Hluhluwe-iMfolozi: two sides of the fence

Posted by Scott Ramsay on 20 May 2020

Track rhino on foot in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi; then overnight in a Zulu home outside the park for a different view of conservation.

Words & photographs by Scott Ramsay

Guests to Rhino Ridge Lodge can stay with the Nkosi family on their small farm just outside the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Rhino Ridge Lodge is visible in the background. Image: Scott Ramsay.

The clarion call of a black-crowned tchagra woke me as sunlight streamed into my rondavel in Mpembeni, a Zulu village just outside Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

I heard boys calling to each other and dogs barking. Looking out, I saw them running along the fence that separates the park from the village where I’d spent the night. Although I speak no Zulu, from their buoyant tones I could hear they were happy to be out hunting.

Like generations of Zulu boys before them, they were chasing down an animal, maybe a bushbuck or steenbok that had found its way under the park’s fence – protein for the braai that evening.

Walking with experienced guide Nunu Jobe (second from right) from Rhino Ridge Lodge, guests get to know his ‘friends’ the local white rhinos. Image: Scott Ramsay.

It was December, the start of the rainy season, and the hills of Zululand had turned emerald. ‘Sawubona, Scott,’ said Zamani Nkosi as she brought me a cup of coffee. ‘Lala kuhle?

Zamani is 26. She lives with her mother Nokuthula, stepfather Bheki, sister Talent, grandmother Josephina and children Siyanbonga, Silindokuhle, Luyanda and Luthando in a small homestead on a hill overlooking Hluhluwe.

Sipping coffee, we sat under a red-ivory tree near the homestead, within a knobkerrie throw of the fence. The view of the valleys and hills below would inspire artists and property developers alike.

Walks are not just about the big stuff. Image: Scott Ramsay.

It’s obvious why various clans of the Nguni people settled here several centuries ago. The high hills of Zululand catch a cool breeze, even in the intensity of summer. And, away from the steamy Indian Ocean coast, there are fewer mosquitos and flies. The upper gradients trap the rain and mist, streams flow most of the year and the sweetveld makes for good grazing.

Mpembeni lies in the heartland of the traditional Zulu empire, where hundreds of families live alongside Hlulhluwe-iMfolozi, some likely the descendants of Zulu kings such as Shaka, Cetshwayo, Dingane, Mpande and Dinizulu.

Hanging out on the stoep with homestay hostess Zamani Nkosi and local kids. Image: Scott Ramsay.

There are cattle, chickens, pigs and veggie gardens plus schools, clinics, shebeens and small shops in the village. A few traditional rondavels remain, but mostly the houses are more modern with electric appliances – TVs for watching the soccer and soapies like Muvhango and Uzalo.

Beyond the fence, 100 odd metres away, lies erstwhile Hluhluwe Game Reserve (now incorporated with iMfolozi into one park), filled with lion and leopard, elephant and Cape buffalo, hippo and rhino. A place where game rangers and anti-poaching teams protect one of the oldest game reserves in Africa, a tiny island of wilderness in an ocean of increasing humanity.

Wilderness trails guide Nunu Jobe follows in the footsteps of legendary Zulu trackers and rangers. Image: Scott Ramsay.

Visitors to the park arrive from Durban, Joburg and Cape Town, even New York, Paris and Tokyo. They drive the roads, leaning out of car windows to photograph the Big Five. They stay in chalets at camps like Hilltop and Mpila, paying the equivalent of a local person’s monthly salary for a night of bush luxury.

For my stay, I had a good reason to choose Rhino Ridge Lodge, the only private lodge in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi. It offers the opportunity to track rhino on foot with one of South Africa’s finest wilderness guides.

Nunu Jobe was born and grew up near Mkhuze Game Reserve, north of Hluhluwe. He saw his first rhino when he was 10 while herding cattle. Like the Zulu boys at Mpembeni, he and his friends hunted antelope with dogs and snares.

Dung Beetles roll up for a romantic interlude. Image: Scott Ramsay.

At school he joined an environmental club, and later got a job at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

Among his mentors were those originally trained by the legendary Magqubu Ntombela, friend and colleague of Ian Player, who pioneered rhino conservation efforts in the region in the 1960s.

Nunu spent seven years guiding guests on trails into the iMfolozi Wilderness area, honing his understanding of animal behaviour. These days, as the lead walking guide at Rhino Ridge, he accompanies guests on morning and afternoon walks and has come to know every rhino in this area of the park.

Zamani Nkosi’s grandmother, Josephina, makes reed mats for sale. Image: Scott Ramsay.

Also on the morning walk were fellow guests from Joburg, all of them in high-profile financial jobs. Growing up in black families in the 80s, they were prohibited from visiting parks in apartheid South Africa. This was their first time walking in a reserve with wild animals. They smiled nervously when Nunu told them they had nothing to worry about, if they followed his instructions.

‘If we respect them, we’ll be safe. It’s all about respect.’

We walked along the forested banks of the Hluhluwe River, following the tracks of a white rhino. The spoor led us into a clearing on a hill, where the nkombe (white rhino) was munching grass like a lazy lawnmower. Nunu said he knew this particular animal well.

Zululand’s once plentiful big game is now restricted to parks such as Hluhluwe-iMfolozi. Image: Scott Ramsay.

‘There is trust between us,’ he explained. ‘I’ve spent many hours with him. He knows my voice and my smell.’

As first-timers on foot, my fellow guests were transfixed. Within a few minutes, their fear turned into fascination. Cell phones emerged and photos were taken. Selfies were Whatsapped back to family and friends in Joburg.

