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Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Walking Safari: Where the Wild Things Are

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At this point in our travels, truly new experiences are few and far between. I mean, there are always certain details that change – a different mountain hike, a new city malecón, a slightly weird cheese on my burger. But the fundamentals are usually similar. To the point, we have begun to cringe every time we catch ourselves once again saying “this reminds me of…” because, well, ugh. Which is what made our South African walking safari so appealing.

Most importantly, we’d never done one. Granted, we had already seen most (all?) of the animals on offer in the enigmatically named Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve but under much different circumstances and in quite different destinations. And, yeah, we do tend to hike basically all the time and everywhere we go, so that wasn’t new, but rarely in locations where terrifying wildlife is hiding around every corner.

Two women and a man hiking through tall grass in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve

Ah, yes, the elephant in the room, so to speak. That non-zero chance that our relatively puny, vulnerable human bodies could end up being badly mauled, trampled or straight-up eaten by one of the very animals we were so excited to find, admire and creepily stare at. That WAS a concern, to be honest. However, the company running the walking safaris – Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife – has a very official, very reassuring website. With reviews and everything. So we were pretty sure it would be fine.

Or so we felt until our excellent, gregarious guide, Mark, started rattling off the disconcertingly long list of uncomfortable animal encounters he’d personally experienced over the years – from charging rhinos to charging elephants to charging giraffes. A lot of charging, I guess, is the point. Throw in many species of poisonous snakes and insects, perpetually angry warthogs, hyenas scavenging around our campsite in the night, suspicious water buffalo eyeing us up in the darkest of pee spots and, of course, the ever-present threat of lions and it all kind of started making us a bit more nervous than we expected.

Two men and one woman sitting on a log in the forest

“Sooo, not to put you on the spot or anything, you know, as a wilderness guide, but should we really be doing this?”

“Oh, yeah, it’s usually fine”, we were casually reassured. And, as insufficient as that answer felt – we HAD already driven a long way to get there, and already paid and everything, so…

Bottom line, we spent 3 days and 2 nights in the South African wilderness, camping and hiking among a long list of fascinating animals, greatly enjoying the far more natural and remote feel of being away from the main parks and crowds of jeeps that tend to congregate in the more popular parks.

One thing we hadn’t fully realized, though, was how differently animals see humans in and out of vehicles. Apparently, when we’re riding in a vehicle they don’t recognize us as human or as a threat, which is why safari jeeps (and our little rental Suzuki) can often get quite close without causing a stir. On foot, however, they quickly recognize us as humans (I think it was Laynni’s cheap poncho that gave us away) and instinct tells them we’re trouble (not untrue). Which meant we had to be much quieter, more careful and far more motionless than usual just to get a reasonable look here and there.

Elephant walking through the African savannah
Early glimpse of an elephant

The feeling of being out in the wild with them, though, feels very unique and is easily the most memorable part of doing a walking safari instead of a traditional jeep tour. Also, we obviously spent a lot more time hiking than most safaris do but it was worth it for the beauty of the surroundings, the isolation and the excitement of the more natural animal encounters.

Plus, our camp was far more comfortable than we expected (in most ways, although not necessarily in a “having reasonable places to poop” kind of way), the food provided was excellent and our guides and cook were terrific.

Now, for some (hopefully) useful details.

Walking Safari Location

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, which is located in KwaZulu-Natal in the northeastern part of South Africa.

The closest city is Mtubatuba (less than an hour) and the park is about 2.5 hours from the main centre of Durban.

“Trailists” (that’s us!) doing the Short Wilderness Trail (that’s the one we did!) check-in (or stay overnight) at the main Mpila Camp, then follow their guides to Mdindini Trails Camp to start the trek. Nights are spent at a temporary tent camp somewhere in the wilderness – the location changes throughout the season.

African savannah

Walking Safari Details

They offer 5 different types of walking safari ranging from 2 to 4 nights, involving a variety of hiking, comfort and carrying. We chose the Short Wilderness Trail which involved hiking to a wilderness camp where we spent 2 nights with a long day of exploring the area on the second day, before hiking back out along a different route on the third day.

The 2024 price was 3,200 South African rand per person – roughly $US175. A pretty good deal, I’d say. Assuming you don’t get eaten by anything.

You also have to pay a 280r/pp/day conservation fee. Since we arrived in the park on Day 1 and left on Day 3, we had to pay for 2 days, a total of 560r/pp – approx. $US30.

