‘Good Lord; not more white rhinos’, I thought to myself as seven enormous creatures ambled out of the shrubbery and commenced to boxing me in.
They were in no hurry to get off the road and paid my vehicle scant attention and so I switched off my engine, reclined my seat and settled down to enjoy the show.
“Magnificent beasts” came Frank’s voice over the two way radio “Absolutely magnificent”
I couldn’t have agreed more, but as impressive as these mammoth mammals may have been, I was starting to get blasé about seeing them.
“How many is that now Frank?” I asked our leader “Is it twenty seven or twenty eight?”
Our six car convoy had been in Imfolozi Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal with former Section Ranger turned guide Frank Carlisle for a scant six hours but already we had seen lion, wild dog, giraffe, hyena, buffalo and, of course, white rhinos.
However, what I was really hoping for was a black rhinoceros.
“…And you have more chance of seeing one here than in any other place on earth” Frank had earlier told me; and that’s because Imfolozi (and its sister park Hluhluwe) is home to the staggeringly successful Operation Rhino; a radical last ditch effort implemented in the 60s to protect, breed, and then redistribute Africa’s last viable population of rhinoceroses.
And wow, what an operation it was and in fact still is
“During the most hectic days of poaching, the global population of white rhinos was reduced to around 50 individuals” said Frank “But now, thanks mainly to the committed efforts of Parks Board staff, conservation organizations and global funding, there are more than 15000 of them:- most of which are descended from the Imfolozi Hluhluwe population”
Myself and ten other travelers were riding with, Bhejane 4×4 Advnetures, through five of Zululand’s most beautiful game reserves; Imfolozi and Hluhluwe, iSimangaliso (formally St Lucia Wetland Park), Tembe elephant reserve and Ndumo where we would encounter five distinct habitats (forests, plains, beaches, marine and lake systems)
It was also our hopes that we would chance upon Africa’s big five, and with Frank at our head we had a very good chance of doing so.
“This is my old stomping ground” said Frank over the two way “and as such I have a lot of fond memories from here”
He then went on to recount a story of his first encounter with a black rhino.
“My Zulu game scout was shouting at me because a black rhino was charging at us but I didn’t understand the language back then. I didn’t know if I should stand still, climb a tree, lie down, or put my head between my knees and kiss my a**e goodbye.”
Eventually though, he decided that the most prudent course of action would be to sprint like Caster Semenya.
“The following scene must have looked like a cartoon sketch- you know; the ones where Tom is chasing Jerry with a sharp knife” said Frank “My back was arched and the rhino’s horn was inches from my bottom”
In the ensuing panic, Frank spied a termite nest with an ant bear hole dug through the middle.
“I dived into that hole just in time to see the rhino flash past. He stopped, came back and then urinated on me”
From that moment on, Frank’s lifelong respect and love for rhinoceroses (especially the black rhino) was born.
“They are fantastic cantankerous troll like ogres” he told me “And this park in which they live is truly a fantastic place”
Imfolozi and Hluhluwe Parks, through which the black and white Umfolozi rivers flow, are joined seamlessly together and comprise of 920 square kilometers of varied and splendid scenery.
There are golden grasslands that sway like the tide and there are lush valleys where buffalo gather on river bend beaches.
Rolling hills and flowing plains dominate, and upon them grow open woodlands and thick forests that cast dappled shadows on the backs of Frank’s trolls and ogres.
The Hunting Grounds of King Shaka
It was the first place in Africa to be designated a protected park specifically set aside for the conservation of wildlife (chiefly the rhino) and it is the birth place of Ian Player’s famous wilderness trails.
Its also a very historic place and was once the favoured hunting grounds of king Shaka, the founding father of the mighty Zulu nation.
History tells that whenever the great king was able to take some time off from the usual nine to five grind of conquest and warmongering, he would often retire to Imfolozi for a leisurely weekend of lobbing spiky implements at wildlife.
“You can still find Shaka’s old hunting pits within the park” Frank told us as we watched the aptly named crash of rhinos gobbling up kilos of vegetation
“So when we go walking in the wilderness tomorrow, you better watch where you’re stepping.”
Eventually the crash made way for us to leave, and so off we went on more wildlife viewing adventures around some of Imfolozi’s 300kms of well graded roads.
That evening we pulled into the unfenced Mpila camp, a delightful cluster of chalets, cottages and bush tents set atop the highest hill in the park where the breezes are cool and the mossies are absent.
Here we were met by zebras and warthogs chilling out in the shade of the cottage’s veranda whilst amorous impala rutted vigorously between the tents and the chalets.
A young bull elephant was terrorizing the staff in the tuck shop.
“There will be a fence erected around Mpila Camp sometime in the near future” announced Frank “But for now its still very wild.”