On our way back to the lodge, we all oohed and aahed about the rhino. We discussed how close we’d got to a wild animal that we always thought was so dangerous – but then turned out to be quite companionable if treated with respect.

The close encounter with the rhino got all us guests thinking about our crazy city lives back home – office, emails, cell phones, Facebook…

The Nkosi family. Image: Scott Ramsay.

‘Why do you think white people like parks so much?’ Nunu asked us. ‘White people have already walked too far down the path to over-civilisation. Now they want to come back to nature. They realise what they’ve destroyed. Especially in other parts of the world. Like the bison in America. And they almost killed all the rhinos here.’

Rhino tracking aside, Rhino Ridge Lodge ticks all the boxes of a great safari stay. It was built in 2014 and is managed and co-owned by Isibindi Africa. It’s also partly owned by a trust that represents the local community. Once a government loan has been paid off in around five years, the community trust will own 49 per cent of the lodge and receive dividends from the profits. This money will go towards a variety of projects, including schools and clinics. It also currently employs 55 staff from Mpembeni.

Chicken dinner. Image: Scott Ramsay.

Brett Gehren, CEO of Isibindi, says the inevitable poaching that occurs is hard to criticise, and he’s sanguine about the youngsters hunting along the fence.

‘Let’s face it, if you or I were young men without work or money, we’d be doing the same. This lodge can’t give everyone a job, but it will help improve things a little.

‘But jobs and money is just one part of the equation,’ he added. ‘In our small way we want to build better relationships between guests and locals, between conservation and neighbouring communities.’For a fraction of the lodge price, visitors to Rhino Ridge (and the park in general) can spend a night at Zamani’s family home, to get a sense of daily life in Mpembeni. From here, perched high up on the ridge, you look out over the park and Rhino Ridge. ‘Our view is much better than the lodge’s,’ joked Zamani. ‘And we also sometimes see rhinos from this side of the fence.’

Coffee in Mpembeni. Image: Scott Ramsay.

That evening at Zamani’s homestead, I watched her mother Nokuthula cut the throat of one of their chickens for dinner. I’ve eaten lots of chicken, but I’ve never seen one killed for my eating.

While Nokuthula plucked the feathers, Nunu, Zamani and I sat outside, with sunset views over Rhino Ridge and Hluhluwe.

Zamani’s stepfather Bheki joined us at the fire, under the darkening sky, sipping a quart of Carling Black Label. I asked him about his life here, and what Hluhluwe means to him. Zamani translated.

‘My father and mother came to live here in Mpembeni in 1965 when I was four,’ Bheki said. ‘We used to live there,’ pointing to the hill where Rhino Ridge stands. ‘It’s our land. Our animals. We had big gardens. We used to chase ubejane (black rhino) away when they came to eat our vegetables. Our cattle used to graze there, among the wild animals. We used to hunt for meat.

‘Once we lived with wild animals. We knew them well. We had a relationship. Then the fence went up in the 1970s. And we were stopped from going there.’

Bheki took another sip of beer, and looked out again over the valley into the park.

‘I haven’t been in there since 1978. I want to go inside. To see nkombe and ubejane again. And to see Rhino Ridge. I want to see for myself what is ours.’

Plan Your Trip

Getting There
Drive north from Durban on the N2 for about 220km to Mtubatuba, then turn left onto the R618 and follow the road for about 30km to Nyalazi Gate at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. From the gate, follow the signs to Rhino Ridge (S28° 09.219’ E31° 57.346’).

When to Go
All year round, but autumn and winter are cooler and less rainy for walking.

Stay Here
Rhino Ridge has 16 rooms, for families and couples. From R2,780 pp including meals, drinks and activities (except rhino walks).

Zulu homestay in Mpembeni Village with Zamani Nkosi’s family. This includes over-nighting in a rondavel at their homestead plus a traditional dinner and breakfast, Zulu beer, cold drinks and getting involved in typical daily chores and activities. Hot water is provided for a bucket shower and there is a chemical toilet for guest’s use. The homestay is offered to guests at Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge as well as to general park guests, and you’re accompanied by an English speaking guide at all times. R990 pp. Contact Isibindi Africa on 035-474-1473, rhinoridge.co.za.

Rhino Ridge Lodge is partly owned by the local community, and is built on community land which has now been incorporated into the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, significantly expanding the size of the park. Image: Scott Ramsay.

Do This
Morning and afternoon rhino walks with guide Nunu Jobe from Rhino Ridge Lodge. The pace is leisurely and mostly relaxing, unless you’re charged by a black rhino. It costs R640 for a group (two to eight people); no children under 14. rhinoridge.co.za

The Rhino Story

What is today the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park was once King Shaka’s personal hunting grounds. Back in the early 1800s, there were strict rules about which wild animals could be killed.
Shaka and subsequent kings forbade the hunting of rhino, which probably numbered several thousand in Zululand in the early 1800s.

Then wealthy Europeans came to Southern Africa to kill wild animals for fun. Men like George Gordon-Cumming, Cornwallis Harris and Frederick Selous shot everything they could find, including rhinos.

After a mass slaughter of several decades, white rhinos were considered extinct. But in 1894 hunters found and shot six of them at the confluence of the White and Black Umfolozi rivers. A public uproar forced the colonial government to proclaim the iMfolozi and Hluhluwe game reserves in 1897. A century of concerted conservation followed and the white rhino population grew, with animals translocated across Africa. Today there are over 20,000 southern white rhinos in the African wild, although poaching once again threatens them. The northern white rhino is effectively extinct.


This article was first published in the March 2020 issue of Getaway magazine.
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All prices correct at publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before booking or buying.



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