Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, aka HIP

South Africa's oldest game reserve

The Kruger National Park in South Africa may be the most famous and well known of parks in Africa, but there are other parks that are just as interesting and delightful, with wonderful populations of all the wild animals that would naturally be found there, if us humans hadn’t interfered with their habitats and relegated them to reserves, to keep them safe, and us not inconvenienced by them possibly doing house calls. Speaking of which – house calls, some do, and I’ll tell you about them in the nearby town of St Lucia in a while.

The Hluhluwe – Imfolozi National Park (or HIP as it gets shortened to), is in the Zululand area of northern Kwa Zulu-Natal, South Africa. Until 30 odd years ago, it was two separate parks, the Hluhluwe and the Imfolozi (previously Umfolozi or Mfolozi), separated by a swathe of bush about 15km wide, through which the national road, the R618, snaked its way further north and west into the interior. Then the very logical decision was made to join the two reserves, making one large reserve, which has a network of roads that make for good game viewing, and a complete ‘no go’ wilderness zone by non-rangers (but easily accessible to poachers) on the southern side of the R618. Sadly, the R618, which literally goes straight through the park, is not gated, patrolled, fenced, monitored or camera-ed, and is the perfect stretch of road from which to launch a poaching trip. By poaching in this context, I’m not referring to poaching for the pot by people living in close proximity to the park – no, poaching in the HIP, means full scale rhino poaching. The figures are ghastly. In the first three months of 2022, over 100 rhinos were killed for their horns in this park alone. The ins and out about why poaching is so rife in this park, is worth a book on its own, and I will leave that to the brave and dedicated people who are out there physically protecting the rhinos; the backup teams, the whistle blowers, the courts and the lawyers who prosecute the poachers. I have the utmost respect for them all, but I will add that the R618 is probably the biggest problem. In my opinion it should get fenced, and strategically placed  tunnels and bridges put in place for the wildlife to safely cross back and forth across the R618. And yes, patrols and cameras will add more control, and save more rhinos.

A map showing where the R618 enters and exits the park, and a stretch of the R618, warning that wild animals cross the uncontrolled national road.

The Imfolozi is the oldest game reserve in South Africa, having been established in 1895, and predates the Sabie Reserve, which later became the Kruger National Park, by seven years. The Imfolozi area was first known as the Imfolozi Junction Reserve, as the junction of the Black and White Imfolozi Rivers is within it. The Hluhluwe section was called the Hluhluwe Valley Reserve, as the Hluhluwe River runs through that area. The area in between the two reserves was traditionally the hunting grounds of the Zulu Kings.

Miles and miles of Africa – the HIP is nearly 1000 square kilometres in extent.

Home to 85 species of mammals, including the Big 5, and Cheetah and Wild Dog (now the Painted Wolf), 350 bird species and many reptiles, amphibians, and insects, the nearly 1000 square kilometres of park, will always offer wonderful animal sightings.

A cheetah poses for a photo op. Image courtesy of Sam Sherwen.

Different types of accommodation are offered; from semi tented camps at Mpila, to self-catering units overlooking the river at Nselweni, to very comfortable accommodation at Hilltop. Hilltop also boasts a restaurant, where you can often ‘’dine’’ with buffalo grazing a few metres away from the dining area. Signage reminds you that all animals can get into the camps anytime they want to. Walking around at night is not recommended.

A herd of buffalo chill in the grass below Hilltop’s restaurant and the deck overlooking the river at Nselweni.

Whether you choose to self-drive or to go on a tour with a guide, you are bound to see many animals. Often you will see more on trips with tour guides – after all, this is their back garden, and they not only know where the animals like to hang out, but their eyes, from spending many hours game watching, are so much better trained than our eyes to spot game. The best times for gaming watching are early morning (sunrise is great!) and late afternoon, but don’t forget that the gates to the park and camps close at 6pm (subject to change with the seasons), so plan your trips well, and don’t lose track of time.

Start your game viewing at sunrise – it’s worth it!

The terrain of the two areas differs greatly. The Imfolozi area is mostly savanna and quite dry compared to Hluhluwe which is hillier with more indigenous forests. These forests are home the ubiquitous South African staple, the Vervet Monkey, and also a subspecies of Samango Monkey, Cercopithecus albogularis erythrarchus (known as Sykes Monkeys in the rest of Africa, and previously also known as Blue Monkeys, but Blue Monkeys have now been classified as a separate species north of the Cunene and Zambezi Rivers).Both subspecies live in localized pockets around the country. Baboons are found in both areas of the HIP.

