The leopard slowly creeps along the riverbank through the tall swamp grass, stopping every few feet and lifting its head to check for the scent of prey. It is mid-afternoon and this rare and ferocious cat must surely be hungry to be out at this hour. Normally it would be sleeping peacefully in the top branches of a tree. It moves so quietly and stealthily that it barely disturbs the grass as it hunts, sometimes disappearing altogether in the dense foliage.
I watch through binoculars and suddenly my heart skips a beat as it turns it's head and stares directly at me! Fortunately, Abeja and I are on the other side of the river, out of the leopard's reach and we will not be lunch today. Even the fierce leopard will not brave the crocodile infested waters of the Hluhluwe River. As if to confirm this, a log in the middle of the river begins to slither and head in our direction. This log is in fact a ten-foot long crocodile, and it is much more dangerous to us than the distant leopard. We step back from the shore a bit and watch with excited fascination as the crock silently swims by.
On the other side of the river, the leopard stops suddenly, perking up its ears, and from out of the water pops the huge head of the most dangerous animal in all of Africa - the hippopotamus. We are giggling and giddy at having just seen all these rare and beautiful creatures within a few moments, but the dangers are certainly real. Hippos kill more people than any other animal in Africa - especially unsuspecting tourists. People are often fooled by their cute, chubby faces and their deceptive clumsiness, and get too close. Here, at the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, the animals keep their distance, they are used to the thousands of awed visitors that come every week.
Hluhluwe was the first game reserve in Africa. It was established in 1895 in the Kwazulu-Natal province of South Africa mainly to protect large mammals such as rhinos, lions, and elephants from over-hunting and habitat loss. The reserve first gained international fame in 1920's as the place that saved the white rhino. By 1910 there were only 22 white rhinos left in Africa, and all of them were in the Hluhluwe reserve. Although millions of these rhinos had once roamed the continent, they had been annihilated by European expansion and were all but lost forever. By trapping and breeding some of the remaining rhinos in captivity, their numbers gradually increased and the animals were distributed to other game parks around the continent. Today there are about six thousand white rhinos living in protected reserves.
Hluhluwe is the only game park in South Africa where all the "Big Five" can be found. The "Big Five" are: elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, lion and leopard. This name originated because these were considered the most difficult and dangerous of the mammals to hunt. Although hunting them with guns has been banned, they are still as eagerly hunted by sightseers and photographers. Abeja and I were very lucky on our day-trip into the reserve to have seen three of the five. We saw about a dozen white rhino, a leopard, and lots of buffalo, as well as four or five giraffes, a hungry crocodile, hundreds of antelope and a wide variety of exotic birds and strange plants. Unfortunately, most of these animals were too far away to get good pictures, or maybe we were lucky - like I said, these critters are dangerous. But you will have to take my word for it, we really did see them.
Although the mythical Africa of yesterday is all but gone, these game sanctuaries offer a glimpse into what life must have been like hundreds of years ago before the "Dark Continent" was developed. Hluhluwe has long been a sacred place - before the arrival Europeans it was the private hunting ground of the Zulu kings. It is truly a magical region that has changed little since then, except for the roads and the 15 foot-high electrical fence that now surrounds it. Although tourism certainly takes its toll on this land, and the animals who make their home here, it also protects them and, in a way, helps keep them alive. Without dollars from tourists, this land would soon become pasture or farmland and the great creatures that roam it would be hunted to extinction. While I felt a bit guilty for invading this very special place in a car, I am nevertheless grateful for the opportunity to have seen so many incredible things in one day. By the end of the trip, I really felt like I was in Africa and I think I am really going to like it here.
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