We entered our brand new, clean, white Toyota Etios rental car, ready to go on a safari. For those of you unfamiliar with Toyota’s international models, it is a tiny hatch back with about three inches of clearance. The Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Reserve was about an hour away and the roads were atrocious. Hazards littered the road, including speed bumps randomly in an 80km/h zone, pot holes, cows, and people walking and riding bikes. We miraculously did not hit anything nor bottom out the car.
We arrived at the park gate around 1300. The security guard at the front desk was pleasant and suggested a route for us where we might encounter lions, which got me excited. He sold us a map and we returned to the car. Unsure of our location relative to the map, we turned right and went back the way we came, our first and only wrong turn of the expedition. My dad executed a quick U-turn and we tried again.
Just past the gate, we saw a Worthog running across a field. Then, I saw two Rhinos in the distance. I was impressed with our hot start and optimistic about our day. We continued and saw nothing for the next half hour. A side road led to a watering hole, which again, had no animals and we almost got stuck. This was not going well. Then, I saw an icon for a viewpoint on the map, which seemed promising. When we arrived, we left the car to stretched our legs, which apparently you aren’t supposed to do because lions are fast, but we needed to pee. As we looked out over the vast plain, I spotted two brown lumps, slowly working their way across the landscape. When I zoomed in with my camera, I identified them as African Elephants, one of the “Big 5″ species.
Elephant in the distance
The next hour consisted of me looking closely through the dense brush for anything that moved, and telling my dad to slow down or we would miss everything. We mostly just admired the deep valleys and rolling hills. This reserve was much larger than Thula Thula, the reserve we went to two days earlier, and the animals were much harder to find.
“Stop! I saw something!” I shouted. My dad stopped the car and threw it in reverse to see what I discovered. We saw a herd of zebras and the lead Zebra was continuously nodding his head as if listening to a song he really liked. I found it hysterical and would have loved to combine the video of it with a good beat. The last things we saw before lunch were a few Nyala which are in the antelope family and look like striped deer. There are so many antelope that it is hard to get excited by them.The closer we got to the restaurant, the faster my dad drove.
A male Nyala, the females have white stripes on a brown body.
The restaurant was perched on top of a hill. We chose a table in a circular room with massive windows looking over the vast wilderness. We were the only people in that room at that time, but not the only animals. Soon after we sat down, a Vervet Monkey jumped through the window and grabbed a sugar packet leftover from another patron’s coffee. The monkey sat in the windowsill enjoying his terribly unhealthy treat. My dad and my lunch choices were not much better with fish and chips, and a mediocre burger, respectively. During lunch, we spotted several water buffalo walking up a distant hill, and the monkeys stole another diner’s hotdog bun. You had to stay vigilant.
The post lunch segment of the safari was more fruitful. We spotted Wildebeest, a combination of 10 white and black rhinos, various antelope species, two baboons picking insects off each other with a baby running around, what we thought was a hippo, but upon further inspection realized it was a dead animal floating in the river, more zebras, more buffalo, and many beautiful birds. There was something around almost every turn.
The highlight of the day was two white rhinos that we saw deep in the bush. We could not get good pictures, so we continued down the road. Another car stopped us and asked if there was anything good to see the direction from which we came. We mentioned the rhinos, approximately 100 yards from us. The rhinos had been moving, and one of the rhinos was now right next to the road. Our new acquaintances drove close and stopped their car. We backed our car to get closer too. We were awestruck seeing the rhino with a SUV next to it. Those animals are massive, and the horn looked lethal. They sometimes charge safari patrons. We were happy it ignored us since we declined the collision coverage for the rental car.
Earlier that day, I learned that the white rhino population was reduced to fewer than 100 in the world in 1895 due to hunting and humans moving into their territory. After massive conservation efforts, the population has swelled to over 20,000 and now white rhinos can be found in many game reserves in five African countries. Black Rhinos are less common with fewer than 6,000 remaining.
Poaching is still a big problem and the Chinese prize rhino horns for “folk medicine”, even though it does not do anything. The poachers receive small sums of money for the horns, while the horns fetch prices over $10,000 per kg on the black market. Since 30% of South Africa is unemployed, the poachers take the risk because they don’t have any other options. This is a huge problem, and until the Chinese realize that slaughtering rare animals for medicine is not sustainable, these and many other amazing, large mammals will disappear forever. Hopefully in a generation or two, through the availability of information on the internet, enough people will learn about rhinos and other large animals to respect and protect them for good. I just hope they survive until then.