Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Rhinos, reefs & turtles

When Marthie Visser and her daughter embarked on a nine-day guided adventure to explore Zululand in all its glory, they never expected that it would be a life-changing, mystical experience. They share their emotional journey.

My daughter and I were driving on a tarred road from the northern KwaZulu-Natal town of Hluhluwe to the memorial gate of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. The last time I did this trip was in 1975 with my parents and then this was a gravel road. I had come full circle as I was now bringing my daughter back to this ancient conservation area. I was very excited, but also a little apprehensive. My memories of the game reserve are of a group of rhinos lying on a misty mountain top and I was so excited to hopefully show my daughter the same scene. My apprehension was due to the fact that for the first time I was travelling with a tour operator (recommended to me by a friend), as well as all the sad stories one hears about rhino poaching.

At the park entrance we met our guide, Frank Carlisle, coowner and founder of Bhejane 4×4 Adventures. We learned that Bhejane is the Zulu word for black rhino and that before starting the tourism business, Frank spent many years as a game ranger and conservation manager in this very same park. Our first night around the fire, being serenaded by hyenas and lions roaring in the distance, Frank explained about the uniqueness of this park. It is the oldest protected conservation area in Africa and the second oldest in the world, only surpassed by the Yellowstone National Park in the USA. We were super excited to head out with Frank the next morning on our journey of exploration.

Our small convoy of four vehicles was in radio contact with Frank in his lead vehicle and he started off by pointing out the white and the black Umfolozi Rivers and how, for a long time, this area was informally protected as King Shaka’s private hunting ground. Due to that protection, the last remaining, viable population of white rhinos survived there. These animals, thought to be extinct in the last 1890’s, were rediscovered between the two rivers, leading to the area being officially proclaimed a park in 1897.

As we rounded a bend on a road close to the black Umfolozi River, Frank said those magic words: “If you look over to your right, lying in that mud wallow, is a group of five white rhinos.’’ The memories of my father pointing out a very similar scene all those years ago, came flooding back. One of the rhinos stood up and I felt just a little nervous in my Suzuki Jimny as it looked twice the size of my car! My teenage daughter was almost squealing with joy. “Mom, look how happy they look lying in the mud!” The radio never stopped – Frank was explaining the difference between the black and white rhinos and where their names are derived from.

The day went by with stories of great battles between Shaka and some of his enemies in this very same area. Frank pointed out places where ancient iron ore smelting sites were located where Shaka’s blacksmiths created the infamous stabbing spears that changed the face of war in those days. Sadly, we talked a little about the modern war on rhino poaching but Frank constantly reminded us about the positive aspect of rhino conservation and the success stories. He told us what it is like to manage a conservation area like this – the privilege to be involved in wildlife capture and reintroduction of species, the genetic surveys on lion populations and going out at night to dart these animals. But most of all, he talked about the dedicated men and women who conserve all this magnificent wildlife. That evening the Bhejane logistics team pitched our tents and took care of us and as it would be for the rest of the trip, cooked us an amazing meal, serving it with big smiles on their faces. We were up early the next morning and much more game viewing awaited. I lost track of the number of white rhinos we saw, although each sighting was special. We spotted lions in the distance and wild dogs ran between the cars as we relished in the fact that we had a lot of these sightings all to ourselves. Frank nostalgically pointed out his old home and I could hear how emotional he was, having spent so much time in this area. Our big treat for the day, was a visit to the game capture unit and realising that simply by being there we were making a difference. Bhejane Adventures has a non-profit division, Rex the Rhino Conservation Trust, and we learned that a percentage of what we had paid to enjoy this epic adventure, would go to this trust. The funds are used to purchase things such as equipment and uniforms for the dedicated people that work in the reserve. We met five rhino orphans that were now close to adulthood and were due to be released back into the wild. We learned that the Rex the Rhino Fund helped with their first milk powder and later lucerne, as well as the construction of a rewilding pen to reintroduce them back into nature.

Sadly, we said goodbye to the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and headed to our next destination on the coast in the greater iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The game viewing was incredible, but I would have loved to see the ever-elusive black rhino that the park is famous for. We camped near Kosi Bay and spent our time snorkelling at Black Rock and driving out to the Tembe Elephant Park, where we were privileged to see some of Africa’s biggest tusker elephants. We also visited Ndumo Game Reserve, famous for its birding and magnificent pans and drive along the shores of Lake St Lucia, loosing count of the Flamingos and Pelicans we saw.