Tips for your guides and cook are voluntary but appreciated, so you probably also want to factor that into your budget.

Our particular wilderness adventure was supposed to require a minimum of 4 people and we were supposed to be joined by another group of 6 but they cancelled at the last minute so, as often happens, we ended up completely by ourselves on a guided trip, awkwardly outnumbered by the people looking after us and catering to our needs.

When to Go

South African seasons are the opposite of those in the Northern Hemisphere, and their dry winter (May to August) is generally a great time for spotting wildlife. In this particular area, the best time to visit is September-October when the park is at its driest. This makes it easier to find animals as they congregate around water sources, and easier to cross the river because the water level will be down. Which, we were told, also makes it safer because it is easier to spot crocodiles. Information which wasn’t particularly reassuring as we walked next the river in April.

On top of all that, later in the dry season the trees and undergrowth aren’t as green or thick, making it easier to spot animals on the move.

Unfortunately, because of our (self-imposed) scheduling restrictions, we decided to give it a shot at the very end of April, the tail end of the rainier summer season. And we certainly can’t complain about how it all worked out. We got rained on a bit the first day but the next 2 were nice, we saw dozens of different animals and the scenery was gorgeous and lush.

Lush green bushes and steep cliff in background

However, we can’t help but wonder how much more we might have seen later in the year. Many of the most interesting animals we saw fell into the “huge and kind of hard to miss” category – rhinos, elephants and giraffes, for example (full list below). But we didn’t see any of the big cats, which wasn’t too surprising considering how thick the bushes were. We easily could have walked right past any lions, leopards or cheetahs lounging around in the shade without ever having a clue (and most likely did).

There were hundreds upon hundreds of spry little impalas, though, always happy to entertain, whatever the season.

Hiking Info

As I mentioned, the hiking details will vary depending on which safari you choose, and then possibly vary even more based on trail conditions, weather, fitness (yours, mainly) and your guide’s animal intuition on any given day. But our hiking schedule was as follows:

Day One 13:00 – 15:30 (7 km)

Day Two 8:00 – 16:00 (20 km)

Day Three 8:00 – 10:30 (8 km)

There were some hills but nothing particularly steep or strenuous. You can take lots of rest breaks and will get plenty of unplanned breaks as well whenever you spot wildlife and hang around staring at them for awhile.

We took our hiking poles but, in hindsight, they weren’t necessary. They were somewhat useful while pushing our way through undergrowth and thorny bushes but more often just got in the way when we were trying to take photos and videos.

The main difficulty while hiking was pushing through all the thorns. Possibly due in part to the time of year, the trails were overgrown with shrubs and bushes, most of which featured nasty thorns capable of slicing through skin or obstinately grabbing on to clothing.

Our Group

Our guides were Mark and Nonto, with Mark running point and Nonto covering our rear. Mark was in charge of route-finding and entertainment – ranging from hilarious to groan-worthy (“I met a bushman once and we really clicked”). Nonto is Zulu and has remarkable animal-spotting skills – 90% of the time she was the first to see something.

Hikers walking through mud flats in South Africa

Both were armed with large .458-calibre rifles – short-barrelled for close quarter action! – in preparation for those worst-case scenarios discussed earlier. Despite many close calls over the years, though, neither have ever had to resort to shooting an animal. A couple French tourists once, but that’s to be expected.

Thomas was our cook and camp dad, taking care of all the domestic duties with quiet diligence. I thought he was super-quiet and shy until the donkey drivers showed up the last morning and suddenly he morphed in Tom the Talker. Presumably some combination of language preferences and my personality and general demeanour.

Wilderness Camp

Now, there are probably many of you out there who are thinking, yeah, hiking, great scenery, loads of animals, that all sounds pretty cool. But camping? Doesn’t that usually suck? And sleeping out there with dangerous animals all around – is that really a good idea?

Well, having spent 2 nights camping out in that very wilderness, we can definitely answer those two questions: not really, and maybe.

First off, the camp was much more comfortable than we expected. All the gear, food and water were hauled to the site by donkeys before we arrived so we only had to carry our own clothes, snacks and enough water for the hike. The tents were large and solid, big enough to stand up in and they at least appeared strong enough to fend off some of the animals. The little ones, anyway.

Tents and clothes hanging on the line

We had individual mattresses, pillows and heavy blankets and both slept extremely well in the quiet of the bush.

There was always a large jug of purified water available and the food was plentiful and surprisingly excellent.

