside.
Imagine our surprise when we got to the top to find a pair of White Rhinoceros grazing on the grass. We were delighted! Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is known worldwide for its conservation work with this species. Operation Rhino was put in place in the 1950s and 60s to preserve the species that was once on the brink of extinction.
The hide on this pair of White Rhinos was remarkably red as the result of wallowing in a nearby swimming hole where the water was saturated with red clay. As Bob and I sat in our car debating whether or not to inch closer to this pair, they both turned to face us. Maybe that was a bad idea, we thought.
Both Black and White Rhinoceroses have grey skin. The only differences between the 2 species are the size of the head and the shape of the lip. White Rhinos have a wide, square lip and a bigger head.
As we held our position, Bob put the car in reverse ready for quick action if the Rhinos should come any closer. Weighing up to 2,000 kilograms, we didn’t want to chance a direct hit. We met a woman later in the morning who had the driver’s-side door taken out of her car when charged by a Rhinoceros, so our instincts were good to give space to these humongous beasts.
Just when we thought the largest Rhinoceros was assuming a challenging stance, the smaller Rhino disappeared down over the side of the hill. Bob and I came to the conclusion that we were looking at a cow and a “crash”, the name for a calf.
A calf will remain with its mother for up to 3 years. When circumstances cause a cow and calf to feel disturbed, the calf will lead the way out of the situation, closely followed by its mother.
I must say that, when the pair decided to move off quickly, at first we were in react mode, then relaxed and pulled up to look over the brink of the hill as they retreated to safety.
On a different side road near the Nzimane River, a Wild Dog trotted ahead of our car then disappeared into the underbrush. Next thing you know, the Dog darted out of the brush with a Water Buffalo in hot pursuit.
The dog sauntered down the dirt road without looking back, while the Water Buffalo huffed and snorted, obviously annoyed at the Dog’s intrusion. We had to drive by the Water Buffalo where it held its stance. Out of nowhere, the Buffalo charged our vehicle. Bob hit the gas, dropped the video camera into his lap, and we both shrieked at the near miss.
Everywhere, there was evidence of the overnight rainfall. All the vegetation was flourishing from the unexpected moisture.
Bob and I were deeply enthralled with the African landscape. There was constant anticipation of the next wildlife encounter. Hoping to find some Hippopotamuses and Zebras at Thiyeni Hide, we struck off down the next side road.
At the crest of a steep hill, Burchell’s Zebras and Giraffes quietly foraged along the verge. We were happy to turn off the car, roll down the windows and patiently observe them.
Something about the situation resonated with us. Perched there, with a bird’s eye view of the distant valley bushveld and unable to see the dirt road ahead, we felt elated and almost like we could take flight out over the land.
With a very serene demeanour, the Giraffes turned and regally strode toward lower ground.
We were very moved by this special moment. For me, the image of the elegant Giraffes casually disappearing over the knoll was an iconic one synonymous with my preconceived impression of Africa.
Thiyeni Hide was a few kilometres further on, but we didn’t get very far before a vehicle flagged us down to warn of 3 Rhinoceroses just ahead, one of which had just ripped out the driver’s side door in an unprovoked attack. We aborted the drive into that mud wallow.
Bob and I were struck by the beauty of this Fireball Lily eking out an existence in the dry earth. It was interesting to learn that this plant is highly toxic.
Fireball Lily has been used traditionally in some medicines, as a component in poison arrows used for hunting, and as a clever means of stunning fish so they are easier to catch. The plant above has already formed a seed head.
Still more wonderful sights were ahead of us as we drew nearer to Route 618. A sweeping panorama of low-lying hills was liberally dotted with Acacia Trees, Black Monkey Thorn Trees and Buffalo Thorn Trees. Taking advantage of the dappled shade and lush ground cover was a large herd of Water Buffalo.
Visitors to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi are encouraged to drive slowly because so many wild animals wander onto the roads. It wasn’t always wildlife that had us stopping. More than a few times, large boulders posing as animals in repose had us doing a double take.
Another burst of colour came from the swollen follicles of a Swan Plant. A member of the milkweed family of plants, Swan Plant is also highly poisonous. The follicle is full of seeds.
Bob and I usually had the windows rolled down on the car. It was warm and sometimes, creatures could be heard before being seen.
Such was the case with this Black-bellied Bustard. Secreted in among the branches of this thornbush, the Bustard was almost invisible.
It was the Black-bellied Bustard’s vocalizations that alerted us to its presence. This large, ground-dwelling bird was performing a courtship display. With its head retracted to its back, the bird uttered a short, wheezy whistle.
The Bustard held that position briefly then stretched his neck forward and emitted a popping sound. Several times, this behaviour was repeated.
Also called a Black-bellied Korhaan, these birds only appear in open grassland following heavy rains. That was another good reason to rejoice in the recent downpours.
As if waiting to bid us adieu at the Nyalazi Gate, this pair of Pied Crows took a brief break from seeking insects in the grass to survey their surroundings. More like a small Raven, the Pied Crow can be distinguished from the White-necked Raven by the large area of white feathering from its shoulders down to the lower breast.
From Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, it was now time for Bob and me to hit the highway. We needed to reach Ramsgate on the Indian Ocean by check-in time that afternoon. Quite a long ride was ahead of us!