A warning notice posted on the fridge of my chalet read
“Whilst braaing at night do not leave your meat unattended. Stand with your back to the light so you can see into the darkness and be especially vigilant if you have small children as they may be snatched up by a hyena….and if you see any elephants in camp tampering with water pipes, please inform us.”
That night, I momentarily turned my back on the braai to go get a beer from said fridge and with a rustle and a snuffle my meat disappeared.
The following morning, after an exhilarating night punctuated by the throaty bellowing of sex crazed lions, I crawled from my chalet and joined the others from my convoy for an uncharacteristic three hour bushwalk into Imfolozi’s wilderness.
We were met by an official armed guide (a former colleague of Franks) , and after a brief monologue about how to survive..
“Don’t run unless told to. Be ready to climb a tree. Don’t talk loudly. Be vigilant. Don’t be silly” … we sauntered off in single file out into the bush.
Under our guides expert supervision we ambled through big five territory in search of things with teeth and horns and I must admit to feeling more than a little nervous without a vehicle’s chassis between me and whatever was out there.
In my fervent imaginings, every small sound became a harbinger of doom; the falling leaf; a chirping cricket; a snapping twig. They all became the noise a rhino makes just before rampaging out of the shrubbery.
“The best thing to do if a black rhino rushes at you is to stand your ground” said Frank nonchalantly “because mostly it’ll just be a mock charge”
Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you like your thrills) we failed to find a black rhino during our hike, but we did see buffalo, bush buck, kudu and giraffe.
Later the following day, back in the relative safety and comfort of our vehicles, we slowly made our way up through Imfolozi and into Hluhluwe, stopping frequently to watch lion, antelope, elephants and a leopard doing their thing, but alas we saw no black rhino.
“Sorry folks” announced Frank as we exited through the memorial gate in the extreme north of the park “They just weren’t coming out to play today. But don’t give up hope. There’s still plenty of time”
After a brief refueling stop in the bustling little town of Hluhluwe, we continued north along the hard top road through Mbazwana (near Sodwana Bay) and then onto the four wheel drive only sand tracks of iSimangaliso World Heritage Wetland Park (formally known as Saint Lucia).
Here we moved at a snails pace not only because the soft track demanded us to do so, but because bush buck, red duiker and crested guineafowl (of which there were many) would have committed suicide under our wheels if we had not.
For over 200kms, iSimangaliso’s beautiful forested dunes skirt a section of South Africa’s coastline that is simply breathtaking. There are virtually no edifices of any description to mar its serenity bar a scant few lodges and there are no tracks on the beaches excepting those made by park patrol vehicles and marine turtles.
Both leatherback and loggerhead turtles come to iSimangaliso’s beaches to lay their eggs during the summer months- a miracle by all accounts because at 28 degrees latitude, the weather should be too cold to provide effective incubation.
However, titanium present in the sand acts a bit like a heated blanket; shielding the delicate eggs from the cold.
“iSimangaliso means miracle in the Zulu Language” Frank told me after we had pulled into nine mile beach- a splendid untouched swath of toffee coloured sand set behind a tunnel of gently swaying casuarinas.
“And it’s a miracle that any of this is still here for us to see”
During the 90s, an Australian mining company applied to strip mine the thickly forested 25000 year old dunes under which we were driving, and should they have been granted a license to do so, the titanium would have been removed and the turtles would have vanished.
Thank heavens then that that the mining company was sent packing.
Now, iSimangaliso (once a scattered collection of isolated nature reserves) has been physically linked together to create one huge mega reserve amounting to 332000 hectares of protected and reclaimed wilderness.
The park is home to Africa’s largest estuarine system as well as its most southerly soft coral reefs.
“Nowhere else on earth can one find the oldest land mammal (the rhino) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) living naturally in the same protected area as the ocean’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the sea’s biggest mammal (the whale)”
And that’s from the mouth of Madiba.
Fun & 4×4’s
The most popular regions of iSimangaliso are St Lucia and Sodwana Bay, the former being a previous haunt of fishermen of the brandy and coke persuasion, the latter being one of the world’s favorite scuba diving spots. But we weren’t here for fun and frivolity; we were here for some 4×4 adventure, and the best place to experience that is on the sandy tracks leading all the way up to Kosi Bay near the Mozambique border
Our route took us past the magnificent lake Sibaya- South Africa’s largest freshwater lake, where crocodiles and hippos hang out in crystal clear waters and then on past rural landscapes dotted with Zulu homesteads and Nguni Cattle.
“Its always advisable to travel in convoy in these more isolated regions of the park” said Frank as we glided along the powdery sand.
