Bumping and rocking down the washboard road from Bonamanzi I was reminded that a certain part of my anatomy was still sore from the long plane ride across the Atlantic. At least now I was on the ground with birds and other creatures to see. The short drive to Hluhluwe was relatively painless, at least once we reached the paved main road.
In 2002, I toured Hluhluwe with a group lead by a guide from the park, in addition to my friend Peter Lawson of Lawson's Birdwatching Tours. We were in an open-air Range Rover with stair-stepped bench seats under a canopy.
Because Hluhluwe has lots of free-ranging dangerous animals, visitors are not permitted to leave their vehicles except in certain gated areas around the lodges and campgrounds. The 2002 trip was not particularly birdy. It was summer and the vegetation was thick enough to hide lots of what we were trying to see. It was hot as the hinges on the hatch to Hades and dusty, too, but we scored great looks at lots of African mega-wildlife. The highlight of that trip was the two hours we spent watching two herds of African elephants bathing, drinking, and cavorting in the Hluhluwe River. These were the first wild elephants I'd ever seen and, you know what? Them suckers is BIG! In spite of not being able to get out of the vehicle, I managed to get some acceptable digiscoped images of elephants.
I was hopeful that on this trip in 2006, we'd again have luck with the elephants. After getting a pass that allowed our vehicle inside the gate at the park's entrance, we headed into Hluhluwe in search of anything interesting. Just a mile or so inside the gate we found a small herd of impala, much spookier than at Bonamanzi. Why? Perhaps because these animals are hunted by leopards and by humans? Probably so.
A herd of Burchell's zebras were grazing near the road a mile further along. All I could do was snap a few macro shots of zebra fur. Digiscoping from inside a 15-person van requires the physical skills of an international Twister champion as well as the patience of Job. Neither tripod nor human legs can be extended as easily as when you are outside on the ground, so you prop one leg here, another there, balance the scope on someone's shoulder and ask them to quit breathing for a few minutes. It's not simple, but we all still managed to get a few clear digiscoped shots. I did learn some German curse words.
Three giraffes were nibbling the treetops in a wooded copse. They just stood there watching us try to take their pictures. If we stayed within the confines of the bus, the giraffes paid us no attention. But if someone held their hands and camera out the window, the giant beasts began moving slowly away. Again, with my scope, I shot macro frames of giraffe fur.
In Africa, the big game hunter culture has come up with the concept of The Big Five. Five African animals that are hard to stalk and kill. The Big Five are Cape buffalo (often called Africa's most dangerous animal), rhinoceros (black rhino is extremely endangered--2,700 individuals, white rhino much more common in South Africa, the country credited with saving the white rhino: total population about 11,000), African elephant, leopard, and lion. Hluhluwe is one of a handful of places in South Africa where all the Big Five occur.
A side note here: Hunters from all over the world pay thousands of dollars, in some cases hundreds of thousands, to shoot big game. In fact our flights to Africa were full of guys, already decked out in hunting togs, talking loudly about the safaris they were going on. Personally I don't understand how one could possibly shoot, say, an elephant, but people do. [In fairness, I am sure most hunters would be baffled at how birders could enjoy looking at a cisticola--they are drab, tiny, and it would take 50 of them to make a good sandwich].
Similar to most of the rest of the world, the balance of nature in South Africa, especially in huge gated parks like Hluhluwe, needs both monitoring and manipulation from humans to maintain some equilibrium. Hunting revenues pay for a lot of the maintenance and infrastructure of the South African game reserves, so it is a necessary part of the wildlife/ecology equation.
We saw a small herd of Cape buffalo, then several black rhinos, including one with a small rhino calf. Then, while watching a pair of bee-eaters flycatching along a stream bank, we noticed a small warthog snorting and acting excited. Just then, Christian, shouted "Leopard!" And we all caught sight of the big cat's spots as it moved parallel to the road through the thorn scrub. It wasn't a world-class look, but it was my first ever big cat in the wild! High fives were quietly shared all around. We waited for another 20 minutes and believe we heard the leopard call, but it never showed itself again. How lucky!
It was nearing lunch time, so we headed up into the nearby mountains to the Hill Top Camp Lodge for the late-afternoon meal. I'm not sure if South Africans typically eat lunch at 2 or 3 pm, or if that was just South African birding trip lunch time, but most days we ate lunch at about 3. The light from the lodge's hilltop patio was gorgeous and we stood there, impressed with the vista--just rolling hills, thorn scrub, acacia trees, and miles and miles of uninhabited land. Distant herds of impala, kudu, wildebeest, rhinos, and Cape buffalo could be seen through the shimmering afternoon heat haze. A kettle of white-backed vultures slipped overhead and centered itself over a draw to our east.
I was scanning with my scope, watching some rather active zebras, on the hillside below us. One large zebra was running toward a copse of trees, then back to its herd. The herd was stamping nervously. Something was bothering them.
"Lion!" coming down the path to the left of the trees. Oh my God! It was a beautiful lioness, walking slowly down a well-worm wildlife path. This had to have been what got the zebras so worked up. Zebra is high on the lion's list of "Nice Things to Eat." And the lion is high on the zebra's list of "Creatures to Avoid at All Costs." I watched the lioness as she slunk, quite majestically, down the hillside, disappearing into a brushy creekbed. This was a dream come true--a LION!
A funny thought occurred to me: as we were entering Hluhluwe, I asked our guides "Are there any lions here?" And the answer, probably to avoid getting any hopes up, was "No lions here." I chuckled at the good fortune we'd had.
As everyone sat down to lunch, I went inside the lodge to try to send an e-mail back home. I spent 15 minutes on the slowest Internet connection I've ever used, at least since 1990, sending word back to the States that I was fine and having a good time, also mentioning the lion and leopard sightings. Little did I know the messages never made it through. Perhaps they will be delivered sometime soon--guess that connection was slower than I thought.
While eating lunch, the realization came over us that we had seen four of the Big Five in just a few afternoon hours at Hluhluwe. All that was left was elephant. It was 4 pm. We had an hour-and-a-half of daylight left to try to find some elephants. The quest was on! Still chewing our sandwiches, we mounted up and headed back out into the park, looking for a huge gray mammal with a tiny tail and a long trunk.
It took the entire rest of the day to find the elephants. We asked every vehicle we encountered and finally got the proper info: They are down by the river. Sure enough. At the very cusp of dusk, we found three small herd of elephants.
It was too dark for any reasonable photography, but we had our Big Five in just under five hours. This is, we were told, an almost-unheard-of accomplishment in such a time. We took only pictures, left only tire tracks. Every animal we saw is still there for you and others to enjoy.
Our Big Five buzz lasted all the way back to Bonamanzi. I barely noticed the bumpy road. After dumping our gear and cleaning up a bit, we gathered in the bar and drank toast after toast to our Big Five day.
The bottle of Windhoek Namibian lager I held in my hand was pleasingly cold. It was one of the most memorable beers I will ever drink. Cheers!