“Elephant bulls generally aren’t a problem,” explained lead guide Zephian Alberts, “but breeding herds can get grumpy – we need to keep our distance. We might stumble on lions; they might charge but it’ll probably be a mock charge – don’t run. If we see a leopard, we’ll retreat slowly until it moves away. There’s a high chance of seeing rhino. Black rhino are the aggressive ones but their sight is bad, so you just need to get behind a tree and it’ll run past.”
As he briefed our small group at base camp, I began to question the wisdom of spending three days walking in this Big Five-patrolled wilderness. I’d heard we had around a 70% chance of meeting elephants and a 90% chance of seeing rhino. But I also knew that the Wilderness Trails have a 100% safety record. As we set off across the low, wide Imfolozi River, all my senses were a-tingle.
And quite right, too. The bush was attacking all my faculties with its hot sun and rough-cracked tamboti bark, giggling hoopoe and ghostly grey-headed shrikes, citrus-scented torchwood and the ripeness of a recently visited rhino midden. The colours were earthy, but spritzed with zebra stripes, butterfly flashes and the crimson ooze of weeping boer-bean.
“Elephants love these,” said Zephian, pointing to the boer-bean tree’s bent-double limbs. On foot, we could stop to see, scratch and sniff. It was less a safari than a hug.
We walked, slowly, all afternoon, watching buffalo wallow, seeing nyala and impala graze the woodland and baboons commuting along the riverbank to reach the cliffs – “They spend the night on the rocks, where the leopards can’t get them,” Zephian explained. Just before dusk, we reached camp, which was basic but comfortable: two-man tents, a bucket shower, a spade for the toilet. We dropped our bags and ventured out to collect firewood; we were just scouring the bushes when one of them started to crackle...
Zephian motioned us to halt, then corralled us behind a flimsy tree. White rhino, maybe five or six, were grazing just beyond. As we waited, pin-drop quiet, I was suddenly very aware of my skin; every pore strained to feel, smell, listen. Then, finally, one of the rhino stamped out from the trees, showing us his full, handsome heft mere metres away, before they all bolted off into the scrub.
I spent three days in Imfolozi, thrilled by creatures great and small, from the aposematic exuberance of an elegant grasshopper to the bone-chilling roar of lions in the night. It was no-frills but priceless, being truly humbled by nature. However, after I emerged from our splendid isolation, I opted to safari in a different style.
KZN has several private reserves that offer intimate game-viewing in bush-luxe lodges, but at generally lower prices than in South Africa’s better-known areas. One such is Manyoni Reserve, where Mavela Game Lodge offers a bit of bush chic with a reasonable price tag.
Manyoni was established in 2004 when adjacent landowners removed their fences to create a 23,000 hectare protected area for the World Wildlife Fund’s Black Rhino Range Expansion Project. Since then, other species, such as elephant, cheetah and wild dog, have been reintroduced, and huge efforts have been made to return the landscape – a glorious undulation of green hills and valleys, backed by the Ubombo mountains – to its natural state.