Within the grounds of the various camps, wild animals are also found. This Nyala and the Samango were seen near the chalets, not concerned about the humans around them. Remember: they are wild, do not try feed them, or try to interact with them, keep your distance.

Below: Snakes are all around too, the striped quill snouted snake (only dangerous to frogs) was found dead on the road, and our chalet balustrade had been used to help a snake shed its old skin.  

Large herds of elephant now call this park home, but they had to be reintroduced in 1981, as they had all been shot out by hunters decades earlier. Lions had also been shot out, and the popular story of the start of their reintroduction to the area is that a lone male from Mozambique strayed into the area around 1958.


HIP now has a healthy elephant population, with several different herds moving across the park.

Buffalo herds can number 100s of animals, but occasionally a lone ‘dagga boy’ will be seen. These are the old males who have been ousted from the herd, and who enjoy mud (from ‘udaka’ in Zulu, which changed to dagga in colloquial South African English and Afrikaans – it has nothing to do with cannabis/ weed/ dope/ ganja, also know colloquially as dagga in South Africa) wallows, caking themselves with it. Buffalo are known as the most unpredictive animals of Africa, and have been responsible for a good many deaths of people on foot. Remember – don’t get out of that car!

A lone buffalo stares us down.

Leopard, lion and cheetah are not commonly seen, as are Wild dogs (Painted wolves). Impala antelope is very common, but the Nyala antelope whose males have a shaggy longish coat is more common. Often the question of why South Africa’s national animal, the Springbok is not seen in many parks: this is because parks are not zoos, and only have the animals that historically and naturally occurred there. Springbok belong in the dry Karoo, where you will see hundreds of them.

Both white and black rhino were very nearly extinct in the 1960s, and without the efforts of conservationists like Ian Player (brother to the golfer, Gary), they would probably be extinct. Operation Rhino was his idea, and he organized the relocation of a number of these huge animals to different areas, including the San Diego zoo, where breeding programs were put in place, ensuring the survival of the species. Until recently, the white rhino was extinct in Uganda, and is now being successfully bred there again, from animals imported from Kenya and the USA. My blog on Uganda has more information about this success story.

Left: A rhino close to the park fence, multitasking: acting as a taxi for a egret, and adding to its midden. Both Black and white rhino have several middens which they add to as they move through their territory. Right: Rhinos are often seen sleeping during the day. A word of warning: please do not ever upload your photos of rhino to social media when you see them. Photos on social media can be used to compromise rhino positions and let poachers know where they are.

Both white and black rhino are actually grey in colour, and the main differences between the two, are firstly that the white (Square-lipped) rhino has a wide flat upper lip, and the black (Hook-lipped) has a finger-like prehensile upper lip. Secondly, the square-lipped is a grazer, and the Hooked-lipped is a browser. Thirdly, the young of the Square-lipped walk in front of their mothers, and the calves of the Hook-lipped walk behind their mothers. The colour names probably originated from the Dutch word for ‘wide’, being ‘wijd’, and this over time became ‘white’ when speaking English, or ‘wit’ when speaking Afrikaans. The other species became known as ‘black’ as an easy way to differentiate between the two. Both have two horns on their faces.

A rhino scratching post, photographed at a hide.

Places to visit within the park, are of course the strategically placed hides. These are fairly safe, having completely closed-in access pathways. But do remember that you have to get to the entrance gates of these ‘tunnels’ from your car. Do not exit your car without having first had a good look around, and only get out of your car if there are no animals around. There are also designated picnic spots where you can sit down, walk around, admire the views, etc, but these are not fenced off, and any animal may be in the area, or just outside it, hiding in the bush, perhaps wondering if you will make a good lunch, or be fun to trample. Be careful, the park is not a zoo, wild animals are unpredictable, and are unable to read ‘keep out’ signs.  

Even in the accommodation areas, the wild animals can be found.

The Centenary Centre is a huge, thatched area where the Zulu women of the area sell their handmade wares. Beautiful basketwork, carvings and beadwork can be (and should be) bought here, so don’t forget your wallets in your room.

