Roll up your window, I told my husband in a stage whisper.
“Why?” David asked as he raised the window in our rented Toyota Corolla. “What do you see?
“That,” I said, and pointed to the lioness sitting by the side of the road.
We’d been in the South African game park less than half an hour, and it wasn’t yet 8 a.m., and had earlier seen a rhinoceros and her calf from a distance. We’d passed a buffalo on the way into the park. And we’d spotted three of what are called Africa’s Big Five animals; cheetah, elephant, rhinoceros, lion and buffalo.
David was a bit amazed by our luck. He had visited South Africa’s most famous game park, Kruger, a few years earlier. We were spending the day at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, pronounced something like sh-shloo-ee um-fa-lo-zee.
The famous Zulu chief, Shaka, once used some of this land as a personal hunting preserve, according to Web sites for travel agencies and guidebooks. Shaka was perhaps 29 when he took over in 1816, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. He changed how Zulus fought, emphasizing close combat with knives as well as more traditional use of spears.
Shaka’s successes against other Zulu tribes caused people to flee, part of disruptions in southern Africa that made it easier for European groups to dominate this land. He went mad in 1827 and was killed by his half brothers in 1828. Within a few decades, the British and Dutch-descended farmers controlled much of the Zulu lands, which were rich enough to support large populations of some of the world’s largest, strange and beautiful animals.
It wasn’t just the marquee animals that awed me at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi. The hoof stock ranged from a creature, so pretty it looks made up, called a nyala to wildebeest, which really do look like wild beasts indeed.
I hadn’t been that excited about visiting a game park before we arrived in South Africa. It sounded like something where you needed to go with an organized tour, or at best, do what my husband had done earlier and get someone to drive you around. I hadn’t pictured that you could do your own safari—with a rented Toyota Corolla no less, and see so much. The entry fee cost about as much U.S. theaters charge for a movie. South Africa surprised me again and again with just how easy it was to travel there.
We would talk later on our trip with a Belgian man who had come to Africa some years back, intending to do a Cape Town-to-Cairo tour. Instead, he had fallen in love with Africa, its animals—and a girl. He had worked in game parks since. He said he thought it was a shame that organized day tours to game parks often leave in the afternoon, depriving the visitors of the best part of the day.
For us, the final hours at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi were like the closing moments of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,’’ as it is done for the Fourth of July concert in Washington, with cannons booming along with the orchestra and fireworks going off.
After a midafternoon lull in animal sightings, some rhinos crossed our path.
We left the park at closing, quite happy with our sightings. We had seen four out of what we have deemed our Big Five; elephant, lion, rhinoceros..and giraffe. What was missing was a hippopotamus.
We drove to the nearby town of St. Lucia, long a summer vacation spot for Johannesburg people and peope of Dutch descent, known as Afrikaners. We stayed at St. Lucia Wilds,a little complex of brick homes, each with a barbecue grill out front. It was a good value and the owner had put together a great book on the region. She also told us where we might find our missing fifth big animal the next morning.
Taking her advice, we headed for the nearby beach. Men in khaki shorts calmly take their fishing gear to waters with signs warning of crocodiles and hippopotamus. We missed the hippos at first,thinking they were rocks in a cove. Then we were as excited about seeing a little hippo eye or ear peak from the water as we had been the day before when giraffes and rhino families romped around us.