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South Africa: Animals

Wild in the Park : A relatively small reserve nevertheless packs in the animals

November 24, 1996|ANNE GORDON | Gordon is a freelance writer based in Ontario, Canada, who frequently returns to her native South Africa

HLUHLUWE GAME RESERVE, South Africa — When darkness falls and the Lebombo Mountains are but a dim shadow separating Zululand from Mozambique, the locals claim to have seen flickering lights in the cracks and crevices of the mountain cliffs. At night from Ghost Mountain, strange sounds carry across the veld.

It is here that the Gaza family bury their dead. The Gazas were leading members of the Ndwandwe tribe who fled from this area pursued by a Zulu war party centuries before. As has been the custom since those early times, when the head of the family dies, his body is embalmed, wrapped with all his possessions in the skin of a freshly slaughtered black bull and carried more than 600 miles to a secret burial tomb in these mountains. There are few who know the whereabouts of the tombs. The location is jealously guarded for fear of grave robbers.

As a native South African, I had heard this story for years. So en route to one of my favorite places to see wild animals in South Africa, my husband, James, and I decided to spend the night at Ghost Mountain Inn, a pretty hotel in the nearby town of Mkuze, not far from our destination. It was, disappointingly, a peaceful night, uninterrupted by lights and eerie wailing.

But in the morning we set out for what would promise to be much more dramatic environs, the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Hluhluwe (pronounced shloo-shloo-we) is one in a cluster of game parks in KwaZulu-Natal Province close to the eastern coast of South Africa. It was September--spring in the Southern Hemisphere--and the air was heavy with the fragrance of the yellow pompon blossoms of acacia trees.

Hluhluwe is located in the subtropical coastal belt near the Indian Ocean and was proclaimed a game reserve, together with the neighboring Umfolozi game park, in the latter part of last century. It is one of the oldest game reserves in all Africa, and its landscape alternates between stretches of lush vegetation and tree-dotted, open grassland (most other game reserves in South Africa are drier and more open). It's a safe place to visit in every way, unless you disobey park rules and get out of your car, or walk about in an unfenced camp in the dark. All wild animals are potentially dangerous.

We go back to South Africa, where we have family, often, but our most recent visit last September was a nostalgic event. Many years ago we lived not far from Hluhluwe, and our weekends were spent with our four young children traveling its dusty roads in search of animals. Our 3-year-old daughter was able to pronounce rhinoceros before she could count to 10. For four weeks we explored several national parks and game reserves, from the Kalahari Gemsbok Park in the desert areas of the northwest to Kruger Park, perhaps South Africa's best known wild animal park, in the east. Finally, we arrived at Hluhluwe, where we were to spend a brief two days.

Unlike Kruger--with 5 million acres, one needs at least a week to do it justice--Hluhluwe is a manageable 240,000 acres. Although it's smaller, Hluhluwe's range of animals is every bit as diverse as Kruger's. And because it is more compact and lush, the concentration of animals is high, making game viewing extremely rewarding.

According to a recent game count, there are 620 giraffes, 1,600 white rhinos, 350 black rhinos, 1,900 zebras, 7,800 buffalo, 2,000 gray duikers (a type of antelope), 165 elephants, 60 lions and an astonishing 20,000 impala. Chances of seeing leopards, hyenas, wart hogs, hippos, baboons, crocodiles and dozens of other species are all good.

Hluhluwe has played a significant part in the world of animal preservation. Years ago, when the white rhino was threatened with extinction, the park worked tirelessly to draw the world's attention to the imminent tragedy. As a result, the white rhino was saved and today it flourishes.


Though guided tours can be arranged, we wanted to see the game park on our own, so we rented a tiny, subcompact car at the Durban airport, roughly a three-hour drive from Hluhluwe. After our night in Mkuze, we drove about 20 minutes to Memorial Gate, where we paid the admittance fee of $1.50 per person, plus about $6 for the car. After close questioning as to whether we were carrying firearms, the barrier was raised and we entered Hluhluwe.


A faint flush of green was on the bushes and acacia trees that dominated the spring landscape. In South Africa, all seasons are good for game viewing, but between April and August, the dry winter months when vegetation is relatively sparse, is particularly good.

Rooting in the rough ground at the entrance to the reserve was a family of wart hogs. Just two miles farther into the park, our way was barred when a ponderous gray shape emerged from the thick bush. It was soon obvious that this great elephant was the matriarch, the leader and protector of the herd that followed.

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