On the road up to Hilltop from the Imfolozi area, on the right, a cairn of stones can be seen. Often with baboons sitting on it too. Cairns are part of many cultures around the world, and are a simple way of remembering ancestors, and by doing so, requesting their spirits to afford you safe passage on your travels. Simply, as one passes a cairn, a stone is placed on top of the pile. As you are in the middle of a game reserve, do not do this at this cairn, but maybe just pause a while, and remember those who started this cairn hundreds of years ago, and the rangers who today patrol the park, keeping the animals safe. Ian Player in his book Zululand Wilderness: Shadow and Soul, tells the story how he  and his Zulu ranger, Magqubu Ntombela had a show down on a  hot day one October, when he, Player, was the Chief Ranger. Player walked past the cairn, and Ntombela ordered him back to place a stone on the cairn. Player refused to take instruction from his junior staff member, but eventually relented, picked up a stone, spat on it (as he was instructed to do), and then threw it on the cairn. A few minutes later, with Ntombela now walking in front, a huge black mamba, one of Africa’s most deadly snakes, rose up between them. They froze, and the snake went on its way, but came back when Player’s dog, Lancer, saw it and barked. Again it rose to its awesome height and was ready to attack, and again the men froze, Player holding tightly on to his dog. After some time, the snake again relaxed and went on its way. Ntombela had given Player a valuable lesson in that giving respect to the ancestors had saved their lives, as according to Zulu belief, an ancestor had intervened. When Player wanted to shoot the snake, he was given another lesson: the snake had moved on without hurting them, it was now their turn to move on without hurting it.

Chacma baboons on the Hluhluwe cairn.

On my last visit to HIP, we were incredibly lucky to see cheetah twice. Two groups of three were seen on different days. The first was a female and two older cubs, who graced us with a classic sighting of them disappearing in a cloud of dust as they sped off, and the second sighting was an adult, maybe also a female, with two youngsters, who posed for us while we photographed them. The last time I had seen wild cheetahs was when I was a child in Tanzania, so I was really happy.

Mostly we go to game parks to see the bigger mammals, but the small ones, like dwarf mongooses should not be forgotten. Birds and reptiles should also be looked for. The larger bird species are of course the easiest to spot, and the park has three species of vulture (white backed, white headed and lappet faced), and many other birds of prey including the red faced Bateleur Eagle. The smaller birds are equally delightful and beautiful, such as the pale blue wax bill and crested barbet –  there are so many species that you’ll be kept very busy trying to tick them, should you get bored looking at the bigger game.

Left: A very unusual sighting of a python which had just swallowed a duiker. Right: A Crested Guinea fowl with its cap of curly black feathers.

If you not wish to stay in the park, there are lodges outside the park, and you can commute in and out of it as you wish. The towns of Mtubatuba, and St Lucia, on the coast are respectively 35km and 55km from the park, are alternative accommodation options.

The Isimangiliso Wetland Park gate is between these two towns, and is easily accessed. This park is a whopping 3200 odd square kilometres in extent, and although it may not have rhino or lion, its wetland topography and landscape more than make up for the lack of those of the Big 5. It encompasses Lake St Lucia, which in itself should be on your go-to list.

Road block a la Isimangiliso Wetland Park. Under no circumstances should you try to overtake elephants. Stay well back until they move off the road. We were treated to the view of the rumps of these three for 45 minutes.

As mentioned earlier, most towns are not inconvenienced by wildlife strolling through it. St Lucia is an exception, and uses this phenomenon to market itself. Hippos are regular visitors to the town centre and residential areas. For that reason, walking around at night is not advised. Crocodiles may not walk down the main road past the shops, but they are in very close proximity, as the town is bordered by the Imfolozi River, which also forms the estuary which leads to the lake. The estuary has the strange phenomenon that hippos, crocodiles and Zambezi sharks(also called Bull sharks) all live in the same water. The St Lucia beaches are not recommended for swimming, as all 3 of these animals are regularly seen on the beaches and in the waves. Smaller animals, such as bushbuck and mongooses are often seen in gardens too.

Left: Signage in St Lucia. Right: A hippo on a St Lucia street.

Typical sights on the N2 in Zululand: big trucks and rural villages

To get to HIP from Durban, take the N2 north for a couple of hours, and head left when you see the R618 turnout. To get to Mtubatuba and St Lucia, head right on the R618 from the N2. If coming from the parks, just go right over the N2, sticking to the R618. Be aware that the N2 is used by big ore carrying trucks and that the road can be congested. The easiest route from Johannesburg is via Pongola on the N2, but the most interesting route is via Vryheid and Nongoma, using the R33 and R618.

The Galavanter: always happy in the bush.

By Kathryn Costello

I travel. I read. I get up to mischief. I write about what I have been up to. I also have fun writing down the stories that I told my daughter when she was little about a dolphin named Michaela. I am a tourism consultant. Owning and managing a successful guesthouse, working for tourism organizations and travelling has given me a lot of insight about what makes a tourism orientated business successful.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: