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Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

Nature reserves iSimangaliso and Hluhluwe Umfolozi

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Hippoes in St. Lucia Lake

Several nature reserves in Kwazulu-Natal are visited from St Lucia. In iSimangaliso Wetland Park (formerly Greater St. Lucia) around Lake St Lucia you can see hippoes and crocodiles. At night you can catch the eyes of zebras, antelopes and Cape buffalo in the headlights of your car. Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve is home to the Big Five: white and black rhino, leopard, lion, elephant and buffalo.

Travelogue & photos: Jan Noot

We fly via Tripoli to Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. It takes some effort to find the car rental, but the car is ready, so we throw our luggage in the trunk and leave for St. Lucia on the Elephant Coast, Kwazulu-Natal's east coast.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Hilly surroundings of Johannesburg

Initially we are a little tense: it's been a long time since we drove on the left side of the road. Everything in the car is the mirror image of what we're used to. During the first hour we frequently turn on the windshield wipers when we want to use the direction indicator. Luckily the pedals are the same as at home.

After we have left the urban area around Johannesburg behind us, we drive through a hilly landscape with pastures and corn fields. Cows and goats roam free on the side of the road.

We see fields of sugarcane and vast pineapple plantations. The roadsides are full of walking people, who sometimes quickly cross the road. There are women in colorful dresses, carrying all kinds of things on their heads. Other women sit in groups at the side of the road with merchandise. There are children in school uniforms in various color combinations. Every now and then an oncoming biker misses our car by a hair's breadth.

We drive to Ermelo via Middelburg. It's a strange experience to see those familiar names of Dutch towns here.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Via Middelburg to Ermelo

In some places the road is in terrible condition, with potholes that we try to avoid by meandering around them. We see some small lakes, some of which are dry, with dozens of pale pink flamingoes, napping in the warm morning sun.

We pass through Piet Retief and around Swaziland. Piet Retief is a lively town with red brick houses; cars drive crisscross over roads riddled with potholes. School girls are dancing on the sidewalk. There are markets with all kinds of fruit stacked in neat piles. Peeled pineapple is sold on sticks, like giant lollypops. Stores are often just square concrete boxes without windows.

The landscape gets rougher and in the distance we see high, overgrown hills. On the side of the road are shrubs and low trees with their characteristic flat crowns. Lots of production woods with thin, dead straight trees. We often see those trees later as lumber: in huge stacks on the side of the road, in the backs of large trucks and on train wagons.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - St. Lucia, view from Stokkiesdraai

In those hills are villages with traditional round huts with thatched roofs. Skinny chickens try to scratch a meal from the bare sand. There also are small, dark square houses with only one window. In other villages barracks-like buildings stand in line like soldiers on the hills.

We drive via Mtubatuba to St. Lucia. So far we haven't seen any wild animals, to our children's disappointment, only birds. When we see traffic signs that warn us for elephants and hippoes, the trip immediately becomes more interesting. We see a small grey monkey on the side of the road.

Our simple, but comfortable accomodation in St. Lucia lies between restaurants and hotels with many stars. We have a great view of a huge garden with lots of trees. It borders on a river-like arm of Lake St. Lucia.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Careful! Hippoes and crocodiles

In the back of the garden is a sign on a tree: Watch out for hippoes and crocodiles. Inside there are geckoes, which walk upside down on the ceiling or on the brick walls.

St. Lucia's main street, MacKenzie Street, used to be a path that was used by hippoes. And you can still find them at night on meadows in quiet streets. Already on the first evening we see two hippoes in our own backyard, grazing peacefully.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - St. Lucia, hippoes in our backyard

It's great to see those behemoths with their pink bellies and mouths. But some respect is in order: they are extremely dangerous. There is no animal in Africa that makes more victims. Once, in Uganda, I got chased by a hippo because I got too close. My legs are still shaking.

Lake St. Lucia

Hippoes disappear underwater with a gurgling sound

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Goliath heron on the shore of Lake St. Lucia

The next day we take a boat trip on Lake St. Lucia for a hippo and croc tour. The lake is part of the wetlands reserve iSimangaliso (formerly Greater St. Lucia). The weather is wonderful and it's very pleasant to be on the water.

The shores of Lake St. Lucia are overgrown with shrubs, low trees and reeds. We see dozens of nests of weavers hanging from reed stalks like X-mas decorations on a tree. A big Goliath heron looks at us with its beak wide open.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Smiling hippo in Lake St. Lucia

Every now and then a hippo sticks its head out of the water, only to disappear with a gurgling sounds after a few seconds. We also see herds of hippoes, all huddled together and for the larger part underwater. One of them yawns and then - smiling - lays its head on the back on another one.