“Its easy to get stuck here, and besides, there have been quite a few hijackings of single vehicles in the past”
The hijackings have stopped now (thanks to a clampdown by authorities) but the nature of the roads combined with the area’s isolation means that it is still not wise to travel alone.
Although we left the sandy tracks a little north of Lake Sibaya and rejoined the main R22 road to Kosi Bay, it is possible to stay within the Coastal Forest sector of iSimangaliso for a further 50+ kms of sand driving through verdant landscapes in order to visit a whole range of scenically splendid beach and fishing spots such as Lala Nek, Rocktail Bay, Black Rock, Dog Point and Bhanga Nek on the edge of the Kosi Bay lake system.
Just don’t expect to get anywhere there in a hurry.
That evening we stayed in the Kosi Bay Lodge just north of the Kosi Bay Estuary, and the following morning after a hearty cooked breakfast we trundled along yet more sandy tracks to a lookout point above this culturally fascinating lake system.
For more than 700 years, local fishermen have maintained rows upon rows of ingeniously designed fish kraals made from sticks and poles.
These traps, which are handed down from father to son, stretch from the margins of the lagoon out into its center and (when viewed from above) look for all the world like the beautiful curves and swirls of Islamic style writing.
A little time later, our ever adventurous group had parked at the tropicalesque beach at the Kosi Bay mouth, donned our snorkels and flippers and commenced to a swimming session with a plethora of colorful fish.
The marine section of iSimangaliso (which extends for five nautical miles out to sea) accounts for something like 9% of South Africa’s coast and plays host to over 2500 species of marine animals. Its no wonder then that iSimangaliso’s onshore reefs are rated as some of the best dive and snorkeling spots on the planet.
Later, after few additional hours of westward driving, we entered the 4×4 only Tembe Elephant Park situated right on the Mozambique border, and there we met two gargantuan bulls with the largest set of teeth I have ever seen on an elephant.
They were awesome what with there saggy bottoms, raggy ears and tusks the size of trees and as I watched them splashing about at the margins of a bright green pan I couldn’t help but marvel at how short a time had passed since I was playing around with an octopus in the balmy Indian Ocean.
“These are some of the largest tusker males on the continent” Frank told us as we slowly made our way through the area’s rare sand forests “So its quite a privilege for us to see them. It will an even bigger privilege however if we mange to see one of the park’s black rhinos”
The 30,000 hectare aptly named Tembe Elephant park was originally established in order to protect the last herds of indigenous elephants which sought refuge from human conflict and poaching. Its also a participant of the black rhino range expansion project and as such, plays a critical role in this species conservation.
66 Species of Mosquitos?
Unfortunately we didn’t see a black rhino. But we did see a whole heap of other game such as nyala, white rhinoceros and the extremely rare and diminutive suni antelope.
A little further west from Tembe, along a potholed road is yet another little known game reserve called Ndumo which offers excellent birding around a series of large and swampy pans.
At 10,000 hectares, its not very big, but according to the literature there are more resident and migrant birds to be found in Ndumo than anywhere else in South Africa:- 435 to be precise, which is more than half of our country’s known species.
‘Its also a good place for those who have an interest in insects’ boasts their web page ‘As there are 66 recorded species of mosquito present’
Hats off to the PR marketing genius who came up with that one….
Thankfully, the majority of the 66 were someplace else during our visit, and hence we had a jolly pleasant and itch free journey along Ndumo’s 4×4 trails.
Between them, Tembe and Ndumo play important conservation roles insofar as they protect elephants, rhino, and sand forests as well as rare birds and one of the largest crocodile populations in Africa (not forgetting the 66 mosquitoes)
However, across the Usutu River and the fenced off McMahon line on the northern boundaries of these two parks lies Mozambique where plans are afoot to create a truly huge transfrontier conservation area that will link them all together (iSimangaliso included).
Fences will drop, new areas of land will fall under conservation status and eventually elephants and other species will once more be able to migrate and disperse as nature intended.
As all good things tend to do, our trip finally came to an end after one more night in Kosi Bay, and it was there that we bid each other farewell and paid tribute to our guide with heartfelt salutes despite the fact that we had not seen a black rhino.
“Why not spend another night in Imfolozi” Frank told me as I went to drive home “Its on your way isn’t it?”
And so that’s what I did; and thank heavens, for as I sat alone on the bonnet of my car at one of the beautiful Sontuli loop picnic stops next to the black Imfolozi river, the shrubby began to rustle and out popped a black rhino.
It snuffled and gruffled, and snorted and scuffled but didn’t notice me at all, passing just meters from my car. I could smell its musty odor. It flatulated, urinated, kicked its feet about a bit and then like a lumbering ogre, it vanished back into the bush from which it first came.