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In the Hluhluwe Reserve, the Game Was Afoot -- and So Were We

Oblivious to onlookers 10 feet away, a bull elephant scratches itself on the trunk of a sturdy tree.
Oblivious to onlookers 10 feet away, a bull elephant scratches itself on the trunk of a sturdy tree. (By Christina Talcott -- The Washington Post)

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Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia
By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008

As day broke over the rugged South African landscape, my only chance at survival was to follow the man holding the gun.

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Eight of us trudged single file behind him on the rocky trail, dodging thorns and scanning the horizon for trees to hide behind in case an elephant or rhino charged us. We'd paid almost $25 apiece to follow the guide on foot with wild animals roaming around -- and I was loving every minute of it.

I'd gone to South Africa to visit my friend Abby, an American graduate student doing her fieldwork in anthropology in KwaZulu-Natal province. She mapped out our destinations: Cape Town, the Winelands, Durban, Johannesburg and Ladysmith, where she had lived for almost a year. But I wanted to visit a game park, too. Abby wisely nixed Kruger; South Africa's renowned park in the north was too far away for us to squeeze into an already ambitious itinerary. She suggested instead Hluhluwe Game Reserve, about a two-hour drive north of Durban and one of 15 game parks managed by the KwaZulu-Natal's park service.

For an animal lover, Hluhluwe was heaven. For a city lover, its proximity to Durban -- a hilly, artsy, colorful city on the Indian Ocean -- meant I could see and do more than I thought possible in just 19 days in South Africa.

* * *

Hluhluwe (pronounced something like "shloo-shloo-way") is the oldest game park in Africa. Once the hunting ground of Zulu kings, the park was opened by the ruling British government in 1895, three years before Kruger was established. Hluhluwe is next to iMfolozi Game Reserve, also run by Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, and animals are free to roam between the two parks.

Hluhluwe is home to hundreds of species of birds and more than 50 kinds of mammals, including the "Big Five": lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo. By the end of my 2 1/2 -day visit, I'd been on two game drives and one game walk and had seen four of the five (no leopards) as well as giraffes, zebras, antelopes, warthogs, wildebeests, a hyena, loads of colorful birds, and exotic insects such as dung and rhinoceros beetles.

We arrived on a Monday afternoon, and as soon as we drove through the park gates, we started seeing critters: an elephant stomping through the brush just off the road, a pair of white rhinos quietly grazing, water buffaloes languidly soaking in mud puddles, zebras snacking in a pack. And that was just on the nine-mile drive to Hilltop Camp, where we were staying, and all in Abby's little white Mercury Tracer.

The next morning we set out on a game drive with our guide, a blond South African who cheerfully answered every question we lobbed at her from the back seat. We didn't expect to see much, since we'd heard that the animals lie low in the heat of the day. But in less than half an hour, we saw a glimpse of gray: a bull elephant, 50 feet away.

"He's in must," she told us, eyeing the elephant cautiously. When males are ready to mate, they can be highly unpredictable.

We froze as he started walking toward us. Then, all of a sudden, he flopped down and began rolling in a small mud puddle 20 feet from the dirt road. "You never see this," the guide told us gleefully as Abby and I laughed and took pictures.

Then he started toward us again.


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