Lunch of meat, cheese, bread and fruit was provided on days 1 and 2.

Following our days 1 and 2 hikes we were greeted in camp by a delicious, huge and heavy loaf of cheese bread.

Man eating breakfast while sitting on a cushion in the forest

Dinner was spaghetti Bolognese and bread the first night and beef stew with rice, bread and canned peaches the second night. Which was shockingly close to what I would consider my dream camping menu (lacking only some leftover pizza and a couple of mom’s chocolate chip cookies).

Breakfast on days 2 and 3 consisted of eggs, bacon, cereal, rusks (a type of dry cake), fruit, yogurt, juice, coffee and tea.

There were tarps for protection from the rain, lines for hanging up damp, muddy clothing and padded cushions provided for sitting/leaning/lounging. There was even a pretty efficient bucket shower that Tom filled with hot water when it was time to clean off the grime of the day, and towels were provided.

Women sitting in a safari camp

They kept a small fire going most of the time, perfect for lounging around discussing the day’s exploits, warding off any overly curious wildlife and, in Laynni’s case, burning holes in her only pair of wool hiking socks when she got a bit ambitious with her plan to “dry them by the fire”.

The only real bit of primitive discomfort was the toilet situation. No, we did not have a problem with peeing in the bushes – that happens to be a skill we have honed to perfection over years of hiking and over-hydrating. Number two, however, required some ingenuity involving a scouting mission, handy spade, biodegradable toilet paper and a box of matches. Not ideal for a flexibility-challenged man with a knack for getting stains on his clothes. It’s all about focus and determination, is what I’ve found. And keeping your pants out of the line of fire.

Safari toilet kit of shovel, toilet paper and matches

Safety

For some reason, we never really thought of this as a dangerous undertaking. At least not until we got there and Mark started in on the long – and rather disturbing – list of rules (don’t antagonize elephants), things to avoid (the rhino’s horn) and best practices (if anything charges, run or hide or, ideally, both). Climbing trees also factored heavily in our list of strategies if things got awkward. All of which were based on his many years of experience in this very wilderness. Experience which provided lots of great stories, although we might have preferred if there weren’t so many that ended with “and then it charged us”.

While, from a distance, elephants, rhinos and buffalo generally seem fairly lethargic and harmless, apparently they can get pretty riled up when they think people are getting too close for comfort. White rhinos, we’re told, are more timid and likely to just lumber off. Black rhinos, on the other hand, never back down if something challenges them, making it important to communicate to them that, you know, you’re not doing that.

Hikers on safari having lunch on the ground

Which basically entails getting the hell out of there, or at least out of the line of sight. Incidentally, rhinos have notoriously bad eyesight which can be a positive (hey, where’d they go?) or, potentially, a negative (I know they’re here somewhere so maybe I’ll just keep trampling through this bush for awhile until I feel something pop).

On the bright side, when done responsibly, following all those rules, walking safaris rarely include any dangerous confrontations. And that was, thankfully, our experience. Of course, we’re not mind readers, and even if we were those skills probably wouldn’t include rhinos, so it’s hard to know how close any of the animals we saw came to choosing “fight” over “flight”. Except all those jittery impalas – “flight” is clearly the only instinct they possess. Except maybe to only poop directly on the trail.

One of the other important rules was to stick close to the tents when peeing in the night, on account of most animals being much bolder, sneakier and effective in the dark. Which is why it was a bit alarming around 2 am our first night when I ventured out in my underwear and slides in search of a moderately polite spot to relieve myself, only to have my headlamp immediately focus on a pair of big, shining eyes staring at me out of the bush. I want to say they were only about 30 metres away but that might be the adrenalin talking – it was probably more like 50.

Still. Close enough to send me scurrying back to the other side of the tent (and a much less polite pee spot). After I finished up what felt like the longest pee of my life (frantically scanning the surrounding bushes with my headlamp the whole time), I couldn’t help but wander back over for another peek, where I found whatever the eyes belonged to still staring directly at me (debating it’s next move, I imagined), jolting me back to my senses and (very) quickly back into the relative safety of the tent.

As for the tents, supposedly the animals see tents as big rocks and don’t associate them with people or food the way bears might so, apparently, you’re safe in there. Hyenas WILL steal your shoes if you leave them out, however, so, all in all, it’s a mixed bag. As far as feeling safe, I mean.

Packing

As always, they recommend you come prepared for any weather. Although I think you’d be safe leaving your snow gear at home.

