Friday, January 25, 2013

Travel Experiences Worth Remembering - 11. Hluhluwe Game Reserve, South Africa

11. Camping in the African Bush – Hluhluwe Game Reserve, South Africa 

In the summer of 2010 I went to South Africa for the World Cup. We spent 63 days traveling through South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, and a short stop in Dubai for 3 days. The entire experience was amazing. In all honesty, it makes going to a zoo seem like a complete boring waste of time. When you get the opportunity to see hundreds of animals in their natural habitat it puts a new perspective on things.

We must have gone to 10 or 12 different nature reserves throughout the three African countries we visited, but none was more impressive than Kruger National Park. We spent three days there doing our own drive through the park in our rental car, a night drive with a guide, and a morning hike with a guide. We saw every type of animal you would want to see in Africa which includes the big five – lions, elephants, buffalo, rhino, and leopards. We never saw a leopard, but we saw plenty of the others. It got to the point that I was tired of seeing elephants everywhere.

At first you are happy to see anything, but eventually you just don’t care anymore and only want to see lions, which are obviously much harder to come across. We were lucky enough to see five on our trip. One of which was a male with a large bush main and literally walked right next to our car. I could have rolled down the window and petted him if I wanted to. Instead I was scared and ducked down in my seat so he couldn’t see me. The window was rolled up of course, but it was still pretty scary, but the good kind of scary.

So of course Kruger is worth going to see, but it wasn’t the top of my list for experiencing the wildlife in Africa. We did see many more animals in Kruger than the Hluhluwe Game Reserve, but it was the fact that what we were doing that made the difference. In Kruger we stayed in a luxurious type rondaval hut. Imagine a beehive hut, that’s what we stayed in. It was great, but not true Africa in my mind. While in Hluhluwe we stayed in a tent. Keep in mind this is a tent, with a Velcro door, in the African Bush. At any moment a lion, elephant, or other wild animal could break in during the night and attack us.

So why exactly did we stay in a tent? We were on a multi-day backcountry hiking expedition in the middle of a game reserve. The original itinerary included hiking to our first camp, staying overnight and then hiking to a different camp in the morning. That didn’t happen because the second camp was damaged or something had happened, so for the two nights we stayed in the same camp. In the end it didn’t matter. We were camping in the wild. I’m not talking about going to a local state park and hanging out with a bunch of drunks in the lake where the deadliest thing you will encounter is an alcoholic on a jet ski. This is the real deal.
Our first night was a great introduction to sleeping in Africa. As we were eating dinner our two guides and the cook heard something rustling in the bushes. It was two large elephants, literally 20-30 yards from our camp. We were told to sit quietly while our guides listened intently grasping their rifles. This went on for at least an hour. Nobody saying a word, just listening, wondering how far they were from us, where they were going. It was completely dark so we couldn’t see anything. Part of me hoping for a charge and some action, the other part of me planning an escape route should something happen. It was intense. Finally they left and we were able to get back to our conversations.

A short time later we heard more noises in the bushes directly behind us. The cook said it was hyenas. Great. Just what I wanted. Luckily they didn’t bother us at all. That night as we slept we could hear the sounds of animals passing through camp. During the night there was a leopard and a lion that was close enough to hear it growling. Again, our tent was shut with Velcro. This didn’t seem like a great idea after all.

As the sun came up the next morning we headed off on a hike to see what all was out there. We came across a number of signs that animals had been in the area recently. We were staying next to a major river, so it only made sense that we were in a danger zone surrounded by hungry animals.

During the day we saw a number of animals, all of which were from a distance and usually from a bluff looking down on the valley below as herds of animals came to the water to drink. The vantage points made for excellent views. It was incredible to see a herd of deer drink water, leave, only to be followed by wildebeest, gazelle, and other animals. It was as if they each were taking turns to drink. Following the same trails in and out. Each time a new group came in some stood guard. To understand how vigilant they are at every moment is amazing. I couldn’t imagine a life of fear knowing that death is around every corner. It really made me stop and think. It made me realize that for these few days I was in the same situation as the animals I was watching.

One of the things that really stuck out to me was the fact that the trail didn’t have good visibility in certain places. On these instances one of the guides would walk ahead and check it out for safety. I couldn’t help but think that at any moment as the bushes were pushed aside, poked, and surveyed that a lion would jump out and eat one of us. It never happened.

As we arrived back in camp and prepared for dinner an amazing thing happened. A herd of wildebeest came running across the river just yards from our campsite. The scouts, the wildebeest that run ahead and watch for danger were stationed in front of our camp as the others ran by. It wasn’t like on the Lion King or anything, but it was still a significant amount. I remember one wildebeest in particular standing stoically, staring right at us as we stared back at him. I was thinking how awesome this whole experience was. I wasn’t even thinking about the dangers involved, I was just thinking how majestic they looked. Sadly I didn’t have my camera on me and I didn’t want to run 20 yards to the tent to get it in case I missed something. I wanted to just pause, and fully immerse myself in the moment. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed.

Every time I think about Africa this particular event stands out as the top. Yes, there were other great moments, but being in nature with very little protection while facing some of the most dangerous animals in the world is life changing. I promise if you ever get the chance to go to Africa you will never want to waste your time at a zoo ever again.    

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