(prepare yourself for a billion photos).
On our last day before we started our projects we went to another close reserve called Hlane National Park, the king’s reserve. This reserve was definitely the most touristy attraction in the area, having larger more dangerous animals such as elephants, lions and rhinos. The reserve still felt very wild, but more zoo like than the other two we had visited. Probably with good reason as more fences and gates were probably needed to keep the dangerous animals safe away from humans when they weren’t in vehicles and to keep out poachers. Also, the animals were more used to people and more docile! That’s the sad reality, even the wildest bits of Africa aren’t as wild as we liked to think they are. We got to the reserve and were immediately met by fruit bats in the entrance ceiling! I thought they were the cutest thing I had ever seen! In addition to this we were shown to one of their rooms that contained skulls of animals! I was shocked over the size and strength of a hippo skull, it was MASSIVE.
When we entered we were taken to the reception/ picnic area which lied next to a water hole. The water hole was packed with wildlife, including crocodiles, impala, kudu and an adorable warthog family with playful kids. The kids were chasing each other round a bush for ages, playing what looked like tag! It is so special seeing animals play and enjoy themselves like that. Scientists often study animals from a logical perspective, where all their behaviour is done to enhance their survival, but sometimes I think we forget that animals do stuff because they want have fun! Another special moment was seeing the hippos run into the water, creating giant splashes! Again, they looked so happy and playful, enjoying that moment of submerging themselves into the cool water. A spectacular sight!
One of my favourite moments however was when an elephant came to the water hole. It was magical to finally see one! They are absolutely incredible and majestic. We followed it round and watched the young bull make his way through the thick shrub. At one point Nick and I got to close and he started charging us, flaring his ears and stomping his feet, and making sure we knew who was boss. He stopped by the edge of the reserve and stood his ground from us, being only perhaps 5 metres away. My heart was pumping, and I was sure that if he really wanted to that tiny electric “fence” would have been no issue to break through if he really wanted to. Shaking, I still managed to dare to take a photo when I felt a little safer. I have never felt so small and in awe of such a powerful animal before. After we was fed up with us he disappeared into the bush again.
After we had been at the water hole for a while we went up to the main reception again to sign some papers that agreed if we got killed by one of their animals it wasn’t their fault we got into our safari vehicles. One of them was actually from the reserve itself, which we had to pay for. It was a bit funny actually cause it was a result of the Africans insisting that we couldn’t use our own car as it had a logo (All out Africa) on it which was advertisement. The funny thing was that before we went there they said it was fine, but on the day they changed their minds and made a couple of bucks. Hmmm interesting 😛 . I definitely enjoyed being in the safari car though, it meant we had a guide who let us get out of the car and walk close to the white rhinos we came across under his supervision. Not that it looked like he would have been able to protect us if the rhinos really didn’t want us to be there, he was holding some sort of stick with a round knob at the top. I think I reassured myself by convincing that the stick, hit in the right place would cause some sort of shock to the animal so that it fled. We we first met however with an elephant family peacefully eating. The two kids sticked close to the older members of the family. The ladies seemed much more relaxed that the hyped up bull we just came across. It was so lovely just watching them eat the thorny acacia trees and go around doing their daily routine. The two younger ones were so adorable too, they were so so cute!!!
After watching the elephants for a while we proceeded further into the reserve and met with the evidence of rhinos in the nearby area. Fresh dung covered in dung beetles making their little balls! Not far along we found them, and it was, again, such an incredible sight! The curved shape of their horns told us that they were all males. The guide took us out to them and we stood and watched them walk past us, only a few metres away. They are so powerful and muscular, you wouldn’t want to get on their bad side. On them were the familiar sight of oxpeckers, but also a ton of flies and bugs!
Driving through the reserve you could imediately see how the management of this area was different from the other two parks. this area seemed very biodiversity low and quite bare. The reason for this is the large elephant population the reserve is holding. Elephants are ecosystem engineers, stripping the tree to bark and causing regeneration. However, too many elephants and the positive influence becomes to heavy and turns negative! Further in we were met my a tower of giraffes. Graceful animals, peacefully lazing around in the afternoon heat. A little later we were spoilt with even more rhinos!! These had a little baby which they proceeded to gather round and protect when we came close. It was interesting watching them shade under the trees, having a scratch and a power nap (the one leaning against a tree with his eyes shut was well and truly gone, poor thing haha).
Back at the main reception we went down to the water hole again to enjoy more of the wildlife! The impala were wandering around the camp site and chilling under the shade of the trees. Again, we were spoilt rotten with the rhinos and hippos in the background. The rhinos had come down to the water and were having a snooze and it was really interesting watching the oxpeckers interacting with each other whilst their hosts were having a break. It looked like they were fighting for the best rhinos.
After some lunch we headed out again to a hide to look over a water hole and see the wildlife in more peace and quiet. We saw herds of wildebeest, and a flock of zebras! The zebras was a sight I had been hoping for the entire trip and it was so exciting to finally see them! My favourite animal from the trip! They emerged from the forest and headed carefully towards the water, taking plenty of time to make sure they were safe. They would stop and start, scouting for danger, often back to back to see both ways. When drinking there was always at least one standing guard.