On one of the evenings as we left camp, Frank told us to deflate our tyres as it was time to put our vehicles through their paces. It was an hour-and-a-half long drive on sandy tracks meandering through coastal forests to Bhanga Nek beach. I was so proud of my little Jimny and my own driving skills as we held our own among some of the big 4×4’s in the convoy. It was, however, so nice to have the assistance of a guide and the group in general. Little did we know that we were about to experience one of nature’s true miracles. At Bhanga Nek we met Simangaliso Mageba, a truly passionate young man and a specialist guide, trained by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife as part of a community project. He gave us a briefing of the dos and don’ts of what was about to follow but we still didn’t realise what we were in for. It was dark and there was only a little moonlight as our group started walking along the coastline on the hard sand, each alone with our own thoughts. And then Simangaliso spotted what he is looking for… the distinct tracks in the sand made by a turtle. He told us to wait as he walked up into the low dunes and our excitement levels rose… we were about to witness a leatherback turtle laying her eggs. She was born on this very beach many, many years ago and has come back year after year to lay her eggs here. This conservation success story is incredible as the numbers of leatherback and loggerhead turtles that visit this beach every year to lay their eggs, are increasing. It’s no wonder as there are incredibly strict protocols on how one gets to witness this miracle so as not to disturb the mother turtle. What we witnessed brought tears of joy to both my daughter and I. There simply are no words to describe the experience.

The last two days of our tour were spent in Ithala Game Reserve. Due to the dramatic changes in height above sea level in the reserve, the species of animals that occur here are quite unique. This protected area has mountains over 1 000m high, with savannah bushveld that drops down to the gorges of the mighty Pongola River, a mere 300m above sea level. The area is like a little hidden gem, and we encountered very few other guests. I once again got to put my 4×4 driving skills to the test, this time on an excursion on one of Ithala’s 4×4 tracks. Two days earlier I had learned how to drive my nippy little Jimny on sandy tracks on our way to see the turtles and now I was driving in a rocky environment. Best of all, I was safely and comfortably enjoying a new set of driving skills as Bhejane had stressed in their marketing of the tour that no previous 4×4 driving experience was needed and that we would learn as we went along.

One of the other vehicles got a puncture and once again it was brought home why it is so great to be travelling in a group. Frank and his assistant guide had the wheel fixed and inflated before we even had enough time to finish a cup of tea! As on all the other days, we stopped under a shady tree where Frank and his assistant served us a lunch. He joked that they were working hard as his senior chef, Vermaak Senosi, was back at the camp preparing supper, leaving him to his own devices to prepare our lunch. We could all see Vermaak’s loving and caring touch, and we all knew that he was the one who had prepared the lunch that Frank was unpacking. After another evening of camping in the wild in an unfenced campsite it was time for our last full day of adventure together. Frank had organised a game walk with one of the park’s tourism officers and we started off with a safety briefing before heading out. Our guide, Russel Buthelezi, is at one with nature – from dung beetles to spiders’ webs to game tracks, he interpreted it all for us. We had been walking for an hour but had covered almost no distance as there was so much to see.

Walking into a light breeze so that any animals ahead of us wouldn’t get our scent we suddenly came upon some Oxpeckers, and they flew up chirping loudly. We knew this is usually the sign of a large mammal close by, having learnt this during the past seven days of travel. There, not 30m from us, was a black rhino! Fortunately, rhinos have very poor eyesight so as long as we stood still, it would not be able see us and as we had the wind in our favour, it couldn’t smell or hear us either. Russel calmly instructed us to stand still and not to make any sudden movements. The majestic beast stood sniffing the air, making one or two loud snorts as time stood still for us. After a while, the Oxpeckers calmed down and although I was quite sure the rhino could hear my heart pounding in my chest, I couldn’t contain the excitement and fear I was feeling. This was truly one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had and to share it with my daughter, was absolutely priceless.

That night around the campfire a group of people from different backgrounds that started off as strangers had become united as friends due to the humbling power of nature and the African bush. The bug has truly bitten me, and I cannot wait for the next adventure.

About Bhejane Adventures

Bhejane 4X4 Adventures was formed over 18 years ago with the vision of conducting guided self-drive 4×4 adventure tours into the remoter areas of Southern Africa. Both tented and lodge-based tours are offered, as well as a combination of both on selected tours. The tours are led and managed by individual crews of four that manage the logistics of the group, pitch the tents (provided by Bhejane) and take care of catering through a mobile bush kitchen that provides three meals a day. Depending on the destination, adventure activities are integrated into the experience and are included in the overall cost of each tour. The next Rhinos, Reefs and Turtles tented adventure is scheduled for 27 November to 5 December 2023.

CONTACT: +27 82 724 0442 | bookings@bhejane.com | www.bhejane.com

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