5-7 June 2008
Umfolozi/Hluhluwe Game Reserve
KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Travel journal 2
Drove in on Thursday, into sunset. Immediately zebra, impala, others. Standing by or in the road (particularly zebra). Land is mountainous, with grass, low thorn trees, bush. We wind through the hills. At the gate we had seen a warthog, placid in the grass. We turn off the main road to a dirt drive at the top of a hill, wind along top and back down in dying light. Mutulu Bush Lodge is a small arrangement of rough pole-built, thatched “huts”. Main building faces small river below and is open on river side to porches/balconies (no glass). Other huts connected to main building by wooden walkways down the slope and to each side. Beds, bathrooms, balconies look over the river. No heat anywhere. All buildings view the river flanked by bush/palms, and opposite slopes. Very elegant camping, or very rough hotel.
Temperature dropped quickly with sunset. We cooked dinner on the gas stove, but walking out on the deck, there are those stars again, with the Milky Way ranged across the sky like a gauzy scarf. In the distance we hear an elephant trumpet, and later one lion roar. David hears hyena. Closer, sound of branches breaking, movement on opposite side of the river, in darkness. We can hear chewing, think maybe it’s zebra, but learn next day that a hippo does in fact live across the way.
Very cold night, and all electricity (solar powered I think) shuts off at 10pm. Wakeful night under warm blankets in cold hut. At one point I hear rustling just outside, god knows. Awake at first light but don’t want to get out of warm bed. James, Rob and I set off in car with David, back out to main road and through the hills. Immediately we see rhino, seemingly mother, father, baby. Birds perched atop them, cleaning ticks out of their ears, squabbling. Thoughout day—baboons, impala, zebra, giraffe, buffalo. Stop for snack at a crocodile outlook over the river, but only the sign to read; no crocs. Sandwiches and hard boiled eggs.
Afternoon trip to Hluhluwe for crafts. Return in setting sun. I want so much to walk around in this landscape, be in it. Thumbnail moon in orange-lavender sky. A bit down the drive towards the lodge, I get out with Rob, to walk the rest of the way in twilight, to the lodge. All are dubious of this plan. The car pulls off, and we are face to face with three or four rhino just yards away in the bush. Rob sets off walking rather fast and I follow, in gorgeous waning light but wondering what else will come lurching out of the bush. Well, you really shouldn’t go walking in land so dense with large wild animals. I wonder really how far it is to the lodge, still walking quickly, thorn trees, grasses and sky, heading down that hill. But the car returns—we’d have had over a mile more to walk before reaching the lodge, they said, in growing darkness. After all, a lion had been within earshot the night before.
Back at the lodge, the sun has set. We plan a fire outside. Rob roasts chicken stuffed with last night’s leftovers—lamb sausage and mashers. Fire lit, we stand around in the cooling air, warming faces. I stare at the sky, which feels in this valley like a bowl of night indeed, overturned above us. Looking long enough, my eyes begin to perceive a depth among the stars that, though unreal, I have never felt before—night sky had always been a little like looking at a painting. But here it has depth, near and far, and looking longer, the stars seem to be falling slowly across the sky.
Delicious warming meal grouped in chairs around the hot fire. Movement across the river again, over in the dark. Boo goes to bed. Lights off at 10, and we still sit with dying fire and a couple of gas lanterns. Bats now and then wing past the light. Cold backs and warm fronts staring into purple-orange embers, a raft of dim light on a dark hillside.
David rouses us at 7am (heavier sleep this time). He is determined for us to see elephant. We have seen sign everywhere since arriving—broken trees, dung. We drive off in the chill bright sunrise, not stopping for much. We do find fresh sign. At one point Rob sees something cross the road far ahead; can’t tell what it was, but big.
We pull into an overlook, river gorge with cliff opposite, along which a large troupe of baboons is moving. They run along the very cliff edge, swinging, and gather in two large treetops, speaking and moving about.
Back to the main road, then David turns off down a dirt road. We see fresh sign, and in fact stop at a pile of dung still moist—very fresh. I am staring at it until Rob says, There’s an elephant. We all look up, David edges the car forward to see round the bend, and then, heart stops—there they are ahead, walking down the center of the road straight towards us. Six of them, at front is enormous matriarch. In the middle, a small baby. They advance at a rolling walk, heads nodding, ears flapping, in a compact group. Majestic.
David turns the car around so we can advance ahead of them, and flee if need be. But they do not charge. We stop when they do, good distance between us, and their group loosens, individuals stepping out to feed on branches lining the road. They glance at us, raise a trunk maybe, but are not stressed. So we watch. My heart beats faster at the sight of them, and I forget I have the camera until Rob prompts. So there we sit, on the empty road alive with elephants, until they move off into the bush.
Later, we have checked out at the Hilltop Camp, heard rumor of a leopard in a tree towards the Memorial Gate, where we will exit the park. We pack up, head out, get almost to the gate and then take a dirt road back around and deep into the bush. Grass gets high and close. In every tree we look for cat-shapes. Cresting a hill—zebra. So no leopard. Then, a troupe of baboons in the road—damn, no lions near. Though it does look like cat country somehow to all of us. We run into a tour bus and the driver says, Keep going, up the hill and down, look for a tree on the left, the leopard is there.
And yes. Another vehicle with ogling folks marks the spot. The leopard is lounging in a thorn tree on a grassy slope. We’re at a good distance, but binoculars reveal the spots, the sleek sides, beautiful cat-face, and that this leopard is eating a baboon. We are mesmerized. One or two other vehicles pull up. The leopard is quite possibly annoyed at such an audience, but has a good spot and a snack and does not seem to care. Movement in grass below the tree, James thinks maybe another leopard? David says would be rare to see two. Turns out—a hyena in grass, waiting for scraps or a fight. This perhaps explains the leopard staying in the tree all morning on that bright hillside. As we watch it finishes eating, washes its face and paws, then climbs down the tree and vanishes into the grass.
5-7 June 2008