Animals, birds on the KwaZulu-Natal menu

Paul Bloomfield steels himself for close encounters with wildlife wonders in KwaZulu-Natal

PREMIUM

Strange things happen after dark in St Lucia.
Each night, after the swollen crimson sun melts into the lake, a special kind of horticultural magic begins. And each morning, the townsfolk of this tidy settlement wake to neatly trimmed parks and front lawns. But it’s not benevolent elves indulging in nocturnal mowing: it’s hippos.
By day, some 1,200 of them guffaw in the shallow waters of Lake St Lucia. After dusk they emerge to feed, many cropping the grass lining these gridded streets. Which makes an evening stroll to the bar a nerve-jangling prospect, as I discovered on my first night in SA.
“Don’t worry,” my guesthouse host averred. “Take a powerful torch and, if you see a hippo, nip around the block to avoid it.” Nip? Really? To dodge a tetchy two-ton beast with an 30km/h sprint and a bite that can bisect a croc?
No, I didn’t stumble upon any – though I did spot a miscreant honey badger shambling into the police station. But this illustrates the casual wildness of north-east KwaZulu-Natal. This province is popular with South Africans savvy to its natural and cultural diversity, abbreviated in the Four Bs: beaches, battlefields, bergs (the dramatic peaks of the Drakensberg mountains) and bush thronging with wildlife.
I hired a car at Durban airport and steered north towards St Lucia, at the southern tip of iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
This “miracle and wonder”, as the park’s Zulu name translates, is a vast mosaic of lakes, estuaries, forest, savannah and coast hosting well over half of SA’s 800-odd bird species, plus plentiful mammals including the Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. Options for experiencing its wonders are varied: horseriding, cycling, lake cruises, even snorkelling or diving on coral reefs at Sodwana Bay or Kosi Bay, where fishermen catch mullet in woven traps.
My first slice of iSimangaliso was served by local guide Sakhile on a four-wheel-drive tour. Tall, charismatic, with an infectious grin and booming voice, Sakhile introduced the region’s Zulu heritage as well as its animals.
Winding between wild date palms, waterberry trees and aromatic wild jasmine, we passed a zeal of zebras, a troop of baboons and grazing white rhino. Midday found us at Cape Vidal, where the Indian Ocean foams on to a ribbon of gold. While Sakhile sparked up the braai I plunged into the balmy surf before basking on warm sand in which leatherback and loggerhead turtles nest. And as we munched boerewors the largest locals waved offshore: humpback whales.
Between September and March, an estimated 19,000 humpbacks migrate from Antarctic feeding grounds to breed in warmer seas off Africa’s east coast. And at dawn next day I sailed out to bob among these boisterous cetaceans. Within minutes I was surrounded by nursing mothers and 15-ton behemoths leaping from the swells.
Back on shore and breakfasted, I scooted an hour west to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Founded in 1895, it’s one of Africa’s oldest and most beguiling, about 960km² of savannah, scrub and rocky escarpments hosting most of the ticklist safari species, notably the horned kind. During the sixties the southern white rhino was brought back from the brink of extinction thanks largely to efforts in this park, now home to 2,000 white rhino and 200 critically endangered black rhino.
SA has many Big Five reserves; what sets this one apart is its wilderness trails programme, a no-vehicles, no-phones, no-timepieces concept.
At midday I joined a band of intrepid hikers to absorb trail tenets from lead guide Zephian before starting the hike. “First rule: never run, even if charged – you’ll provoke a chase.” Nervously, I eyed the rifles Zephian and his backup, Ntuli, clasped. What comfort they offered ebbed with his next instruction: “Follow my commands without question – even if I tell you to run. If we annoy an old ’daga boy’ buffalo or black rhino, you may need to dash behind – or up – a tree.”
Minutes later we were splashing across the White Umfolozi river, scanning for hippos and crocs. We walked in silence, animal alerts issued through clicks and tocks as Zephian and Ntuli pointed out zebra in the scrub, baboons scampering towards their leopard-proof clifftop roost, and lumpy rhino middens.
As afternoon waned to evening, sounds intensified. While we gathered firewood, another noise drifted from a nearby thicket: huffs and whinnies betraying rhinos within. My heart lurched: black rhinos are pointier, faster and grumpier even than hippos. Oh, but, they say, rhinos have poor eyesight. And that’s a relief how? In any case, peering through the greenery, Zephian identified docile whites, and for 10 minutes we shared air with a quartet of horned mammal-tanks. Such priceless moments demonstrate why walking in the African bush is like performing in front of a large audience: invigoratingly terrifying. That said, the objective here isn’t to find big beasts – though elephants, hippos and more rhinos all made appearances. Rather, it’s what is now dubbed “mindfulness”, though that buzzword was decades away when iMfolozi’s wilderness trails were conceived in the fifties.
In any case, after three days the closest I’d come to a spotted or maned predator was a leopard tortoise lumbering across our path. Perhaps that would change at my last destination, Manyoni Private Game Reserve, an hour to the north. There, just seven small lodges stud archetypal safari terrain populated by the Big Five plus cheetah and wild dog. My own stylish base, Mavela, provided luxury that might bust budgets elsewhere in Africa. Having dropped bags in my expansive “tent”, I hopped in an open-topped Land Rover for the first of four safaris curated by Nico and Alec, young guides with stiletto-sharp eyes. Over successive morning and evening drives, two points became apparent. First, though Manyoni doesn’t boast the game density of, say, Ngorongoro or even Kruger, it offers a commensurately intimate experience: in three days we met just two other safari vehicles. Second, the wildlife is enchanting, not least the spectacular birds.
Not that heart-stopping animal encounters are off the menu. On the contrary: animals are the menu – at least, for a pair of cheetahs that streaked across our path to dispatch an impala. Elsewhere, an immodest five-ton bull elephant showered at a trail-side waterhole, rhinos rumbled into the scrub and ostrich parents shepherded their fluffy brood.
On our final morning game drive I exchanged yawns with three cheetah cubs.
Then – as if to order, just before the end of my SA sojourn – a black-maned male lion made his entrance.
Humpback whales before breakfast, rhino before supper, lions before lunch: just a selection of the amuse-bouches served on the Elephant Coast. – The Telegraph
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