Hluhluwe-Imfolozi: The park that cheated fate

I skidded up to the airline check-in queue with moments to spare… made it! Five minutes later, I realised it was the wrong queue. So I nearly didn’t make it to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi. But then, the animals almost didn’t make it either. Living in one of South Africa’s first game reserves, they should have enjoyed over a century of safety, but instead, they’ve had a turbulent voyage that started getting bumpy in the 1820s and only levelled out in the 1960s. Their first nosedive was engineered by King Shaka.

The story goes that in order to keep out enemy tribes, the great Zulu king ordered all crops and game in the area to be destroyed. The Zulus dug pitfall traps, concealed by grass and twigs and lined with sharpened stakes, then chased wild animals towards them for a lethal crash landing. This worked so well they managed to kill almost all the game in the area. Evidence of these hunting pits can still be seen in the park today.

No sooner had the animals started to recover than the retort of a rifle heralded the arrival of  white hunters. From the 1840s on, wagons left piled high with specimens, skins, elephant tusks and rhino horns. In their wake were hundreds of thousands of dead animals. After 50 years of slaughter, many species were close to extinction and only one herd of elephants remained – until they were hunted down and shot on the banks of the Black Imfolozi.

But it was the plight of the white rhino that finally got people’s attention. By 1890, fewer than 100  survived in the bush around the Mfolozi Rivers – the last southern white rhinos on earth. In 1894, a hunter shot two of them. Concerned colonists wrote to the commissioner of Zululand. On 30 April 1895, the Hluhluwe and Imfolozi areas were proclaimed reserved areas for game and hunting was ‘altogether prohibited’. A happy ending at last? Unfortunately not.

At the end of World War I, veterans were given land near the park and promptly started farming cattle. What they didn’t know was that 100 years before, the Zulus had evacuated the area because of nagana, a devastating cattle disease spread by tsetse fly. When the cattle returned, so did nagana. The farmers blamed wild animals – especially zebra and wildebeest  – and between 1919 and 1942, game elimination campaigns were mounted to stop the spread of the disease. While they failed to eradicate nagana, they succeeded in wiping out around 100,000 animals. The Imfolozi was deproclaimed twice during this time.

After guns came insecticide. For five years, planes flew overhead, spraying DDT.  By 1952, the tsetse flies were gone but so were all the zebra and wildebeest, and most of the other herbivores. Only the rhinos had been spared. Nobody knew the full effect DDT had on the other insects, or the birds and reptiles that eat them – nobody was checking. To top it all, conservation policy in the 50s dictated that animals which might compete with the white rhino for food were strictly ‘controlled’.

So it was that Hluhluwe-Imfolozi limped into the 1960s in much the same state as I arrived at the Nyalazi Gate: half-dead from stress and not quite daring to believe my change in fortune. From the hell of airport terminals and N2 roadworks, I’d arrived in a most heavenly part of the countryside. The road wound over rounded hills, spread with long grass and speckled with sweet thorn. A warm breeze lifted a tawny eagle high in its thermals. Down in a valley, a broad bend in the Nyalazi river winked at me as I turned onto a private road to Masinda Lodge.

Imagine a large, three-bedroom house on a hill in Sandton. Now remove the electric fence and the rest of Joburg, and put a herd of impala on the lawn. Add a bearded woodpecker by the car port and a buffalo’s head in the living room, and you have Masinda Lodge. Of course, you’d have to have France too. France is the lodge’s caretaker and cook and has spent many years in the bush here. Seeing I didn’t need help making sandwiches, France told me elephant stories instead.

‘Did you hear the elephant in the garden last night?’ he asked with a twinkle. I grew wide-eyed as he showed me large footprints near the kitchen door. In 1981, orphaned calves were introduced from Kruger Park. But, as France pointed out, elephants are like people; young males need older males to keep them in order. The orphan bulls attacked and killed 38 rhinos before 10 big adult bulls were brought in from Kruger.

‘An elephant has two hearts,’ France told me before I left on a game drive. ‘One is good, but the other… .’ He shook his head with a little smile.

So when I idled past wrinkled grey hides in a thicket near the Sontuli loop, I kept the engine running as they emerged four, five and six at a time, closing the road. I sat watching: a herd of more than 30 adults with a good number of calves, before, behind me and on either side. They paid no attention to the cars, passing within centimetres of one, whose occupants, to my horror, got out to take photographs. Apparently these people weren’t terribly impressed by the experience, because when the herd had gone, they drove up to me and said, ‘Have you seen any rhinos?’

Well, sure. I had already seen several. As the last stronghold of the southern white rhinoceros, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is still one of the best places to view these prehistoric-looking animals. But what it’s most famous for are the ones that aren’t there any more. Despite the insanity of the previous decades, by 1960 conservationists could boast a surplus of white rhino in the park. On the other hand, all their eggs were in one basket (or would have been if rhinos laid eggs). Thus began Operation Rhino.

The plan was to move excess animals to other parks in southern Africa and zoos around the world, creating new populations and some decent media attention. What made it tricky was that back then, nobody had ever managed to move a live white rhino. Those early days of capture must have been heady stuff, involving a great deal of running after rhinos and a great deal of running away from them. It’s all there in the museum at the park’s Centenary Centre.

To start with, rangers caught rhino the same way cowboys catch cattle in old westerns: on horseback with a rope. To give the rangers a fighting chance, the rhinos were darted. Dr Toni Haarthoorn, the park’s veterinary researcher, did some frantic experimentation with darts and tranquillisers. The first darts were so large they left serious injuries, and the first drugs took up to 30 minutes to bring down a fleeing animal. Nowadays, with the right drugs and darts, and with helicopters to help, 99 per cent of rhinos survive translocation.

It’s not just rhino capture the park’s perfected, but plains game too. Good conservation practices saw the park transform from being a net importer of animals to a major exporter of antelope and buffalo, even hippos and crocodiles. And there are still plenty to go round. My abiding impression of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is of a sort of garden of Eden, where warthogs bristle in every thicket, giraffe stand silhouetted on the horizon and antelope mingle indiscriminately. Watching five cheetah gambol fat-bellied around an impala kill while wildebeest and zebra gnu’d and grunted in the background, I would never have guessed this park’s dark past.

On my last day, I went for an early morning walk from Hlatikulu Bush Lodge, following the ranger through dewy groves of twisted tamboti. We startled a languid harem of impalas and stood metres from a pod of six hippos who ho-ho-ho‘d in a way that showed they knew who were the head honchos. We scrambled up a slope fragrant with camphor and looked out over a wide flood plain of the Black Imfolozi River.

Keen-eyed, the ranger clapped and a large shape on the sand bank got to its feet and swung its ponderous, horned head into profile. Although he was only trying to figure out where the noise had come from, the white rhino bull managed to look noble and mournful. That he stood there at all was something of a miracle, I realised. This small wilderness was once the last retreat of the white rhinoceros. Now it’s the springboard for the survival of a species.

Originally published in Getaway Magazine, August 2008

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