Last updated: 05:00 PM ET, Thu May 12 2016

Dispatch: Safari in Hluhluwe Game Reserve

Destination & Tourism | David Cogswell | May 12, 2016

Dispatch: Safari in Hluhluwe Game Reserve

From Johannesburg the flight to Richards Bay was only about an hour. When we landed we found ourselves at a tiny suburban airport. When we stepped out of the plane onto the tarmac the smell of the sea enveloped us.

We boarded a van and drove away from the Indian Ocean into the country as the GPS spoke in a South African accent. The landscape became progressively hillier and the towns and villages thinned out as we drove further into the wilderness. After two hours we pulled into the parking lot of Zululand Tree Lodge in the Ubizane Wildlife Reserve.

We walked along a wooden plank walkway to a reception desk where we received keys to our individual cabins, wooden structures with thatched roofs built on top of stilts. A central open-air building served as the central lodge and housed a restaurant, a bar and lounging area. A small pond in view of the restaurant was populated by several small crocodiles. Fortunately there was a fence between the crocs and the lodge.

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The calm, pastoral setting and fresh air produced a sense of well being. It felt good to be there. It was quiet and we were surrounded by nature. Antelopes walked near the property, unafraid of being molested.

We ate at 7 p.m. and retired early in preparation for meeting at 5:30 a.m. for a morning game drive in Hluhluwe National Park, a 96,000 hectare game reserve that has all of the African Big Five: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino.

We went on three game drives in our two days at the lodge and we saw all of the Big Five except the leopard. We saw a great deal of wildlife beyond the Big Five as well. Our guides were full of fascinating information about the things we were seeing. Often the plants were as fascinating as the animals, including the rock fig tree, which grows on rocks, but its roots go down into the earth after surrounding the boulder in an embrace.  

The first animals we saw in the park were wild dogs, which are a rare sighting, according to our guide Anton. They are lovely things with big ears perched atop their heads and motley brown and black coats. Though they are wild and untouchable, their mannerisms are much like our friendly domestic dogs. And they are said to be the most organized hunters of all the animals, more effective in their group strategies than even the lions, who are exemplary in their cooperation.

We saw two lionesses feasting on a buffalo they had recently killed. It was a grim sight and a gripping experience. It gave us all something to think about the next time we were to dig into a big steak.

While we were in Hluhluwe we saw all of the Big Five except the leopards. We also saw many other amazing animals, including zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, warthogs, vervet monkeys and honey badgers, to name a few. Practically everything we saw prompted commentary by our guides and conversation among the members of the group. It was a constant learning process, and fun.

Though the animals and their dramas served as the central focus of our search, we were experiencing all of the natural world, and it was a transformative experience. The fresh air, the rising sun, the African landscape with its characteristic acacia trees silhouetted on the horizon, the mountains, valleys and rivers, the thorny bushes, everything combined to pull us out of our ordinary frames of reference and put us onto a new plane of awareness.

After experiencing nature in such a pure and concentrated form, it becomes easier to see nature in our own familiar environments back home, and even the nature in ourselves. When I heard about the sometimes strange behavior of the animals, I couldn’t help but see echoes of our own human behavior and be reminded that we really are part of the animal world, not so far from these other mammals and primates.

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From the standpoint of the travel industry, I was amazed at what the Zululand Treetop Lodge was able to provide for the prices they are asking. Part of that is due to the current exchange rates between the South African rand and the U.S. dollar. Only about four years ago the rand was trading at seven rand per U.S. dollar. Now it’s more than 15. That means a rand is worth about 6 cents. The buying power was strong in South Africa when it was 7 rand per dollar. At this point it’s practically astonishing what the dollar will buy.

The Zululand Tree Lodge is now offering the full safari experience, including full board and two game drives a day for 1,910 rand per person double occupancy. That breaks down to $127 a night. You can also get pared down packages. With one game drive a day it is as low as $94 a night. With only bed and breakfast it is only $54 a night.

That means even with the long-haul air fare to Africa, a safari is within the range of a huge range of American traveler who may have never thought they could afford to take an African safari.

The exchange rate contributes to the low price, but it is also based on the way the lodge structures its offering. It offers game drives in both the Ubizane Wildlife Reserve, where it is located, and in Hluhluwe Game Reserve. The latter is richer in game, but it is about a 20-minute drive from the Zululand Tree Lodge.

The lodge’s offering might cost more if it was in Hluhluwe, but by taking a 20-minute drive you are in a reserve that provides a top-level safari experience at a surprisingly good price. Many of South Africa’s most popular game lodges are in the $500-$1,000 a night price range.

The opulence of some of these luxury lodges is over the top, with marble counters, expensive draperies, elaborate artwork, private ensuite pools and Jacuzzis, etc. — amenities that rival the world’s most luxurious hotels.

The Zululand Tree Lodge is a no-frills offering. The cabins do not have the opulence of some of the high-end offerings. But as for the essentials of the safari experience, including total comfort and full immersion in the wilderness experience, there is nothing lacking.

It means that you can go on safari for a price not out of line with what you would pay for a vacation to the Caribbean or Hawaii. It makes the safari experience accessible to a much wider range of people than most would think possible.

It was a great discovery.

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