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

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.

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.

We drove up a hill toward a clearing where a half-dozen people were picnicking. The elephant followed closely. "Get in your vehicles!" our guide shouted to the picnickers, and they seemed to pack up the coolers in slow motion as the animal approached.

We parked under some trees and held our breath, watching the elephant lumber toward us. Then, about 10 feet from the truck, close enough for his acrid scent to fill our nostrils, the creature stopped at a tree and started methodically scratching his leg, then his hip and finally his back before ambling down the hill to the river for a proper mud bath.

When he was gone, we got out of the truck and went over to the tree he'd used as a scratching post. It was still warm.

* * *

A night drive is a different beast altogether. Nighttime is when the big cats come out.

Three trucks left Hilltop in the late-afternoon drizzle in hot pursuit of game. Most of the people in our truck were looking for lions and leopards to round out their Big Five checklist. The trucks split up, taking different routes through the park, the rangers communicating over walkie-talkies. At one point, our driver got a message: "Lion!"

The sighting was at the other end of the park, about 10 minutes away, but our driver sped to meet the other two trucks. We were just in time to see a thick-maned male lion saunter into the woods.

As the sun set, we headed back to Hilltop and more animal sightings, this time with each of the drivers shining spotlights into the trees in the hope that we'd spot a leopard on one of the branches. We never saw one, but our lights caught a hyena on the side of the road, its eyes glowing before it vanished into the bush.

The next morning, we hit the road at 5 for a game walk at Munyawaneni Bush Lodge, a 15-minute drive away. Eight of us -- three Americans, a German, an Irishwoman, a Swiss couple and a South African -- gathered around our guide, who had a rifle slung casually over his shoulder. He gave us the ground rules: Walk single file, don't talk, and if a rhino or elephant threatens to charge, watch for instructions or hide behind a tree. Abby went wide-eyed and confessed later that she'd spent the entire hike looking for trees big enough to hide behind. I wondered if the guide had ever had to shoot an animal.

Our trek yielded little but rough brush until we spotted a rhino sleeping in a mud trench, barely visible across a field. Our guide cautioned us to be quiet and not wake the animal, then led us closer. "We're walking toward the rhino?" Abby whispered incredulously.

But we never roused the creature -- just squinted at it through binoculars from a rise in a clearing. Our trek was further rewarded two hours later, when we happened upon a clearing where antelopes and zebras were grazing side by side. We watched them, transfixed, as the sun rose over the mountains.

Back at the chalet, we bagged up our muddy clothes and checked out, but that wasn't the end of our animal adventures. As we drove away, we spotted one zebra scratching itself on a post; nearby, another pair play-fought near a pack of impalas. We pulled over to watch, laughing at their antics. Our brief visit was thrilling up to the very last minute.

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