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Huge white rhino in Hluhluwe

We decided to get up and out early to make the most of the Wildlife in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi National Park. By 6:20am we had paid our fees and driven through the park gate. This park is relatively small compared to Kruger but is very hilly. Steep ups and downs were common in the Hluhluwe section which I suppose must make it a bit tricky for some of the big animals. In addition the vegetation here was very dense so it made it very hard to spot anything.

One of the guides at the hotel last night had told us that the best animal viewing time was between 6:00am and 8:00am. After that, it would get too hot and they wouldn’t be seen. It was certainly not our experience today. We followed the main road from the Memorial Gate for a while before doubling back and taking a gravel road along the river. Along the way were a few detours off to viewing points and we had a look at most of them. We saw no big animals and just a few birds. By the time we reached the Hilltop camp we were both a bit despondent because our game viewing had been nothing compared to Etosha and Kruger. Even at Itala yesterday we had seen giraffe and impala on our drive up to the gate.

From Hilltop we decided to keep on going down into the Umfolozi section of the park. Someone we had met along the way told us it was drier there and the vegetation was less dense, enhancing the chance of spotting animals. And it did the trick. As we left the camp we saw people parked up on the road looking down into a wide open valley below. There a small herd of elephants were meandering up through the dry river bed looking for water. Another couple of lone elephants were munching away at some of the trees and nearby were buffalo.

But our best sighting of the day was soon to come. As I drove round a corner I said “Stef, cat” and we watched the back of a big cat wandering down the road. Stef managed to get a photo before it disappeared but it is only from the shoulders back. We spent the rest of the day trying to decide what type of cat it was and later had it confirmed that it was a leopard, the only one of the Big Five that we hadn’t already seen. It was a shame that we didn’t see the full cat but three quarters was good enough for me. Within seconds we were at the spot where the cat went off the road but you there was no trace of it in the high grass.

Still on a high from seeing the leopard we next spotted three rhino’s. They weren’t really hard to see as they were just off to the left hand side of the road grazing away. The people from the hotel in Dundee had told us that white rhino, although still dangerous because they are wild animals, are pretty docile and we shouldn’t come to any harm but if we encountered a black rhino then we could be in trouble. One of the guides from the hotel last night confirmed this but said it was unlikely we would see black rhino. He’s been working here for six months and has only seen one.

We sat and watched the rhino for quite some time before heading on again and having our next rhino encounter. This one was a little more controlled. The park has one of the largest rhino populations in the world, if not the largest, and they seem to have a reputation for rhino conservation. Off to the right of the road we saw a 4x4 truck which a white guy getting out and then another truck with what looked like a cargo container on the back. Two black chaps were lowering the container down onto the ground. The white guy climbed onto the top with what looked like a cattle prod while the black guys took shelter behind the container’s doors. Soon a rhino came sauntering out the back. It looked a bit doped up and very disorientated. They watched it for a while until they were happy it was OK, packed up and left.

We spent another couple of hours in the park seeing more zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and birds before deciding to head on to somewhere else. We had driven down as far as the Mpila camp. On the way we passed underneath the R618, a major provincial road that crosses through the park. Amazingly, there is little to stop the animals crossing this main road. Along the road there is just the normal sort of crash barrier and where it crossed the park border the only thing to keep the wild animals in is a cattle grid. Rhino and elephant would be able to walk across the grid and the big cats could easily jump it so it would be interesting to know how many escapees there have been.

For the afternoon we decided to head down to the nearby Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site. From the Hluhluwe Park the road wound through a large tree plantation before finally reaching the village of St Lucia. We headed up the beach road, paid our entrance fees at the gate and continued up to Mission Rocks. Here we took a gravel track off to the right to make our way to the coast. A short walk through the dunes brought us out onto a rocky bay on the Indian Ocean. To our left and right there were small clusters of people with fishing rods in hand trying their luck. It seems to be quite a passion here as well as in Namibia but we didn’t see much evidence of people actually managing to catch anything.

We ambled down to our left, working towards a sandy bay but opted to stay on the rocks as we’d come armed with bits for a picnic and I don’t know about you but I don’t really like sand in my sandwiches. As we munched our lunch watching the waves and the crabs wondering about the rocks the sky started to darken and thick black clouds amassed overhead. The peace and quiet of our little picnic spot was soon ruined, not by rain or thunder but by three South African men who had obviously decided they were going to fish from here despite the fact that we were there. Stef trued to engage them in conversation but got nothing back except “it’s good to fish when the weather is bad”. As it started to rain we abandoned our picnic and headed back to the car just missing a heavy burst.

Undeterred by the weather we kept heading north looking out for the gravel road that loops around the Mfabeni Swamp off to our left. There were a few tracks off but none were signposted and we were soon going through the gate to get into Cape Vidal. Here there is a campsite and chalets for people to stay at and it looks like a very popular place. In the car park there was a big fish cleaning station so that those lucky enough to catch something out on the beach could gut and clean their catch before heading home.

The beach here was beautiful. It was soft sand, wide and very very long. Here too people were fishing but there were also kids mucking about in the sea, young people playing rugby and other games on the beach and people just sitting around and enjoying the sun. We’ve noticed a lot more people here of Indian descent, due to the large Indian population in Durban, about two hours further south. Muslim influences were present with women in the sea fully covered up from head to toe and with only their eyes visible. It’s still a puzzle to me why they do it.

Angler along the coast in the Greater St. Lucia wetlands

Stef had a paddle in the sea, declaring the water lovely and warm and wishing that he had his swimming trunks and a towel with him. We hadn’t even considered this morning when we left the hotel that we would end up on a beach today so hadn’t come prepared. We sat and enjoyed the sun for a while before making tracks to leave the park. On our way out we saw the signs for the loop around the marsh and soon understood why we hadn’t seen them on the way up. The track was wide enough for one car but traffic coming the other way as well would have been a problem.

Our drive around the marsh was again uneventful on the animal spotting front. Despite the signs at the gate that the park has leopard, rhino, elephant and other dangerous animals the local people drive around with their kids in the back of their trucks and hanging out the windows so I suppose we should have realised that the dangerous animals would be nowhere to be seen. We had a few bird sightings but nothing really new.

As we left the park the cheeky chap manning the gate asked us where we were going and whether, as we were heading to town, we would mind giving his wife a lift. He could clearly see we had room and as hitching seems to be part of the national psyche here we were hard pushed to say no. We dropped her, and her son, off at the Spar in St Lucia and the promptly had a row. The town was like a little holiday village full of places to stay and places to eat out. With last night’s dinner fiasco still fresh in his mind Stef fancied staying here to eat. With only one hour of daylight left and a long drive to get back to our hotel on unfamiliar roads I wasn’t keen. As ever we stayed and both of us were right for taking our individual points of view.

The Quarterdeck supplied us with a tasty dinner of fish and garlic mash before we left St Lucia in the dark to head back. A few kilometres after leaving the village it started to rain, very heavily, so much so that it was hard to see the road in front of us. Knowing that we would hit standing water as a minimum and worst case potholes Stef took it slowly. It was a nasty drive back with rain accompanying us for much of the way and what would normally take about half an hour took us an hour. Back in our rondavel we both admitted that the other had been right, Stef to eat in town as we had a much better dinner than last night, and me for not wanting to drive back in the dark.

We had ended up having a very long day and although it was still relatively early by the time we got back I was knackered. I think I was in bed by about 8:30pm and asleep within half an hour.