In a tree on the shore sits an osprey with a white head and dark brown body. A kingfisher is sitting on a twig in a shrub, a bright blue spot amidst the grey tones of the surroundings.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Kingfisher: a bright blue spot, Lake St. Lucia

We see some crocodiles, seemingly napping, with their long jaws wide open. Their teeth glisten in the sunlight. According to our guide and boatsman there is too much wind today to see many crocodiles.

This man's monotonous voice, that keeps droning on, begins to irritate me, especially because of the standard jokes: "Hippo's are just like students. They sleep all day and are awake at night. The only difference is that they eat the grass, and don't smoke it." LOL!

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Osprey at Lake St. Lucia

On the way back we pass our accomodation and also from the boat we notice that we have a wonderful view there. At the pier we are welcomed by a group of Zulu kids, who perform a wild looking dance. Others bang broken drums with sticks.

In the evening we have dinner in one of the many restaurants and have an ice-cold Castle beer with it. On the way home, a man runs after us with my photo camera in his hand: I left it in the restaurant. I can't thank him enough!

Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve

The warthogs are so ugly that they're beautiful

The next day we get up early and join Jack, our English and African speaking guide and driver, to Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve, on of the largest nature reserves in South Africa. This park was founded in 1895 to save the almost extinct white and black rhinos. At the time, there were only ten white rhinos left.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Pick-up truck at the entrance of Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve

The large pick-up truck has more than enough room for the four of us. We cross the park on asphalted roads in excellent condition. There are also bumpy, red dirt roads. The landscape is hilly and densely overgrown.

We expect to find animals in the lower lying parts, where there is less vegetation. But a safari in Africa is not the same as a visit to the zoo or a safari park: you have to drive a lot and look around carefully to see game. The excitement about what we will see compensates for a lot.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - White rhinos in Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve

There are fresh elephant turds and impressively big lion tracks in the sand. Soon we see some white rhinos, near the side of the road.

The name of these impressive animals, which disappear as soon as we see them, has nothing to do with their color, according to Jack. It is a corruption of the Dutch word "wijd" (wide). This kind of rhino has much wider lips than its black counterpart. Another difference is in the horns: white rhinos' horns are different in length and black rhinos' horns have equal lenghts. Saving the rhinos was successful. There are hundreds of individuals of each kind now.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Impalas in Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve

Our guide has also a nice story about the hundreds of impalas that live here. These graceful animals are "fast food" for predators. The black stripes on their behinds look a lot like a letter that is used as a logo by a hamburger chain. Jack laughs when he tells the story. "Great, man!" is his favorite expression.

Beauty can also be found in small things. We both literally and figuratively stand still at a dung beetle, which is pushing a perfectly round ball of dung in front of itself. The ball is used to impress females. The bigger, the better. The dung beetle is the Hercules of the animal world: it can push fifty times its own weight.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Vultures in Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve

A large flock of vultures has gathered around the remains of a zebra. A loose leg lies aside in the grass as evidence of the recent slaughter.

It's interesting to see the hierarchy among the vultures. The mighty birds jump around on the grass and fly up when a superior bird demands its place. A large bird of a different species watches condescendingly from a dead tree.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - View of the river in Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve

We enjoy the wonderful view of the rivers, the White and Black Umfolozi. Initially we don't see animals at the watering places on this sunny and very hot day, apart from a lone giraffe. But it provides us with a pretty view.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Drinking giraffe in Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve

It's interesting to watch this animal drink, almost clumsily, its long legs oddly contorted to be able to reach the water.

Then it rises, shakes of some waterdrops and strides off in a dignified way.

A little further we see some Cape buffalo in and around a pond. In the shade of a tree are warthogs, zebras and wildebeests with brown calves. As they get older, their color changes to grey. Every now and then we see them very close to the car.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Vulture in Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve

Far in the distance we see a few elephants, for the most part hidden by shrubs. Some impalas drink from a pond with brown water. Thorny bushes quiver in the heat.

We have a wonderful lunch at one of the picnic places. Jack is not only a good guide and chauffeur, but also a great cook. After lunch we drive around for a few more hours, but only see a kudu, some baboons and more warthogs. We can't get enough of the latter: they are so ugly that they are beautiful. They run away every time on their thin, dapper legs, with their tails straight up: an antenna to show the way to the animals behind them.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Warthogs in Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve

We see another group of elephants disappear amazingly fast behind a hill. Today we unfortunately don't see any predators. That is not so strange if you realize that there are only 120 lions in this almost 100,000 hectare big area. All in all, a wonderful day. Great, man!

