South Africa is very price-friendly - but safaris not so much.
My traveling companions and I sought two contrasting safaris that also permitted use of our rental car for game drives. We discovered two little-known national parks that are below most tourists' radar - both proved just as breathtaking as the more famous Kruger National Park to the north and were malaria-free.
The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Reserve is the oldest park in South Africa (est.1895) and once the hunting grounds of Zulu kings. Lying 240 kilometres north of Durban on an excellent highway, its name is pronounced "sh-shluey," preferably with a spit! The thatched Hilltop Lodge offers all the amenities of a good hotel and serves huge breakfast and dinner buffets. Our two-night, three-day adventure package includes the buffets, four guided game drives, and a two bedroomcottage for $402 each. The Vervet monkeys are free.
The game drives set out at dawn and dusk, so meals have to fit around them. It makes for long days, late dinners, and short nights.
A nap in the heat of the day while animals sleep is essential; so are insect repellent, sunscreen, snacks, and water.
At 5 p.m., we excitedly scramble onto a high seat in the back of a 10-passenger Land Rover - it is an open vehicle that delivers excellent viewing above tall grasses and shrubs. For three hours, we wind along rust-red trails over hills covered with lush vegetation and through treed valleys with rushing streams.
January means summer rains; May to August is drier and a better time to visit.
Abruptly the ranger stops and points out an endangered Black Rhino grazing alone not 50 feet away.
(Hluhluwe has the largest number of rhino of any park in Africa). We turn another corner and nearly run into giraffe and zebra. After that, the game appears thick, fast, and close until the sun sets. But the best comes after dark, when we disturb a lion lying in the middle of the trail. He hightails into the bush but stops, and with the aid of a spotlight, I can count his teeth when he yawns.
Over the next two days, Hluhluwe never stops thrilling - at dawn, seven White Rhino on a hilltop and two cuddling in a wallow, an elegant male Impala with his harem in a sun-dappled glade, owls and vultures peering from trees, a crocodile half-submerged in a stream, huge herds of jetblack Cape Buffalo, and one Spotted Hyena scav-enging a lion kill.
After a 75-minute flight south to Port Elizabeth, we drive 60 kilometres to Addo, a small African village.
Although Addo Elephant National Park offers a variety of good accommodation, we choose a bed and breakfast for about $50 each per night in a cottage.
The next morning dawns hot and humid at Addo where grey-green scrub covers dry hills - quite a change from Hluhluwe's lushness. Instead of a guided drive, we opt for our air-conditioned car and drive a dirt road to a ridge overlooking the park.
There we spy an enormous herd of elephant below us. Kicking up a plume of dust, we hurtle down into the valley. Two hundred strong, the wild herd surrounds us, rumbling and grunting.
Babies slide into a big mud hole and disappear underwater; up come their trunks like periscopes. They emerge glistening in the noonday sun.
This muddy waterhole is their swimming pool and each family group takes a half an hour turn cooling down in it. On the right is their drinking hole where the elephant stand carefully on the edge.
It's steamy in the car with windows open and after two hours we head for lunch.
Afterwards we seek different game at Addo's other waterholes. We find Red Hartebeest, Egyptian geese, Ibis, and warthogs by the pools and several regal Kudu in the bush.
We are drawn back to the elephant at day's end. Juvenile males spar and mothers hum to their babies. At sundown we drag ourselves away, marveling at an experience of a lifetime that only cost $20 each.
The memories of Hluhluwe and Addo still fill my dreams - Africa captured my heart.
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