Not just the oldest game reserve in Africa, but also the oldest Zulu hunting grounds, the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is a very special place to visit.

A word to the wise: follow the directions supplied and don’t trust Google Maps. Especially when it comes to places you don’t know in deep, rural Zululand.

Once you are finally winding your way up the rolling KwaZulu-Natal hills, you start seeing little rondawels dotting the hillside and kids in school uniforms making their way home. And then: the wild, unspoilt bush.

The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is home to the largest concentrations of white and black rhinos, elephants and lions in the country. Recently, tracts of tribal land of 6 000 hectares were incorporated into the main reserve.

The uMfolozi Big Five Reserve
The uMfolozi Big Five Reserve

A Culture of Conservation

This private reserve, uMfolozi Big Five, is set within the valleys where King Shaka of the Zulus pioneered a culture of conservation by proclaiming this area his royal hunting ground.

It is here that you will hear about five forward-thinking Zulu chiefs who realised that eco-tourism is the sustainable future for their land and communities.

It all started when one of the chiefs, Inkosi Mthembu, talked with his long-time friend, developer Barry Theunissen, about the unused land around the tribal areas. Theunissen suggested establishing a game reserve, and Inkosi Mthembu played envoy to other chiefs with land bordering Hluhluwe-iMfolozi.

Get up close to wild life on your game drove
Get up close to wildlife on your game drive

The current chieftaincies of Mthembu and Biyela both trace their ancestry back proudly to Shaka’s time. After many long discussions with all stakeholders, the first two of five luxurious lodges were opened and were named after these chiefs.

The project brings a much-needed economic injection and employment to this rural area, through either direct employment at the lodges or outsourced services such as laundry or the growing of vegetables.

Additionally, 150 community members gained new skills with free, certified hospitality training, opening alternative doors for them.

Sacred Ground

“This is extremely sacred ground,” general manager David Wilmington says.

“Shaka Zulu is the reason this is the oldest reserve in Africa, because he proclaimed it his protected land. And the conservationist Dr Ian Player launched Operation Rhino [that pioneered the methods and drugs to immobilise and translocate large mammals] right here.”

Their team captured and moved many of the remaining population of southern white rhinos, saving them from extinction.

“Pretty much all the rhinos that you find in Southern Africa have come from right here, between the White and the Black iMfolozi Rivers.”

Crossing the white uMfolozi during the dry season
Crossing the white uMfolozi during the dry season

A Wild Wonder

It is pretty wild. Both Biyela and Mthembu lodges are unfenced, and it is not unusual for an elephant to come up to the infinity pool to say hello. Animals come and go as they please – which is why you are escorted up and down the wooden walkways to your luxurious rooms.

Away from the five-star lodges, savour the little moments that you will not find anywhere else… such as a brilliantly coloured butterfly lightly making its way through your game-drive vehicle as you are bumping along the rough terrain.

Or two surly buffalo bulls eyeing you, while nearby, an eagle is sticking its head under its wing to preen itself, and a Burchell’s coucal is calling its distinctive koo-o-o, koo-koo-koo-koo-koo.

Observe the iridescent blue-green colours of the Cape glossy starling that look like flying jewels, and admire a breath-taking sunrise of orangey-pink as a golden yellow globe rises from the mist.

Five star accommodation awaits at the newly opened Biyela Lodge
Five star accommodation awaits at the newly opened Biyela Lodge

A Learning Experience 

Particularly memorable are the knowledgeable guides who share cultural and historical stories in between.

Today, we are lucky to have access to this unique wilderness area: a sacred place where no man has control, and nature rules.

You realise that nothing should be taken for granted when a guide spots a piece of litter and reverses the game-drive vehicle to pick it up. Poachers, I realise. A small act that shows anyone can bring about change – if we stay vigilant.

Look out for Zebras on your game drive
Look out for Zebras on your game drive

Getting There

SAA flies to Durban several times each day from Johannesburg (O.R. Tambo International Airport).

You can also fly to Durban from Johannesburg (Lanseria), Durban, East London, and Port Elizabeth on SAA’s low-cost carrier Mango, or SAA domestic partners – SA Express or Airlink. Book your ticket now!

Words by Leanne Feris