There are always a few ‘must-do’s’ when visiting a country. For us, it was the rice paddies and pandas in China, the S21 and bamboo train in Cambodia, the Taj Mahal in India, you get the picture.
Now that we were in South Africa, our must-do was a safari. Going on the advise of our wonderful neighbours back home, Andrew and Suzanne, we headed to St. Lucia in the province of KwaZulu Natal. One of the reserves they suggested was the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi which was only an hour away from St. Lucia. Kruger park was where I really wanted to go but it was too far away and quite frankly too expensive for a family of four travelling for a year.
I had never even heard of the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi reserve but who was I to argue this late in the game? Andrew was originally from South Africa and his recommendations were really all that we were going on. I booked a safari tour with TripAdvisor’s #1 rated tour company, Heritage Tours and Safaris. Kruger National Park would have cost us several thousands but the all-day tour I booked was a mere $2900 Rand (about $300 Cdn). At that price, I really wasn’t holding my breath for anything half decent to come out of it. At the very least, I would be able to say that I went on a safari in South Africa, right?
As far as I’m concerned our day was not off to a good start. To start, we had to meet up with our tour guide, Rick, at 5:00 am. I wasn’t so sure of Rick’s qualifications. He looked more like a surfer-dude than a knowledgeable guide that would help us spot the ‘Big 5’. And as it turned out, the drive to Hluhluwe/iMfolozi was cold, bumpy and dark. I was pretty certain that this was going to be a very long, long day.
With a quick stop at the reserve gates we headed in to start our search for some animal sightings. Ranger Rick spotted some specks of grey on the ridge of the mountain side. With our binoculars we were in fact able to make out the rhino munching on some grass.
Driving further along Rick pointed out another speck which turned out to be giraffe. Not too shabby. As it turned out, Rick has hawk eyes. I was beginning to get excited.
We spotted numerous Impala. With their perfect markings and big doe eyes you can’t help but love the sight of them. While Impala may have grace and beauty on their side, they are, unfortunately, also at the bottom of the food chain here.
Next we spotted, what in my mind, is the polar opposite to the beauty of the Impala. The scruffy, nasty looking warthog. The have a face that only a mother could love. Yet, I was still excited to see them.
We were on a roll. Rick stopped the truck and asked us what we wanted to see. Emma immediately piped up and requested zebra and giraffe. I seconded the request. Mike was hoping for an elephant (especially after seeing the elephants chained up in Thailand). Jacob was more than happy to see just about anything. It was a pretty lofty list, to say the least. I didn’t even bother throwing in my secret wish to see a cat….lion, cheetah, leopard, serval, caracal. It really didn’t matter. With the odds of spotting anything, any cat would do.
Rick found a quiet breakfast spot overlooking the river. It was only 7:30, but we were starving. The food was good and the coffee was much appreciated.
After breakfast was when things started to really pick up for us. It’s not your average drive when you round the corner and nearly fall off your seat when you spot this:
WHOA! This fella was massive and there was nothing but a piece of thin canvas and about 10 feet between us. Just looking at the size of his tusk and the girth of him made me instantly feel very small and vulnerable. It was quite clear as to why the Rhino was classified as one of the Big-5. Rick carefully and quietly gave us all the details about the rhinos characteristics and behaviours as we sat in awe, starring at this creature.
We carried on. Rick stopped numerous times along the way, pointing out and naming various interesting birds, bugs, plants and spiders along the way.
Did you know that a vulture will follow the lions in hopes to locate it’s next carcass to devour and the hyenas look to the skies to follow the vultures to lead them to their next meal as well?
He allowed ample time for us to ask questions, zoom in with our binoculars, adjust the settings on my camera and of course, to take pictures. I think I may have sold him short.
It wasn’t long before we spotted a giraffe. No, not just one giraffe but four! I was elated! We took our time to watch them munching the leaves off the trees and there was even a male and female playfully necking.
One giraffe in particular was a true show-stopper. He stood in the middle of the road posing for me like a Hollywood star while I took his picture. He would turn his head this way and that until he was certain that I got his ‘good-side’. Such a cheeky boy.
These are my two favourite shots:
We also spotted a Blue Wildebeest.
Then there were some Kudu.
Another one of the Big-5 is the Buffalo.
Emma got her wish as well. I wish that I had taken a picture of her beaming face when we came across zebra standing along the roadside. Not only that, one of them had a recent wound on it’s hind-quarter where a cat nearly brought it too it’s demise. Seeing that made me realize just how real the wild is.
If there was nothing more to spot, I would have been happy as a clam with all that we had seen up to that point. It felt like a we had already won the lottery but that wasn’t where it was going to spot. Another ranger had spotted a travelling herd of elephants that weren’t too far off.
Travelling herd was an understatement, if you ask me. Rick informed us that this herd was totally around 120 elephants and they had been rather elusive for the last eight months. Even Rick was excited to spot them.
They were everywhere. You knew that the herd was healthy when there were numerous babies spotted walking alongside their momma’s.
There were also several elephants happily playing and bathing in the mud holes.
The icing on the cake and a my secret wish of seeing a cat came true when we spotted these absolutely gorgeous lionesses on the prowl for some impala that were not too far away.
The day had proven to be a surreal experience and we hadn’t even had lunch yet. Before heading back to St. Lucia, Rick prepared a Braai for us and made sure that our bellies were full. As it turns out, Rick is the son of a Game Ranger and he grew up accompanying is dad on many safari’s, learning about nature along the way. This was when we also discovered that he was in fact an avid surfer as well. I’ll admit that I was too quick to judge based on his looks, but I wasn’t too far off either.
Well we managed to spot 4 or the Big-5 with only the shy and elusive cheetah not making it on the list. I think we had a pretty amazing day. Beyond amazing, actually. It was a surreal experience. I couldn’t have been more wrong just a few hours earlier. We had such an amazing time that we decided to book a tent for two days later so that we could sleep at the reserve.
I do have to thank Suzanne and Andrew for the amazing suggestion. They surely did not lead us astray but rather saved us thousands of dollars and helped us create an experience and memories that will undoubtably last us a lifetime.