Woman hiking in a jaunty manner

Rain, however, is always a possibility and the temperature range was pretty reasonable – from 14-15 at night to 22-24 or so during the day. But obviously that will change depending on when you visit. Either way, you’ll want equal parts sunscreen and rain gear. Preferably better rain gear than the cheap dollar store poncho Laynni was forced to rely on as a result of  her whole “I have no room in my mind to plan for the last 4 days of a 4-month trip” theory.

One thing we would definitely recommend is to wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt or jacket – both made of fairly rugged material – on account of the endless wicked thorns. While my hiking pants worked perfectly, my go-to merino wool long-sleeved hiking shirt was still a bit too susceptible to the thorns, which were able to alternately stab me through my shirt and clutch at it with the ferocity of a spurned lover.

Mark, surprisingly, remains a steadfast shorts-and-short-sleeves guy, seemingly unbothered by the constant barrage of vicious thorns, with only the steady trickle of blood from his many wounds to contradict his strategy.

Walking safari guide posing with his gun

As I mentioned earlier, hiking poles are not necessary from a hiking perspective, although they were occasionally useful for pushing through the undergrowth and, theoretically, might have provided some meagre protection in the face of an animal attack. Very meagre, I’d guess.

You’ll want flip-flops or slides around camp. I find slides work best because it’s easier to wear socks with them.

Waterproof shoes or boots would be ideal but, either way, bring at least 2 pairs of hiking socks and another pair to wear around camp. Even if it doesn’t rain, the grass along the trail is usually full of dew in the morning so your feet are going to get soaked. And even if your footwear is waterproof, chances are the sweat will do roughly the same job.

You’ll need biodegradable soap for the shower and at certain times of year the ticks can be very bad so they recommend you pick up some Bayticol. The local ticks don’t carry Lyme Disease but do leave very itchy bites (we’re told – they weren’t a problem for us).

Woman using camp shower in the forest

We also didn’t see any mosquitoes. Which seemed odd at the end of rainy season but Mark explained that although there are occasionally mosquitoes in Imfolozi, there isn’t a lot of stagnant water so they are never a huge problem (and malaria is very unlikely).

As for what you have to pack in your backpack – if you stay outside the park like we did then you’ll need to carry your rain gear, extra clothes, toiletries, water and any snacks you might need. The tents, blankets, pillows, mattresses, cushions, food and cooking equipment are all hauled in by donkey. However, if you spend the night before your walking safari at Mpila Camp, then you can send anything you don’t need on the trail with the donkeys as well, lightening your load a bit more yet.

Wildlife

Now, the big question: what did we see? Well, it was a pretty long list, all things considered, especially considering how shy they are around people and how thick the bushes were. The lush growth is surely why we mainly spotted a lot of very large animals (and probably passed by many smaller ones we never even suspected). But judging by the amount of dung around, there was clearly plenty of wildlife in the area. The whole place is basically just shrubs and shit.

In fact, animal dung provided the backdrop for most of the wilderness lore we learned. Including how dominant male rhinos stomp through their own shit to spread it far and wide on the bottom of their feet, like some kind of disgusting flex. Or how dung beetles get off on mating inside piles of elephant shit. And how you can tell the giraffe dung by the way it is so scattered, on account of having fallen from such great heights. Something I very much hoped, and failed, to see in action.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is famous for its rhinos and they were definitely the stars of the show. We had only ever seen two other rhinos in the wild. A long time ago in Uganda – a single dozing, lethargic female and her enormous son still breastfeeding, rather grossly, we thought. But on our walking safari we spotted about 4 pairs of white rhinos spread out through the 3 days, plus one more big fella happily wallowing in a big mud pit until we so rudely disturbed his self-care routine.

Rhinoceros behind a bush

Unfortunately, rhino poaching is still (again?) a huge problem in the park. As the story goes, if any part of your body might lead to Asian erections, you best watch out. Apparently, nearly all the money brought in by hikers and campers is used to fend off poaching but, of course, the park is huge and the night is dark and there is only so much they can do. In addition to the armed rangers, there are teams that track and sedate rhinos to cut off their horns as a way of deterring poachers (no horn, no boner, no big payday).

However, the horns do grow back eventually and sometimes the poachers will kill the de-horned rhinos anyway, either out of spite at wasting their time or to make sure they don’t waste their time tracking it in the future. Which is obviously not just cruel, but also really dumb, considering we just talked about how the horns grow back.

