The Lion that almost got away! – a trip to the Imfolozi-Hluhluwe game reserve in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

The van pulls up to the bush on the side of the road. In the thick stillness of the misty morning we can hear the gravel crunching under its tyres as the ranger breaks and switches off the engine. Bird tweets aplenty fill the air and our hearts beat faster with the anticipation of seeing a lion this close.

“He is lying in the bush. If you duck down low you can see his eyes and mane through the bottom leaves”, the ranger whispers.

We sit in silence with our senses on high alert for any possible movement or sound from this bush whose leaves touch the side of the van it is so close. So very close yet so far! For this lion is contentedly resting less than a metre from us but is completely concealed by thick foliage. We crouch sideways as far as our necks will allow and try with all our might to spot him, scrunching up our eyes to see if that helps. We are desperate to see those iconic strong eyes belonging to the king of the jungle staring back at us.

Oh the torture! This crazy situation had me wishing we had a piece of meat to throw into the road and lure him out or that it was as easy as calling “Hey kitty kitty….”

Back in December we spent a splendid four nights in the rolling green hills of Hluhluwe in KwaZulu Natal. Despite the Imfolozi-Hluluwe game reserve only being a three and a half hour drive from Durban we have never visited it as a family and I had not been before. David went there as a young child and loved the “uglies” (warthogs!) and my brother has done many bush walks and spent nights under the stars in the lower parts of the game reserve where the lack of any roads makes seeing the animals even more of a treat.

When my American mom, who looked after me as a Rotary exchange student in 2000, told us she was visiting us this Christmas we felt she definitely needed to have a taste of the glorious African bushveld, so we decided to finally pay the reserve a visit.

Pastel huts on a hill

On route we made the obligatory Wimpy road stop for the ever familiar taste of their burgers and a Google search on this park revealed that it is in fact Africa’s oldest proclaimed nature reserve. Having been established in 1895 on what was previously a hunting ground for the Zulu Kingdom, it is world renowned for its efforts at Rhino conservation, and home to the group of Big Five animals, which we were hopeful we would see!

We had booked to stay at Planters Camp which we found on air bnb, and I can recommend this comfortable self-catering accommodation which sleeps 7 guests in total but with an extra mattress could easily accommodate two families with kids. With a private swimming pool, spacious log cabin kitchen, aircon in the bedrooms and with the Northern Memorial gate of the park a 40 minute drive away, it offers the perfect mix of a wonderful relaxing space to chill with car days looking for game in the park. It is an idyllic spot to sit reading under the shade of the tall trees while watching the Impala and Nyala who graze freely around the camp.

Planters Camp
Nyala at the camp

On our first morning there we woke to the big surprise of three adult giraffes with their children watching us close by from the property next door, with some zebras too, welcoming us to the bush. With only a thin wire fence between us what a beautiful experience to sip our coffee while admiring these elegant, gentle creatures and the beautiful irregular shaped markings on their skins that remind me of batik stamped fabric. They seemed just as curious about the new guests next door as we were of them!

It’s always lovely when synchronicity strikes and something you have recently seen or spoken about aligns with your current reality. I’m amazed at how often this happens. A few days before, I had picked up Roald Dahl’s book ‘Going Solo’ which tells of his adventurous days in the late 1930s working for the Shell company in Dar as salaam and his subsequent travels across Africa calling on various stores. A perfect read for this trip!

A frequent and always wonderful sight was the astonishing number of giraffe that I passed on the first day. They were usually in groups of three or four, often with the baby alongside, and they never ceased to enthrall me. They were surprisingly tame. I would see them ahead of me nibbling green leaves from the tops of acacia trees by the side of the road, and whenever I came upon them I would stop the car and get out and walk slowly towards them, shouting inane but cheery greetings up into the sky where their small heads were waving about on their long long necks. I often amazed myself by the way I behaved when I was certain that there were no other human beings within fifty miles. All my inhibitions would disappear and I would shout ‘Hello, giraffes! Hello! Hello! Hello! How are you today?’ And the giraffes would incline their heads very slightly and stare down at me with languorous demure expressions, but they never ran away. I found it exhilarating to be able to walk freely among such huge graceful wild creatures and talk to them as I wished.” – Going Solo, Roald Dahl

A beautiful giraffe in the park

After our animal greeting we headed for the park. The green expansiveness all around us felt like the best cosy jersey to be wrapped in after the bustle of Accra. Currently the Northern Imfolozi section of the park is very overgrown with stumpy trees, likely due to the prolific amounts of rain that KwaZulu Natal has experienced in recent months. The first two hours of our drive reminded me of the nursery rhyme “The bear went over the mountain…. To see what he could see. But all that he could see… all that he could see….Was the other side of the mountain… The other side of the mountain” But we weren’t complaining. The mountainous hills are beautiful in their own right and for every animal we didn’t see, we saw a different shade of green and the most exquisite panoramic views of high misty topped hills fading into the distance.

We stopped for a picnic lunch at the Centenary centre which boasts a beautiful circular craft store with typically South African wire bowls in every design and colour imaginable and many other beaded items. Ladies at the entrance were busy working hard on their wares for sale.

Other than the deep appreciation for the green beauty all around us, the other good thing when you aren’t seeing many big animals is that you focus on the small ones instead. Being in the home of 340 bird species, we loved seeing the flickers of orange bellies, shiny blue wings and marvelling at the broad wing spans of eagles swooping through the wind. Emma and Jack enjoyed ticking off the birds they saw in their map books, which coincidentally ended up being in English and German- perfect for them! We saw many trees filled with yellow weaver birds twittering away, and unceasingly building their perfectly formed round nests that were hanging from the branches like Christmas ball balls.

