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Published: September 29th 2009
Mother and baby white rhino
The St Lucia Wetland Park is located on the Elephant Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, north of Durban. I was staying in the small town of St Lucia, located on a small peninsula at the mouth of the St Lucia Estuary.
My day began with a kayak safari in the estuary, home to crocodiles, hippos and an abundance of birdlife, including fish eagles, kingfishers and numerous others I don't know the names of. My guide and I set off in our two-person kayaks, and headed straight away to a group of hippos resting in the shallow water near the bank. Resting our kayaks on a sandbank between us and the hippos, we sat and watched as they did what all hippos tend to do... nothing. More active were the 4 or 5 crocs, some about 2 metres long, lounging on the banks. They dived into the water as we approached, disappearing in the murkiness. Our trip continued north upstream, where the water was at points only a foot or so deep. After stopping to watch a kingfisher, I put my right paddle into the water to push off and felt it hit something hard... a croc, which immediately jumped forward, rocking the
kayak as it was hit by his tail. Luckily, he decided not to take issue with me and simply swam off... phew!
After safely negotiating a male hippo back to the launch, a went for a walk in the park (not feeling brave enough to venture over the fence bearing a sign saying 'Warning: wild animals beyond this point, enter at your own risk' (I didn't mind the impala, but taking my chances with leopards and elephants was a bit much!) then drove north to one of South Africa's premier wildlife reserves - the unpronounceable Hluhluwe-Imfolozi (sometimes spelt Umfolozi, with 'Hluhluwe' always pronounced 'shlushluwe'. I didn't ask why). The park is famous for its role in protecting and reviving the rhino, and in particular the endangered black rhino. As I hadn't got too close to any rhino on my previous safaris, I wanted a chance to really see them properly.
I decided to drive myself around the park rather than book onto a guided tour, so for the princely sum of 30 rand, I bought myself a map and took Guppy through the gates. Within 2 minutes, the road was blocked by a female white rhino and her
An impala grooming session
baby... 5 minutes later, another single adult. Not long after, a herd of giraffe appeared at the side of the road... the Hyena safari luck had obviously rubbed off! Despite their huge size and bulk, all of the rhino I encountered were timid and peaceful. They always acknowledged approaching cars, but after a short stand-off period, they invariably retreated, either heading off into the bush or ambling alongside munching the grass. Jumping from the driver seat into the passenger seat whenever I found them on the wrong side of the car, I managed to get within a few metres of their horns, and watched as small gangs of birds meticulously cleaned the rhino of ticks - sometimes even venturing into their nostrils or mouths! For anyone wanting to see rhino up close, I'd suggest spending a day at Hluhluwe!
It was a long day, driving for about 11 hours in the park, and sadly I didn't see any of Hluhluwe's big cats or the elusive black rhino. But it gave me an opportunity to see zebra, giraffe, impala, kudu, nyala, warthogs and a host of other animals at very close quarters, in a heavily-wooded landscape very different to the
The sun goes down over a burning Hluhluwe landscape
open game parks further north. I left the park amid controlled fires similar to those seen in the Drakensbergs, filling the air with smoke beneath the pink setting sun. There was a tense moment as I drove towards the exit, when a large male white rhino blocked the road ahead. But after a few minutes of indecision, he obviously recognised the superior power of my Kia Picanto, and stood aside.
The next day I headed north through Swaziland. I wish I could show you photos of some exciting Swazi cultural festivals, or locals wearing traditional Swazi clothes, but in truth it looked a lot like South Africa (only less wealthy), and I couldn't summon the enthusiasm to head out to one of the cultural villages. So I drove straight through... my only adventure being the border crossing back into South Africa at Bulembu. It looks quicker on the map, but unless you enjoy hours driving on muddy dirt tracks through deep forrested valleys, don't do it!
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