As we rounded the bend, a water hole came into sight. “Six zebras, two elephants, three, no, four rhinos. And a baby rhino!” My 14-year-old daughter Maia was taking the tally, and as we eased closer she caught sight of a herd of impalas in the brown grass at the treeline, “and giraffes! You can see giraffe heads sticking out of the jungle!”
Hitting a fork in the road, I checked the detailed map that came with our park entry and gestured for my husband to turn left. This took us to the edge of the man-made water hole, where we watched an elephant slurp up water with his trunk and spray himself with the stream. At his feet, a family of warthogs lapped up the overspray, while a few metres away the rhinos were relaxing under a leafless tree. Checking through binoculars, I confirmed they had the squared-off lips of a white rhino – rather than the hooked mouth of a black rhino. “And they’re in a group; black rhinos are solitary,” Maia chimed in.
We were two days into our DIY safari in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, a public wildlife park in South Africa, and had spotted three of the country’s big five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) and a dizzying number of antelope, birds and smaller mammals. We also learned our assumptions about safaris – that they’re expensive, luxurious and only doable with an expert guide – weren’t entirely true. South Africans have long gone on safari in a more economical way: by driving their own car, or a rental (from $25 a day), visiting one of the country’s numerous public wildlife parks (less than $20 a day admission), and staying in park accommodations (as little as $50 a night including breakfast).
While a DIY safari may sound risky, hundreds of thousands of people self-drive in South Africa’s dozens of public parks every year. Besides offering an unparalleled sense of adventure, self-driving is a safe way to explore at your own pace – providing you follow the park’s basic rules, which include keeping below the speed limit, staying inside your car and never driving closer than 20 metres to large animals. Choosing a park is also straightforward. In our case, we were looking for one near Durban that wasn’t well-known outside of South Africa. We were interested in seeing animals rather than crowds, and the 960-square-kilometre Hluhluwe (pronounced Shloe-shloe-we) Imfolozi reserve, once the royal hunting ground of Zulu kings, seemed perfect.
Established in 1895, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi gained fame when it was credited with saving the white rhino from extinction. Operation Rhino, which started with 100 individuals, re-established the park’s population and then sent more than 3,500 animals outside the park to restock the creature’s former range. But despite the protection of park boundaries, we learned rhinos are still in danger from poaching. While adding our animals to one of the park’s large, magnetic sightings maps (which can help people locate animals they haven’t seen yet) with elephant, buffalo, eland and giraffe symbols, we wanted to add a rhino magnet, but couldn’t find one. A nearby ranger (they are found throughout the park) explained that in order to protect the rhinos, they keep both their location and the population numbers a secret.
After a day of exploring some of the park’s 300 kilometre of well-maintained paved and dirt roads, we headed back to Hilltop Camp. We were spending the night in one of the camp’s traditional rondavels (roundhouses), but lodging options in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi (and most other parks) ranges from self-catered camping to luxury bush lodges (complete with a chef).
Our thatched roofed cabin was simply outfitted with two beds with fluffy blankets to ward off the high-country chill, a basic bathroom and a fridge for keeping our boerewors (sausages) and wine cold. Outside we had a braai (barbecue) area and could access shared kitchen space. Though fenced, the camp also sported a variety of warning signs – reminding us to check for lions, leopards and elephants before venturing too far from our cabin – which helped us decide that we didn’t really need to walk to the camp’s restaurant for the free WiFi and an evening cocktail.
Traditionally, dawn and dusk at a water hole are the best times and place to see animals. But three years of devastating drought conditions have changed animal behaviour in southern Africa. We set off at dawn to head toward the nearest water hole, and after a stand-off with a cape buffalo, waiting while his entire herd made their casual way across the road, we arrived at a patch of mud. We could see signs that an elephant had dug a depression in search of water, but other than a few birds, the area was empty.
Over breakfast at Hilltop’s restaurant, a ranger told us that most animals were now spending much of their time grazing, in an effort to obtain enough moisture. The larger mammals were also moving south, heading toward the park’s last remaining water.
The White Umfolozi, Black Umfolozi and the Hluhluwe Rivers all run through the park, and in normal years, they keep the water holes filled. Now, though, only the Black Umfolozi had water, and even that was being supplemented by water trucks. Following the animals, we headed on near-empty roads over grassland hills and through thickets of jungle; stopping when a herd of zebras filled the road, and again when we came across a couple of vehicles parked near a majestic, heavy-horned kudu. Though it was high season, the park is expansive enough that we only sporadically saw other vehicles. And when we did, it was usually a sign that someone had spotted an animal.
Gradually, the Hluhluwe’s dry riverbed was replaced by the relatively lush banks of the Black Umfolozi – though we’d yet to see water. Then we started to see the elephants; one herd across the veldt, another on the ridge. When we reached a bridge, we encountered water – as well as a third herd of elephants, a pair of giraffes and dozens of zebras.
Later, after a long morning of driving, we stopped for lunch at Sontuli picnic area – one of the few places we could get out of our car. As we ate, we caught sight of a black rhino lying in a muddy patch in the dry river. He had dug a depression to get a drink and became stuck in the drying mud. Another visitor made an emergency cellphone call to the park rangers. Then we nervously watched the exhausted rhino roll from side to side, trying to get up, behaviour that was normal, but typically not so difficult. Finally, he struggled free.
As a parting gift, the rangers mentioned a mother leopard and her cubs were nearby. Driving down a dusty road, we watched for signs of the leopards in the trees. Instead of the cats, though, we were rewarded with a mother and baby giraffe. Minutes later, we had a too-close encounter when two young white rhinos stepped out of the scrub just metres in front of us. Signs throughout the park warned us young rhinos could be unpredictable and offered advice in case of an encounter. So staying quiet, we rolled up our windows and then gently reversed, giving the animals the space they needed.
Exhaling a sigh of relief, we watched them graze – taking in their massive form, the size of their horns and even the scratches on their backs – awed that this simple moment, with these incredible creatures, was ours alone.
IF YOU GO
There are dozens of public wildlife parks in South Africa – ranging from popular national parks, such as Kruger, to sprawling, lesser-known provincial parks. The smallest crowds and best availability for affordable accommodation (the entry fees are similar) are often found in smaller national parks such as Addo Elephant National Park or Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Parks, such as Hluhluwe-Imfolozi.
While companies offer safaris in the parks, you’ll find the same animals by exploring with your own rental car (use the free map and guidebook you get with your entry ticket). You can also join a park-ranger-guided game drive.
At Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, the park conservation fee/entry is $15.60 a person. A rondavel is $75 double occupancy a night and a ranger-guided game drive costs $29 a person.