Published: February 12th 2008July 3rd 2007
I'd stopped at St Lucia on the northern coast of KwaZulu Natal mainly because I wanted to see the Hippo's that live along the estuary here - so a few hours after arriving in town I found myself down at the jetty, clambering onto a tour boat and trying to decide on the best place to sit. What I'd somehow managed to miss when I was reading up on St Lucia is that in addition to the Hippo's these wetlands are also home to rather a large number of crocodiles. We'd only moved a few hundred meters when the captain suddenly slowed down and veered off towards the bank.... with no Hippo's in sight I was a bit confused until, just before the front of the boat nudged the bank, I finally realised what we were looking at - a rather large adult crocodile snoozing in the sun on the bank in front of us. I briefly had time to wonder whether the spot I'd found at the front of the boat, which now put me only a few meters away from the crocodile, was still the most sensible place to be .... but then he lazily opened an eye, looked
at us, decided we weren't worth the bother and went back to the harder task of sunbathing. The crocodiles here are Nile crocodiles, the largest of the African crocodiles and the second largest in the world behind the Salt Water type that I'd barely managed to see on my croc spotting trip back in Queensland. Like their relatives in Oz the sex of these crocodiles is determined by the temperature during their incubation period - if the temperature inside the nest is below 31.7 °C or above 34.5 °C the offspring will be female. Males are only born if the temperature is within the narrow middle range. One of the other activities you can do in St Lucia is kayak along the estuary... as I sat watching this one, contemplating how there over 1000 of them in the water and remembering my recently well practised falling out of a kayak skills, well, as much as I love kayaking I decided that this was one experience I'd miss. On a previous trip I'd loved the idea of kayaking with orca's........ but with crocodiles??!!! Er no.
We saw our first Hippo's a short distance further along the river, just hanging out
on a sandbar in the middle of the river. Adult hippos, unsurprisingly given their rather large bulk, are not very buoyant, so rather than swimming they propel themselves along underwater by leaping along the river bed, pushing themselves off and along and surfacing every 4-5 mins to breathe - baby hippo's, unlike their parents, propel themselves by kicking their back legs. Our next glimpse of a Hippo was a large head that slowly appeared on the surface a short way from our boat - he looked at us for a few minutes then slowly submersed, popping up again a few minutes further down stream. A little further along we found a larger group close to the river bank.... including a cute baby hippo keeping close to his mum. Hippo's spend much of the day submerged in the water or mud, staying cool and preventing sunburn - with their eyes, ears, and nostrils all high on the roof of the skull they're perfectly adapted to this lifestyle, minimising the amount of their bodies they have to expose when they come up to breathe. As the day cools down though they increasingly venture out of the water in search off food... apparently
occasionally even making it into town......
I had one more day in St Lucia and spent most of it hanging out on the beach - making the most of the sunshine whilst trying to avoid being sandblasted by the wind. There are other activities to do in St Lucia, including whale watching, but I opted to move on and visit a nearby safari park, Hluhluwe Umfolozi, instead. The hostel I found was a 30min drive from Hluhluwe Umfolozi and completely isolated in its own peaceful park area. The next morning around 5.30am saw me huddled under a pile of blankets and wet weather gear as we sped towards the park in our rather breezy open sided safari vehicle. The day started out cold, overcast and windy... and pretty much stayed the same for the whole day - a shame because I think much of the wildlife sensibly took shelter in the forested area rather than venture onto the exposed hills and tracks where we could see it... but we still had a great time! The area of the park we were in, Hluhluwe, is green, rugged, hilly and even given the weather still quite beautiful. Our first sighting of
the day was a group of zebra and wildebeast grazing quietly together on a hill side - with the sun still low in the sky and the early morning light it made a stunning picture. Later on we pulled over on a hillside and sat watching a huge herd of elephants grazing together in the valley below. The highlight of the day for me though was the few seconds it took a rhino to thunder across the road right behind us - for an animal that's so bulky they really can move! Hluhluwe is home to both black and white rhino, the two species found in Africa - with @ 1,600 white rhino and 370 black rhino the park is currently focusing on trying to increase the numbers of the endangered black rhino. White rhino's (which are acutally more grey, or the colour of whatever dried mud they've recently been in) have a wide, square muzzle adapted for grazing, whereas black rhino's are hooked-lipped - the triangular shape enables them to feast on the leaves, buds and shoots of plants, bushes and trees. The black rhino is the smaller and more agile of the two, but both are odd-toed ungulates
(i.e. they have three toes on each foot). They also both have two horns, the longer of which sits at the front of the nose and measures up to 50inches long. It's for these that the rhino's are hunted, the major demand coming from Asia where they're used in traditional medicine and ornamental carvings. The rhino's horns aren't true horns though, rather they're formed from thickly matted hair-like keratin fibers pressed together which grow from the skull without skeletal support.
Next up - lost in Swaziland and a random detour to Mozambique.
There are more photos below