A Bush Escape from Durban to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi: Where the Lions Feed

Logically, one should pack binoculars and a flashlight for a bush escape. But somehow the three pairs of binocs floating around the apartment in Durban don’t get a look-in. Neither do the three new load-shedding rechargeable lights waiting to be tested.

What does find their way into my “getaway” stash are Prince Albert “Karoo blend” olive oil, a package of frozen ostrich fillet that’s been sitting in the deep freeze for a couple of months, a tin of Polish sprats that have been waiting to be devoured since I bought them, in Poland, and brought them back eight months ago, a bottle of Haute Cabriere unwooded pinot noir and a couple of other decent South African wines.

Then there are few assorted cans (sardines, tuna and a tomato and herb “blend”) and a packet of angel hair pasta. When in South Africa and buying provisions, the food stores in Woolworths are the place to shop.

Oh yes, and a coffee grinder, Columbian beans, filter paper for single-cup pourings, Pro Vita, Joko tea, French butter, double cream yoghurt and eggs. A random assortment but this was a get-in-the-car-and-go kind of trip, which could be easily replicated by anyone holidaying in the KwaZulu-Natal city of Durban, South Africa.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park — the 96,000 hectare park encompassing two of Africa’s oldest reserves (Hluhluwe) is around three hours by car north of Durban. I e-mail the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife offices on the Monday and get a three-night booking in a self-catering unit at Hilltop camp, Hluhluwe, for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights of the same week. It’s not school holidays but I don’t get the Saturday as it’s a long weekend.

I will find a well-stocked shop at Hilltop from which I will only need to buy fresh milk and a bottle of water — the water because, while the shop assistant tells me I can drink from the tap, she also tells me the water doesn’t taste to good.

I drive into the game park via the entrance closest to the rural Zululand metropolis of Mtubatuba. My friend Carole has said she doesn’t like Hilltop camp at Hluhluwe as it is touristy. She laments I couldn’t get into Mpila camp in Imfolozi.

I drive along the reserve’s rutted dirt road to Mpila on the Imfolozi side first, to check it out. This is the preserve of animals and adventurers. You drive to look for game — not to get there fast. At Mpila camp there is no lodge with dining room and bar, no store, no swimming pool, all of which they have at Hilltop.

The camp does feel remote. I can see why she likes it. She likes to self-cater to the extreme. Probably would make sour-dough bread there. Would definitely want to prepare three designer camping meals, including a special breakfasts

Both Mpila and Hilltop have the flat-topped thorn trees. Big sky, deep and endlessly blue. Candy-floss clouds, huge and puffy white.

Elephant and Giraffe

Turns out I am happy to arrive at Hilltop about an hour and several elephant and giraffe spottings later, and would choose it again. I like that I hear assorted languages and people with accents. It makes me feel I’m far away and somewhere remote, exotic and international. And my self-catering unit fee includes breakfast in the dining room. This works for me after a dawn game drive. (You can book and go with a camp vehicle but as I was there to escape and enjoy the freedom of the place, I drove myself.)

The restaurant offers buffet dinners and an a la carte lunch menu for committed non-self-caterers, day-trippers and those who just feel inclined to dine there.

On my second day there, a friendly neighbor booked into a nearby self-catering rondavel offers to drive me to where there’s been a lion kill. The spot they nailed their buffalo is strategic for visitors — in a dry riverbed right where the road runs over a low concrete bridge. We watch for a good 20 minutes and see the three lionesses in the pride indulge themselves while the two lions, clearly sated, stretch and occasionally emit what sounds like a contented roar from a spot further off.

My new acquaintance then offers to share the fire he’s making for himself and a documentary filmmaker friend of his who has flown in from New York. They eat flat chicken bought from the camp store and cooked barbecue-style (they didn’t know their booking was self-catering so didn’t come prepared). I eat my ostrich. Highly recommended, doused in a little olive oil and sprinkled with Himalayan sea salt from my stash.

During my stay I purchase a bright intricately woven telephone wire basket from the Vulamehlo Craft Market about 10 minutes from the Nyalazi Gate park entrance, near the Centenary Center.

That’s on my first day when, besides the ellies and giraffe, I see assorted buck, white rhino, warthog and wildebeest — and enjoy the space, the quite, the solitude, my little old car skipping merrily over the potholed roads, some places tarred, others gravel and mainly rough and in places, pitted dirt.

On days two and three, I see more rhino. Quite a few. Usually in pairs. I see members of the anti-poaching rhino unit patrolling deep in the reserve. Someone in the cottage next to me arrives in camp with a smashed windscreen, a broken light and a squashed car hood. It turns out an angry elephant tried to stand on his vehicle.

I go early the second morning in my own little vehicle to the lion kill I saw the afternoon before. My car trundles along the “suggested for four-wheel drive vehicles only” road like it was made for it.

Lion Kill Viewing

When I get there three lionesses are devouring what’s left of the carcass forbreakfast. I get a spot less than 10 yards from them and watch them through my passenger window.

Also memorable is the commotion caused when a vervet monkey steals a hamburger from the plate of a guest eating lunch on the Hilltop terrace. Also, doing a pedicure at a deserted time of day outside my rondavel with a bush buck, guinea fowl and a troop of Somango monkeys for company.

The daily rate at Hilltop in the self catering unit for one person, bed and breakfast, is R570 a night (as of August 2015). About $50 at the current exchange rate. (Add about R250 per night for two people.)

The park conservation levy is R145 per night for international visitors — half if you provide a South African ID. The kitchen has six stoves and washing facilities. Very well set up. The communal bath and loos were clean and never crowded. There are many fully equipped chalets and other residence options for larger groups or those who don’t want to engage in this sharing of facilities.

What impressed me was that whether sitting inside our outside my thatched rondavel, I never heard any loud human noises (like raised voices). Lots of bird noises, yes, and someone pointed out hyena noises and at the lion kill, crunching noises, and more stars than I remember every seeing in a night sky before…

The binocs would have been useful as a herd of buffalo from far off can look like a herd of cows. Although the little solar flashlight I took was quite adequate to get me about at night.

This is a great escape for anyone traveling to South Africa and visiting Durban.

Check out the online booking here. See more on Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.