Zululand Escapade


Words: Chantelle Balsdon, a South African mother and wife from Cape Town.

A Family’s Odyssey through Hluhluwe, Imfolozi, and the Wonders of Wetlands.

As we boarded our Lift flight from Cape Town to Durban, our family’s excitement was palpable. We were embarking on a dream come true – a 7-night self-drive safari adventure that promised to connect us with the wild heart of Zululand. This was our first safari experience as a family and a first for my husband and 12-year-old son. Our adventure was about to unfold like a storybook, and we couldnít wait to immerse ourselves in the beauty of Hluhluwe, Imfolozi, and the enchanting Wetlands.

Rhino Ridge Safari Park

Our journey into the heart of Zululand began with a thrilling drive from Salt Rock to Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge, situated within the sprawling expanse of Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park. 

As we arrived at Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge, we were greeted with a warm African welcome that instantly made us feel at home. The lodge itself seemed to emerge organically from the landscape, embracing the natural contours of the land. Our accommodation was nothing short of a masterpiece – a sanctuary that seamlessly integrated luxury with the untamed beauty surrounding us.

Our days were painted with shades of adventure and discovery. The conservancy’s commitment to rhino preservation resonated deeply with us. We embarked on our first safari game drive with a sense of wonder, eager to glimpse these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. And it wasn’t long before our patience was rewarded. Witnessing a rare hunting pack of Wild Dogs left us in awe, but it was the lion encounters that truly stole the show. A lone lionís call brought his lioness and cubs, revealing the heart-warming bonds of the wild. 

We had the privilege of encountering the enigmatic White Rhino not once, but twice during our stay. As we marvelled at their existence, the shadow of poaching loomed in our minds. The reality of the ongoing struggle to protect these creatures from harm was a poignant reminder that every effort to conserve them is precious.

In the fading light of our final evening game drive, a heart-stopping moment etched itself into our journey’s highlights. Caught between a majestic herd of elephants, babies in tow, on their way to the same spot we had chosen for our sundowners. It was a hair-raising moment but with our game driver Sifiso (a true treasure trove of knowledge and passion) and his expert skills, we managed to get away without coming to any harm. In a symphony of trumpeting, they expressed their charge – a reminder that our presence in their realm was a fleeting privilege. It was an honour to share this experience with Sifiso, a local with a lifetime of experience in the area, who shared his intimate connection to the land and its inhabitants. This exhilarating encounter resonated deeply, a vivid reminder of our place within the untamed embrace of nature.

Mealtimes were a delight, each dish a symphony of flavours that celebrated South African cuisine. High tea was a cherished tradition, where we sampled delectable treats while watching the sun cast its golden hues over the landscape. Our dietary preferences were effortlessly accommodated, with vegan options that delighted my husband’s palate.

The days at Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge were a blend of adventure and luxury, an experience that touched our souls. The resonance of the wilderness, the bonds we forged with the creatures that call it home, and the passion of those who dedicated their lives to its preservation left us forever transformed.

Tembe Elephant Park

Our journey from Rhino Ridge to Tembe Elephant Park was a transition from one kind of majesty to another – an immersion into the world of the giants. Known as the home of South Africa’s largest elephants, the park held the promise of encounters with these gentle behemoths that few are privileged to experience.

Super Tuskers, these male bull elephants whose tusks weighed over 45 kilograms each, were the true monarchs of Tembe. The air was charged with the knowledge that only 7 out of the original 12 Tembe Super Tuskers remained, making every encounter with these majestic creatures a poignant reminder of their vulnerable existence.

As if guided by destiny, one of these Tuskers, named Igwedla, made a surprise appearance just as we were watching his herd. The atmosphere shifted as if the very air held its breath in reverence. The females, eager to welcome him home, began pushing themselves towards him, their intimate greetings a dance of hormones and connection that transcended words. The scent of their pheromones was a tangible reminder of the wildís intricacies.

And then it happened – a face-to-face encounter with Igwedla himself. At that moment, we were not mere spectators; we were participants in a sacred communion between species. Trunks extended, curiosity and recognition mingled in the air as he explored our safari vehicle. It was one of the most beautiful and humbling experiences of our lives – a meeting of souls in the heart of the beautiful wilderness.

