Three wonderful days in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park is not nearly enough. It was a 90 min drive from St Lucia to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and we arrived at Hilltop Camp minutes before the kick off for the England v South Africa Rugby World Cup Final. The bar was jam-packed with dozens of enthusiastic and very vocal, South Africa supporters, plus me and a woman and her son from London. Slightly outnumbered, it was probably as well we lost! Oh well, there is always four years from now and the game viewing this afternoon!
The Hilltop Camp is, unsurprisingly, set on top of a hill. The views over the valleys and mountains are breathtaking and even though the river beds are dry, all seems very green, almost lush. There is game here in abundance. Just driving the 25 km from the Memorial Gate to the camp, we spot several white rhinos, herds of antelope and several “sounders” of warthog (I am reliably informed that sounders is the collective noun for a group of warthogs – who knew?)
After witnessing our crashing defeat in the rugby, we drive the short distance to our chalet. A pleasant surprise – spacious lounge, kitchen and bedroom all await us with the unexpected bonus of a balcony complete with braii. Soon we are visited by our neighbours, a family of monkeys and a baboon suckling her newborn on the rails of our balcony.
Whilst the park offers ranger-led game drives three times a day, we chose the DIY approach and set off on our own in search of the wildlife. A first for us, it is a terrific experience. We rarely saw another vehicle but did see lots of game.
This particular park is noted for its work in saving the white rhino from the brink of extinction. On our first afternoon alone, we saw six of these magnificent beasts. Best of all was stumbling across a mother and baby playing in a riverbed in the late afternoon sun.
Late one afternoon, we were driving along one of the more isolated tracks and came face to face with a huge bull elephant wandering along towards us. What a magnificent beast! Easy to imagine what could happen if he took exception to our presence even in the perceived security of our car!
The next day we came across a family of elephants taking a mud bath in one of the water holes, under the watchful eye of the bull from the day before.
We have yet to come across any of the lions or cheetahs which inhabit this park but have seen lots of other species from the comical warthogs playing in the bush, to tortoises ambling gently across the tracks to the very elegant giraffes wandering gracefully through the bush nibbling the foliage on the trees as they go.
The range of antelope is incredible. Not entirely sure of the species yet, but we saw sable, springbok and waterbucks to name but a few, and zebras are everywhere.
Very impressed with Kwazulu Natal so far. The National Parks of iSimangaliso, Cape Vidal and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi have all been incredible. These are places in which we could easily have stayed longer and to which we would love to return one day- always a good sign..
On our final afternoon at Hilltop, some excitement. We drive out from the camp to a small track which loops off of one of the main tracks. We have heard that there are a lot of elephants to be found in this area.
It was a closed loop with only one way in and one way out. We see plenty of game but no elephant. Finally, as dusk approaches we start to head back and then we see him! A huge bull elephant, grazing on the leaves of a fallen tree. We drive slowly forward approach for a closer and we realise that the large tree he is chomping on, he has just uprooted and entirely blocked our only way out!
There is no way we can drive around the tree in our small 2WD saloon car. So we wait, already contemplating that we may be spending the night in the car. A few minutes later a game drive from one of the other lodges came from the other direction so we waved frantically at them from the other side of the tree. The driver first comment was ” I don’t know what to do – the wardens have all gone for the weekend” – helpful! He tell us to stay put in the car – no argument from me as I didn’t plan on getting out to interact with a huge bull elephant!
Eventually another car pulls up behind us. The driver is an off duty South African game park warden on his hols. His first words were f*****g elephants! Again, he warns us not to get out of the car. Again, not a problem!
Between him, the driver and a huge machete, they managed to chop enough branches from the fallen tree for us all to squeeze through the undergrowth.
After 30 mins or so we were on our way, relieved that we weren’t spending the night in the car. So lucky they came along.
Driving out of the gates of Hilltop to our next destination, we had one final treat in store. Literally right outside of the gates there were two pairs of elephants. We switched off the engined, waited and watched. Unperturbed by the audience, within minutes, both pairs of elephants started to mate – an elephant orgy! We felt very privileged to have witnessed this but not sure how long this would go on, we left them to it and set off for our next destination.
Where we stayed
This was our first experience of a Restcamp in a South African National Park. The location of Hilltop Camp, atop a hill cannot be faulted. Book early as we struggled to find availability months in advance (odd as the place was nowhere near full?).
The chalets are spacious and well equipped, even a TV. They are quiet apart from the attention of baboons and monkeys at certain times. Breakfast was included, which we didn’t expect, was buffet style and pretty good.
Don’t expect too much from the reception staff at the camp. They seemed neither engaged nor enthusiastic and seemed reluctant to answer any question re the best places to spot wildlife. Quite sad really, a bit more engagement would enhance the guest experience immensely.
Tips and hints
- Do drive yourself around the park. The driving is easy, the wildlife abundant and easy to spot
- Game drives with the rangers in open sided vehicles are not that expensive but the vehicles did get very crowded.
- Early morning and late afternoon seemed to be the best time for wildlife spotting.
- Bring your own supplies. There is a shop at the camp but it has very little for sale in terms of food and drink.
- Buy a cool box and bring your own meat and veg for the Braii – don’t forget the charcoal!
- Take your time. No point in speeding as it only scares the animals. Take it slow and spot more. We were usually out for 3 hours at a time. Sit and wait and it is surprising how many animals will come wandering by