When we get back, Belinda, one of the two receptionists, tells us that a few days ago a leopard was spotted walking in the backyard. So they are here.

Our hostel's name is Stokkiesdraai. Debbie, the manager, tells us about the origin of the name. We guess it has to do with a spit. No. It has to do with skipping classes. In the past children often had to help out in the vineyards, for example with turning young vines - wich wind themselves around sticks - so all leaves would be equally exposed to the sun. "Turning sticks" was usually done during school hours.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Velvet monkey on stone bench

A group of velvet monkeys lives near Stokkiesdraai in the trees and shrubs. They often sit on the stone benches that stand here and there in the garden.

Every now and then they cross the lawn looking for food. They open trashcans and make a mess. One of the monkeys sits in a tree, licking the salt from an empty chips bag.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Velvet monkey on trashcan

We visit the St. Lucia beach, a few kilometers from the town. It is a hot day again. There is a small parking lot in the shade of some trees. A young man offers to watch our car for a small fee. We don't feel unsafe, but we still give him some money.

The beach is practically deserted. It looks like a European beach, with yellow sand and a strong surf. It's dangerous to swim here because of the strong undercurrents.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Beach

We continue on to Cape Vidal, a beach 30 kilometers north of St. Lucia. We cross the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. It was put on the Unesco World Heritage list a few year ago. Because we are not allowed to drive faster than 40 k/p/h, we get a good look at the warthogs, zebras and impalas.

The beach looks the same and is just as deserted as the one at St. Lucia, but the water is much safer because of a reef. There isn't a lot of shade, so the high surf is refreshing.

Evening safari iSimangaliso

Catching eyes in the headlights of the pick-up truck

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Cameleon in iSimangaliso

The evening safari on the same day takes us again to iSimangaliso Wetland Park. And again Jack is our guide. Great, man! In the dark the drive is completely different, even though we drove the same route a few hours ago. It's exciting.

Soon we leave the paved road and continue on our route over bumpy dirt roads and through the high grass. We see diminutive cameleons holding on to stalks of grass. Jack shows us a small green one and takes care to put the animal back in exactly the same place. If you don't, he tells us, the animal will die.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Cape buffalo in iSimangaliso

With searchlights on the roof, we drive on. The idea is to "catch eyes": to see reflecting eyes in the grass and between shrubs and leaves. The zebras and bushbucks are not afraid of the lights.

In the distance we see the bright red eyes of a night monkey. Wonderful! We mainly see different kinds of antelope: bushbucks, duikers, reedbucks and a lone kudu. At the end of the safari we see a night monkey from close up. With its head down it disappears between the leaves. We see a small white owl on a pole. A family of warthogs hastily leaves their hole.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Woman on market, St. Lucia

All of a sudden we are in the middle of a herd of Cape buffalo. Left and right, in front of us and behind us only buffalo. Dozens. The dominant male looks at us ominously for a moment, but then turns it back on us. Apparently we are not a threat. Relieved, we leave the park.

St. Lucia

There are markets with vegetables and fruit along the road

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - Marktje in St. Lucia

St. Lucia is a small town that seems to prosper because of the tourism to the reserves. Except for many restaurants and hotels there are also lots of villas on the outskirts of the town.

The street is lined with trees with big trunks. There are markets with vegetables and fruit, displayed on newspapers and tablecloths, but there are also tents with souvenirs and knickknacks. A woman with a scarf around her head puts sliced mango and small pineapples in bowls. Bunches of bananas lie on a newspaper.

Except velvet monkeys and hippoes we also see black thornbills in the garden of the hostel. Early in the morning and at dusk we hear and see them screaming loudly and flying in groups from tree to tree. There are also brown ibises which aren't quiet either.

Under the roof, near our window live dozens of bats which leave their next exactly at 6:30 PM every day to go hunting. There are multicolored locusts in the grass.

South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal - locusts in St. Lucia

On the last day of this short visit in South Africa it's rainy and gray. Everything is soaking wet and we have to breakfast inside. Outside we hear sqeaking and tweeting of invisible birds and the almost deafening, vibrating noise of insects.

We take our leave of the Stokkiesdraai staff and take a last picture of Nana, who also works at the reception. The way back to Johannesburg seems much shorter than when we arrived. We drive leisurely to the airport. Like accomplished "left-drivers" we return the rental car without any scratch on it. Great, man!

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