Tracking Down the Big 5 and More in Zululand
Run by eZemvelo KZN Wildlife, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi (previously Hluhluwe-Umfolozi) is, at 96,453 hectares (238,824 acres), by far the province's largest Big 5 reserve and offers excellent value. It is open to daytime visitors as well as overnight guests, which gives you the flexibility to base yourself in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, where you are closer to both the ocean and the estuary, and to visit Hluhluwe as a day-tripper. Twenty kilometers (12 miles) north of Hluhluwe lies the new 5,000-hectare (12,350-acre) Thanda Private Game Reserve. Modeled on the luxury lodges surrounding Kruger, the reserve -- if you opt for the tiny tented camp -- provides one of the most exclusive bush experiences in southern Africa. There's more laid-on luxury (with a touch of kitsch) to be had at Mkhuze Falls Private Game Reserve -- a private reserve that comprises more than 17,000 hectares (41,990 acres) and is one of the best-value Big 5 reserves in the country -- and nearby Amakhosi Lodge, in the 10,000-hectare (24,700-acre) AmaZulu Private Game Reserve. Phinda Private Game Reserve's camps -- particularly Forest and Vlei -- afford the most stylish bush accommodations in the province, but note that, for this kind of money, you could be staying in a top-notch lodge around Kruger. Finally, there are the beautiful coastal marine reserves, where you can stay at Thonga Beach Lodge or Rocktail Bay, both of which offer a chance to explore the coastal dune forest, laze away the days snorkeling and scuba-diving in tropical waters, and perhaps witness one of nature's most primeval miracles. From October to February, the large leatherback turtle (weighing in at 600kg/1,320 lb.) and its smaller relative, the loggerhead turtle, travel thousands of miles, using ancient navigational techniques to return to the precise beach on which they were born, heaving themselves ashore to produce the next generation -- a cycle some believe dates back more than 6,000 years. Kosi Forest Lodge, sister lodge of Thonga Beach Lodge, is the ideal base for exploring the Kosi Bay estuarine system, another Maputaland jewel. This intricate hub of wonder comprises swamp, dune, coastal, mangrove, and sand forests, including an extraordinary collection of tropical plants, animals, and birds, including the rare Palm Nut Vulture.
How to Avoid Becoming Dinner -- Always keep a distance of about 3m (9 3/4 ft.) from the water's edge. Remember that crocodiles can remain underwater for up to 2 hours in just a foot of water, so don't assume you're safe just because there's no sign of 'em. If you see a V-shape on the surface of the water moving toward shore, get away fast; if the critter actually gets hold of you, try to locate its eyes and stick your thumbs in as deep as they'll go. Better looking but equally dangerous, hippos are more widespread and said to be the animal responsible for the greatest number of deaths in Africa. This is largely because hippos travel great distances at night for grazing, creating paths oft-used by humans to reach riverbanks. Hippos don't like anyone getting in their way, however, and they are particularly unpredictable when accompanied by their young.