One of the solutions being pushed (so far unsuccessfully) is to legalize, farm and regulate rhino horns. The idea being that this would eliminate the black market for poachers and mean there aren’t any horns around to be illegally secured. Either way, it’s a pretty sad situation that hopefully they can manage to get under control.

Moving on…

We saw at least half a dozen elephants as well, the best of which were the ones who casually sauntered past while we sat having lunch near a mud flat.

Elephant walking through the bushes

As usual, though, Laynni was a complete sucker for the giraffes. We saw around a dozen of them, every single one going stock-still after spotting us, then staring at us, motionless and alert and maybe just a little OCD, clearly prepared to never blink again until we were safely on a plane heading home.

Man in a staring contest with a giraffe

The swirling wind on day 2 caused some issues, forcing us into some very circuitous routes to keep our (surely delightful) scents from giving away the game. However, with the wind constantly changing it seems we had no choice but to broadcast ourselves to the whole neighbourhood. In the immortal words of Mark, “Trust me, our smell is EVERYWHERE.”

Mind you, that didn’t deter the impalas, of which we saw literally hundreds, all seemingly scared out of their little minds and always alerting all the other wildlife with their frantic escapes through the bushes. Even though it seemed clear to everyone involved that we were not about to beat any of them in a footrace.

Impala in a field

Not even the shockingly exhausted “unicorn” we encountered our last morning – a single-horned impala right next to the path that we nearly stumbled over as he snoozed the sleep of the dead. Until I pulled my phone out and he suddenly exploded into life – dashing off into the bushes wobbily like an unsteady drunk the morning after one that got away from him a little. Which was, in fact, the working theory, that he was sleeping off a wild night of fighting and fornicating, a theory which would explain both the missing horn and the satisfied snoring.

Our animal-spotting was certainly not helped by the noisy little birds called ox-peckers that seem to pride themselves on being  wilderness security or some such nonsense, always chittering away excitedly and giving us away whenever we got near something. Luckily we were able to kill most of them.

For the first time in our lives, we saw A monkey. Yes, of course, we’ve seen hundreds, probably thousands, of monkeys throughout our years of travel. But always in groups. You never see monkeys by themselves. They’re like insecure freshmen, always travelling in packs, chattering away nervously and never quite as clean as you’d like. But there we were, sitting on a dead log having lunch, just basking in the glow of watching several elephants wander by like that was somehow normal, and there goes a single monkey. Not running from anything, or chasing anything, or even really paying much attention. Just kind of bored, out for a stroll. So that felt like something.

Now, without any particular stories to go with the rest of our sightings, here is the full list of everything else we saw on our walking safari (that I can remember):

Zebras

Zebra in field

Kudus

Kudu

A wildebeest (maybe – it was quite far away up the hill)

Vultures

Warthogs – even uglier in person

Warthogs beside road

Buffalo – just called “buffalo”, even though us Canadians have always called them Water Buffalo, I guess to distinguish them from our Canadian buffalo, even though those are actually called bison so, is the extra descriptor really necessary? I don’t know, it’s all very confusing.

Water buffalo in the tall grass

Nyalas

A Giant Snail (like, really big)

Some seriously nasty-looking spiders (Golden Orb and another one that I can’t remember the name of, just that it was big and gross)

Luminescent scorpions that shine blue in the dark under UV light

Scorpion in a log shining under UV light

Stuff We Almost Saw

We saw the den of a honey badger.

We saw the tracks of a mongoose.

We saw the tracks of several hyena WAY too close to our tent.

We saw the ripples on a pond from a skittish terrapin (turtle).

Stuff We Would Wanted to See but Didn’t

Lions, of course. They are commonly spotted in the park but I guess the conditions just weren’t in our favour. But to not even see any lions on Lion Path, what’s that about?

Mind you, we didn’t see any wild dogs on Wild Dog Path either, so maybe there’s just a flaw in their naming system.

No leopards. No cheetahs. Both of which are occasionally seen but never easily, and never for long, and not at all in this particular case.

Leafless tree among green bushes

Summary

So there you have it! Our particular brand of long-winded rambling about our Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Wilderness Trails walking safari. We had a great time, saw loads of stuff, very much enjoyed our guides and the comfortable camp life.

If you really want to maximize your animal sightings, consider visiting later in the dry season than we did, but either way, getting out among the wildlife on foot is an extremely unique and memorable experience, and one well worth making time for while in South Africa.

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