Hluhluwe: Nature's call
The sounds of the wild awaken something in Vanessa Stephen - or was that the beer before bedtime?
Daytime in a game reserve is full of surprises, but the night makes you feel alive.
It was pitch dark, the torch having skidded out of reach when I'd knocked it over groping for it. There was definitely something quite large snuffling outside and I was desperate for a wee. It was 3am and my routine had been scuppered. I have a 3am bladder and a short-term memory, which hadn't realised that I'd gone on holiday and was convinced that I had an en-suite bathroom until I stumbled into the light switch and realised the truth.
It's amazing the power of the bladder. The snuffling outside could have belonged to a herd of rabid buffalos, a gang of giggling hyenas, a starved leopard family or an axe-wielding murderer, but I didn't care. I scurried into the inky night, flicking my torch around to at least see if there were any eyes following me to the nearby toilet block and whether it was necessary to outrun them.
But the beasts of the night must have sensed that I was not one to be messed with or that they'd have no hope catching me and slunk off into the blackness.
I'd come for an early winter break to Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in Zululand, where the sun shines brightly, the rhinos abound, birds sing from every treetop and elephants are known to lean on cars from time to time. This is an old favourite haunt of mine and I know the summers are hugely hot and a touch damp and the plants really like that and grow like triffids. Because I drive a particularly short car, winter is a better time for me to see anything. This autumn though, there seemed to have been a lot of rain. The rivers flowed freely, puddles stood everywhere and the grass had grown Tazz high. But the landscape is stunning and to me seems ancient, almost with a heartbeat to it. It screams wilderness and, with the amount of game supported, I can see why King Shaka hunted in this land.
The sunsets are spectacular. Golden evening light fades to rosy pink as the first stars start to twinkle. With less humidity in the air than along the coast, the stars are closer - much brighter and clearer. Naturally, we soon dimmed them out by creating a roaring fire in the braai, which would take a couple of hours to simmer down to a level that would not immediately incinerate anything we put on it. The night sounds grew as the coals lost their lustre and the darkness once more pressed in. The chirping of crickets was joined by the unmistakeable howl of a hyena and, in the far distance, the low bass drumbeat from a roaring lion.
These sounds awaken something in me - something that gets lost in the city, drowned by sirens and car alarms. The primeval me suddenly sits up and takes notice, aware that I'm not enclosed by walls and a button's press away from ADT. My sense of smell seems to get keener, my hearing sharper and my eyesight. well, I can't do much about night blindness. But my point is that sitting out in the middle of the bush with no protection other than your wits and the general feeling that you're invincible, there comes to the fore that feeling of being totally alive, which culminates in a blanket of happiness - possibly enhanced by an adult beverage or two and a potato roasted over a fire.
I'm not alone in this feeling. A couple of years ago, a man who was concentrating on perfecting the charring of his chops and wors at Mpila Camp got scalped by a leopard. He survived but the park's management were worried that, if they didn't fence the camp, visitor numbers would drop off. Instead, they picked up. South Africans seem to enjoy the thought of a little danger in their lives as they unpack their picnics and guzzle a six-pack. We're a sophisticated bunch. This is generally the reason I love to visit the bush as often as possible. Of course it's better not to take chances. I don't really think that getting out of the car to trundle up to a pair of mating elephants rates highly in Darwin's betting that you're good to have in the gene pool. But sitting in the night, listening to the wild and knowing that you are quite likely being watched appeals greatly to me.
Of course, the day holds its joys as well. Being able to see what you heard the night before brings home the diversity and wonder of this place. With the big five roaming these historic hills and endless birds, antelopes and zebras, it's unlikely that you'll drive for too long without seeing something special. And after a day of dust and stopping for leopards that turn out to be rocks, it's time once more to relax into the velvet night and let the sounds remind you that you are not meant to be the predator here.
IF YOU GO
What to take: Binoculars, sunscreen, a hat, snacks for your game drives, a bird guide, a torch.
Where to stay: Hilltop Camp in the north has accommodation ranging from small rondawels to two-storey luxury cabins. The camp is mostly fenced and there is a restaurant and pool.
Mpila Camp in the south is more basic, although they've just upgraded many of the cabins, which are perched on top of the hill with a fantastic vista. This camp is entirely self-catering and the shop doesn't stock nearly as much food as it should, so be prepared and bring food with you. Beer, wine and soft drinks are available but you may pay a bit of a premium. This camp has a wire to keep elephants out although the road is clear so they can easily wander through there. Everything else can move freely so it pays to stay alert and keep your torch close at night. Hyenas are a common sight here.
There are a number of exclusive luxury camps scattered in stunning, out-of-the-way places where you can be cooked for and pampered in style.
Need to Know: Fuel is available at both Hilltop and Mpila but pumps are only open at certain times, so plan your drives accordingly. At Mpila, generators are turned off at 10pm. After that, you'll be left with candles and your firelight.
It may be tempting to throw your chop bones to a skulking hyena, but this can lead to aggressive behaviour. Take your cooking utensils and shoes back inside when you go to bed or you may well find them missing or mangled in the morning.
To Book: Contact Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Reservations on 0338451000,e-mail email@example.com or visit www.kznwildlife.com.