Close encounters – South African style

“Why are all these people looking at that rock?” I quipped as we came upon a small group of cars blocking the road in the Imfolozi Game Reserve.

The “rock” turned slightly, revealing two enormous white tusks below a head with a pair of giant ears. Other elephants soon emerged from the scrub, where the herd of a dozen or so pachyderms had been munching on a late afternoon snack. We sat in our rental car, transfixed by the splendor of wild Africa only steps away; one car in a line of fascinated observers.

An enormous bull emerged from a stand of bush 25 feet from where we sat. It turned toward us.

Bull elephant emerges from behind a huge shrub only feet in front of our car.

Bull elephant emerges from behind a huge shrub only feet in front of our car.

“Cool,” I said.

It shook its enormous ears, sending plumes of dust into the air. It stamped its feet. Took a step toward us.

“I don’t like this, Skip,” Gabi said nervously. “Please get us out of here.”

What a time to fumble the simple act of shifting into reverse. I clutched, double-clutched, pulled, shoved and finally jammed the car into reverse and backed up as fast as I could as the elephant took a couple more steps toward us to reclaim its turf. Our rental Datsun gave us as much safety as a diver wrapped in cellophane among Great Whites. We were two tourists in a silver sedan facing a mountain of muscle and aggression in a rumpled grey suit.

We backed up the road as far as traffic would allow, giving respectful distance to the irritated bull and the rest of the herd as it ambled across the road and into more favorable grazing grounds. Our pulses returned to normal as laughter replaced real fear.

Such is life in the South African wild, and Imfolozi offers the best of unfiltered nature – all within each, close reach. We were here for three days and three nights and were treated to constant thrills and sights of a lifetime.

“Is it safe to stop in these picnic areas?” asked one of our group on a night drive.

“No place is guaranteed safe here,” replied the guide. “There are lions, elephants, hyenas and leopards everywhere.”

And most of them are easily viewed – in close proximity.

We sat by the road while a mother white rhino grazed, protective of its weeks-old infant by its side.

A giraffe blocked our path on the way back from a drive through Hluhluwe Game Park, nervously eyeballing us as we edged closer, and then easing into the thicket where it raised its head and stared at us from a safe distance.

We sat on the deck of our safari tent at night, staring dumbstruck at a clear sky peppered with brilliant stars and galaxies ablaze with promises of the vast unknown.

Two birds clean ticks from the back of a white rhino grazing in Imfolozi Game Reserve

Two birds clean ticks from the back of a white rhino grazing in Imfolozi Game Reserve

We watched a troop of baboons cross the road, haughtily stopping to stare at us as we did at them.

Wart hogs wallowed in smelly ooze feet from the side of the road as two enormous males stood watch, its curved tusks adequate reminders for us to keep a safe distance.

Zebras grazed so close to the car that we could have reached out and touched them.

And rhinos, rhinos everywhere.

The white rhino – as opposed to its irascible cousin, the crabby and elusive black rhino – is an easy-going, formidable beast the side of a small camper van only with two enormous horns protruding from his oddly-shaped head.

These are the poster children of Imfolozi, a sprawling 200,000 acre expanse of scrub, acacia and (these days) dry river beds. White rhinos had been hunted near extinction in this region when, in the 1950s, Operation Rhino successfully reversed the course that would have eliminated this majestic species forever. Now, “it is impossible to estimate the size of the white rhino herd,” our guide Bona tells us, but throughout the region the numbers are now in the tens of thousands.

Imfolozi is a richly biodiverse environment that seems incapable of supporting the boundless wildlife that lives here.  It’s a harsh place, a barren yet bountiful space where life’s drama is played out day after day, made all the more dramatic by the acute shortage of water as summer arrives. Climate deniers need only to spend a few minutes with natives to get a sense of whether this dry year is part of a pattern.

Part of the ancient Zulu hunting grounds more recently roamed by King Shaka and his subjects, the land has important historical and cultural value to the Zulu. Now, it’s one of the region’s most successful reserves.

Cape buffalo, hyenas, vast herds of impala, wildebeest, zebra, kudu, waterbuck, warthogs and lions, giraffe, leopards and cheetahs all call Imfolozi home. So do more than 300 species of birds. Symbiotic relationships between species help guard against predators. Nyala, zebra, impala and wildebeest graze alongside one another, collectively alert and on guard.

In three days (two guided tours – one day and one night – and many self-driven escapades, one of which was interrupted by the unhappy elephant who took exception to our proximity) we saw species after species either from the comfort of our car or at one of the places designated “safe” to exit and walk around. Lions, rogue elephants and hyenas are all omnipresent, as evidenced by the low growls I detected from just outside our tent on our first night in the bush.

The next morning I mimicked the sound to our guide Bona, who laughed.

“Oh, that was a hyena.” The same species that only weeks ago dragged a 15-year-old napping teen from his tent by his head at Kruger National Park. But no worries, she said. “You are pretty safe in your tent.” Truth is, we felt plenty secure in our tent, but Gabi “let” me sleep closest to the tent flap just to be sure.

One day we stopped at a place designated for great photos. We made our way 50 feet from the car when I heard a rustle in the bush. I recoiled. “Lizards,” Gabi said, wisely followed by, “Are you sure it’s a good idea for us to be walking around here?” One day prior a pride of lions had been spotted not far from this place.

We headed back to the car.

Imfolozi and Hluhluwe have both taken pains to provide access to the animals while preserving their habitat. That means you can see all the wildlife you could want for without venturing off the paved road. The thick wilds are for permanent residents only: no humans allowed. Imfolozi and the adjacent Hluhluwe park are so immense they easily absorb the overnight visitors and day trippers into its vast expanse. We drove from one end of the park to the other, often seeing no one for miles.

A solitary elephant scrapes at a dry riverbed in search of water as a pair of Egyptian geese gather by what remains of the river in Imfolozi Game Reserve

A solitary elephant scrapes at a dry riverbed in search of water as a pair of Egyptian geese gather by what remains of the river in Imfolozi Game Reserve

Visitors quickly adopt the quaint practice of advising one another of nearby sightings.

“Mother rhino and a baby just ahead on the right,” says one.

“Herd of elephants with two sparring males on the left,” comes the counter offer.

We went to Imfolozi hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the big cats – lions, leopards or cheetahs – but after three days we had been unsuccessful.

Then, on the way back to camp to pack and leave, another visitor waved us down.

“Lion pride basking in the sun just by the bridge ahead, on the dry river bed.”

We hurried to the site and were rewarded: several lionesses stood guard over a bunch of cubs – someone else counted 12, though I saw seven or eight – frolicking in the morning sun.

Nearby, a lone Cape Buffalo wallowed in the mud, as an elephant made its way through the brush to the tiny water hole in the middle of what once was a river.

And life continued in Imfolozi, with all its wonder and magic, searing heat by day and chilly breezes by night, and the drama of Mother Nature at her wild best.