Our animal luck turned for the better once we entered the Southern Imfolozi part of the park, the foliage is lower and this could well be the reason that it is easier to spot animals. Two up close zebras welcomed us and were enjoying a mutual head rest in a close embrace. A beautiful big African elephant was contentedly cooling off by spraying himself with mud and reminded us of just how enormous they are compared to their brothers and sisters in Thailand who, Facebook had reminded me, exactly a year ago to the day, we had fed bananas to, in Chang Mai!

“A great sense of peace and serenity seemed to surround these massive, slow-moving, gentle beasts. Their skin hung loose over their bodies like suits they had inherited from larger ancestors, with the trousers ridiculously baggy.” – Going Solo, Roald Dahl.

I had stupidly left the zoom lens for our camera in Ghana and was feeling annoyed at myself for this, but the close proximity of the elephant and subsequent sightings of giraffe, zebra and buffalo were so fortuitously close to the sides of the roads, and made it easier to forgive myself for forgetting it!

It was amazing to see a beautiful white rhino mother with her child very nearby and we said a silent prayer that they get to live for many years to come and aren’t attacked by poachers. It always blows my mind that these pre-historic looking animals live on grass alone and are the colossal size they are! The setting sun behind them was so picturesque and the silhouettes of the birds busy removing insects and ticks from their backs, as they grazed, were even more prominent.

On Thursday morning bright and early we again headed into the park but this time with the vantage point of an elevated view in a safari vehicle. Fresh air blowing against our faces we entered at the same gate and were reminded of that fact that seeing the animals is such a game of luck (and arriving early)! In stark contrast to the day before, we had already seen three of the big five animals within the first ten minutes!! Three white rhino were resting nearby slowly waking up to a new day, a herd of Cape buffalo were grazing and oh my, round the next corner our eyes fell upon the lean, muscular view of a strapping Lion who casually laid himself next to a bush showing us half of his face.

Mr Lion please come closer!

Baby monkeys were rolling around playing in the roads, mommy baboons were cradling their young and a sweet family of five warthogs had us ooohing and aaahing at the cuteness of the miniature wild and seeing all the babies around confirmed the good health of this game reserve.

Near the end of the drive we returned to where we had seen the lion as the other rangers had confirmed via their radios with Tomelo, our guide, that he had now walked into a bush just alongside the road. And it was there that we sat for a few minutes willing him out of his comfy spot. Disappointingly, when there wasn’t even the slightest movement of a leaf from the bush, we drove a short distance away and watched two beautiful big lizards suntanning their iridescent bodies. In those moments that we were away from the scene of action, the lion did in fact exit the bush and walk across the road, retreating into the thick wall of trees on the opposite side and likely making himself comfortable again out of sight! It somehow wasn’t meant to be that we saw him again. As it was my mom’s birthday we spent the rest of the day happily eating cake, celebrating and marveling at the whole safari experience.

Lying in bed that night I found myself regaled by another of Roald Dahl’s tales, this time when he went to visit a District Officer in Tanzania. He tells the insane but true story, that later spread across the whole of East Africa and ended with Dahl writing an eye witness account for several newspapers, of how they were sitting having a sundowner on the porch when one of the African men shreaked in Swahili “Come quick! Come quick! A huge lion is eating the wife of the cook!” What follows is sheer commotion and panic at this utterly bizarre situation in which a lion had grabbed the cook’s wife in his mouth and was running into the bush with her.  

“The lion had the woman by the waist so that her head and arms hung down on one side and her legs on the other, and I could see that she was wearing a red and white spotted dress….the lion ignored everybody, not altering his pace at all but continuing to lope along with slow springy strides and with the head held high and carrying the woman proudly in his jaws, rather like a dog who is trotting off with a good bone.” – Going Solo, Roald Dahl

Eventually in the story the lion miraculously drops the lady when Dahl’s acquaintance fires his rifle just beyond him. Even more surprising is the fact that she ends up with no cuts or scratches from his teeth! Oh what a story!

I turn to Dave that night.

“I’m feeling like us being so close to that lion but unable to see him resembles something from Roald Dahl’s book! I think we should go look for him early tomorrow morning!?”

And so we rise when it is still dark the following day, and into the park we go! Not wanting to dull my optimism, now that we are through the park gates, Dave turns to me and gently tells me that the chances of spotting a lion 24 hours later are rather unlikely. Noticing how big the park suddenly feels, I concede and focus instead on how serene, fresh and still the park at this early hour feels.

Minutes later, imagine our surprise and awe when we found ourselves, just after 6am, turning a bend and literally stumbling upon not only the lion we were hoping to see, but also a magnificent lioness lying on the side of the road!! Resisting the urge to sleep in had paid off as we were graced with this magnificent pair in full view, who were sluggishly waking up to the dawn of a new day! How incredibly lucky we felt that so soon after entering, before the morning sun provided the most idyllic backdrop in what could have been the Lion King 3, it felt like they were waiting just for us!

Watching them so closely for an hour with only two other vehicles was a huge highlight of our trip and perhaps in about 110 days if you go to the Imfolozi-Hluluwe game reserve you may see the offspring of these two, as they gave us an unexpected full and detailed demonstration of how lions mate, before making their way once again into the wild African bush!!

4 thoughts on “The Lion that almost got away! – a trip to the Imfolozi-Hluhluwe game reserve in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.