The Wild Hunt

Today’s Elwica’s birthday (I won’t reveal her age, as that will also be revealing my age), so as a birthday treat we again headed for the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park for a day of nature.

We timed our arrival perfectly, right as the gates opened, and were the first car to enter the park that day. This time around we headed for the iMfolozi side of the park and were greeted by a red African sunrise over valleys covered in fog…

Our first sightings of the day were a Nyala ram, followed by an Impala ram, but this was a day of elephants, and the first was having an early morning scratch against a handy tree as we encountered it.

This was followed by warthogs and more Impala (we encountered both continually throughout the day), giraffes, a young kudu bull, a Burchell’s Coucal, a Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, a Crested Barbet, and some Red-billed Oxpeckers (look closely at the orange warthog’s back), as well as some birds of prey we couldn’t see clearly enough to identify (I think the chap sitting with his back to us was a brown snake-eagle). We also saw some blue wildebeest and a rhino, as well as emerald-spotted doves, an African Stonechat and some starlings, none of which I could get proper photos of.

Then came what we thought would be the highlight of the day: our second elephant sighting. Or rather, elephants, plural – a whole herd of them, including some calves, crossing the road!

By this point the sun had climbed high in the sky, and we were seeing very few animals. The minion had passed out in the backseat as well, so we made our way back to the park’s rest camp for a picnic lunch, adding another giraffe, some impala and warthogs, and a Blue Waxbill to our list on the way.

Then we got robbed.

With South Africa still under lockdown, and travel only allowed within the province where you live, the rest camp was all but deserted. We picked a table in the shade and sat down to lunch, and within minutes some long-tailed visitors arrived. We paid them no mind – we’re used to monkeys, and they keep their distance back home. But we were not home.

At one point the wind blows a (now-empty) container off the table. I scramble to pick it up and as I’m placing it back on the table, the wife screams – while her head was turned away for a moment looking at me, a monkey had sneaked up behind her, grabbed her hand, and relieved her of the remainder of her burger (and it was a good burger, made with my secret sauce!).

The rest of lunch I was on my feet trying to keep the rest of the troop at bay, playing the scarecrow as Elizabeth described it. Not that it did much good – I swore they sat in the tree taunting me, one pooped on my car, and the thief, done with his burger, jumped from the tree onto our table to grab some fruit for dessert.

Getting the message that we weren’t welcome, we packed up and continued our drive, to encounter the real highlight of the day…

Yep, an entire herd of elephant, easily three times as big as the earlier one, crossing the dry bed of the Black Umfolozi river. We sat watching them for probably ten minutes. Each time we thought that’s all of them, some more would come into view. It was an incredible sight.

Did I say “real highlight” back there? We certainly didn’t think anything else we saw would top this encounter, but we had a few hours left in the day, so decided to head on to the Hluhluwe side of the park.

We saw some more nyalas, warthogs and a big herd of Impala, with two rams locking horns. Also some Zebra, a Southern Black Flycatcher, Crested Francolin, and Mocking Chat.

The road wound up the biggest hill in the park, and on the way down the other side we were stopped by some cars blocking the road. One driver helpfully reversed to inform us the hold-up is due to an elephant in the road – a massive bull enjoying a meandering late-afternoon meal of the trees growing by the roadside.

We had no choice but to wait for him to move on, but move on he did eventually. By this time the sun had disappeared behind the edge of the valley, but we wanted to take one last loop through the bush on the way to the gate, and it was good we did.

This loop gave us our one good rhino sighting of the day – a white rhino cow and calf, in the road right ahead of us. While this park has the largest population of white rhino in the world, we’d seen very few of them this time around. On this last stretch we also saw a crocodile on a mudbank in the Hluhluwe river, but it was too far away for a good photo.

On a straight bit of road we fell in behind two warthogs on their evening run. They ran ahead of us in the road for quite a bit before turning off into the bush. I accelerated, and as I passed them a face peered out from behind the bushes right ahead of the car – a face of a seriously ticked-off lioness!

The biggest mistake you can make on a safari like this is set your heart on seeing something specific, especially when it comes to the Big Five. Nonetheless, I’d gone into the day hoping to see the King of the Jungle (never mind that lions don’t actually occur in jungles…) I got the queen of the jungle instead, but she gave me more than I’d hoped for in my wildest dreams.

It would seem the lioness and her sister were lying in wait for the two ardent joggers. I threw the car in reverse to make room for the big cats so they won’t get spooked, but I needn’t have worried, because their attention were entirely on the bushes the warthogs had just disappeared into. The one disappeared back behind the bush while the other jumped out and circled round right in front of us, and between the wife shouting at me to close the windows and me trying to get my camera switched on there was barely enough time to get some photos before the second lioness also leapt into the bushes.

Moments later a warthog came into view through a break in the shrubbery with a lioness holding his ears in her jaws – Pumba in The Lion King objected to being called a pig, but believe me when I tell you a warthog squeals just like it’s domesticated cousins.

Warthogs have vicious tusks that can slice a lion’s belly open very easily, and it was clear our huntresses knew this fact. So rather than going for the throat, the first one just kept her grip on the squealing prey’s head while the other circled around looking for an opening.

Eventually they managed to get it turned on its back, exposing its belly, and at this point I decided to drive on – the wife was getting freaked out by the warthog’s anguished squeals, I didn’t really want the minion to witness a pig having its belly ripped open while still alive, and I spotted another car coming up behind us, so I pointed for them where to look and made way so they could bear witness to the remainder of the kill.

Seeing the big cats in the wild is special. Seeing then in their role as apex predator is indescribable!

And still the day had one more adventure in store…

Herd of Cape Buffalo

Coming round a bend in the road we found ourselves in the middle of a herd of buffalo.

While the big cats are not to be messed with, this is one of the most dangerous animals in the wild, in Africa second only to the hippopotamus. And they have no problem attacking vehicles if they feel threatened or get pissed off, so I always try to keep my distance. But here we were on a narrow road cut into a steep hillside with no way around them and no way to turn around.

So I switched off the engine and let them graze their way past us, inching the car forward (luckily it was downhill) slowly enough to move us through the herd without making them feel threatened.

And finally our day in the wild was done. We didn’t get to see the last of the Big Five, the leopard, nor did we see a hippo, which is really the sixth member of the quintet, but we’re not complaining.

We’re already planning our next trip, for my birthday next month…

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