The accommodations within Tembe Elephant Park was a luxurious take on family-friendly design. Our safari family tent had two queen-sized beds and a bathroom that opened to a serene and private outdoor shower. Wonderfully comfortable and private. At night it was you, your thoughts and the sounds of nature. The culinary offerings at Tembe were a celebration of community and love. Served by a group of local ladies, each meal was an opportunity to savour not just the flavours of the area, but the essence of the land itself. This genuine connection to the local culture enriched our experience, turning each mealtime into a ritual of gratitude and unity.

Kosi Bay Forest Lodge

Nestled within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, Kosi Bay Forest Lodge beckoned us with the promise of tranquillity amidst nature’s embrace. Accessible only by a 2×4 or 4×4 vehicle due to its unique location on beach sand, the lodge stood as an eco-conscious sanctuary where the delicate symphony of sand forest and bird song played in harmony. The warm welcome from General Manager Blessing led us to what seemed like a Tiki bar, revealing itself as the reception – a precursor to the enchantment that awaited.

Our accommodation, one of two family rooms, embraced both comfort and solitude. Our son revelled in a double suite all to himself, conjoined, yet private. The allure of a private outdoor boma, complete with a shower and bath in soft white sand was where I truly connected to this special lodge. As lanterns lit up our evenings, the surrounding trees serenaded us with the distant calls of hippos, an acoustic symphony that painted our nights with wild magic.

Kosi Bay Forest Lodge unveiled a gentler safari, where water excursions let us breathe in the serenity of the lakes. Encounters with hippos, snorkelling through mangroves, and a lesson in traditional Tsonga fish traps were journeys into cultural and ecological intricacies. The spectacle of hundreds of flamingos taking flight was a vivid masterpiece of pink and white. 

Surprise romantic bush dinners led each guest into their fairy tale, lit by candles and lanterns. The daily ritual of cocktails at sunset on the pool’s spectacular viewing deck painted the sky with hues of pink orange, purple and blue. Amidst lovely staff and unforgettable companions, Kosi Bay Forest Lodge embodied the spirit of complete peace, an Okavango Delta experience etched in South Africa’s heart.

St Lucia

Although our stay in St Lucia spanned a mere night, the itinerary crafted by Heritage Tours and Safaris was amazing. On our arrival, a sunset boat cruise awaited us, a journey that led us onto the tranquil waters of the lake where we got to see diverse family pods of hippos up close and personal. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the symphony of birdlife took centre stage. Guided by expert narrative, the Kingfishers, vibrant and elusive, graced us with their presence and we actually got to see three different specials of this stunning creature.

 The overnight stay at Heritage House, a cornerstone of the town’s heritage, enveloped us in comfort and history. Located within St Lucia, this lodge was more than an accommodation – it was a glimpse into the soul of the town itself. Our exploration of St Lucia unveiled its exquisite charm, while a chance encounter with two hippos crossing our path highlighted the region’s unique coexistence with wildlife. This encounter was not just a moment, but a glimpse into the everyday life of the locals – affectionately referred to as ‘Townies’.

Before bidding farewell to this land of wonders, one last adventure awaited – the sunrise game drive in iSimangaliso Wetland Park. One last game drive. Dubbed the ‘Reflection Game Drive’ amidst antelopes and more hippo sightings and a beachside breakfast, I savoured the opportunity to look back on our magical adventure. Gratitude swelled within me for the privilege of experiencing these wonders as a family. And as our time drew to a close, a poignant gift graced our sight – a sighting of the African Fish Eagle, a symbol of freedom and majesty. With this final vision, our journey reached its crescendo – a crescendo of reflection, appreciation, and the quiet knowing that the echoes of these moments would forever resonate in our hearts.

Closing Thoughts:

This self-drive itinerary turned out to be a key part of our adventure – the freedom to explore on our terms deepened the experience. Every moment was a treasure. The enchantment of these lands, the resonance of each encounter, and the pure joy of exploring as a family left a mark on our souls. This journey was more than a vacation; it was a connection to our heritage, a reminder that the wonders of South Africa’s wild heart are within reach for us all. As we boarded our flight home, the memory of the African Fish Eagle’s cry echoed in our hearts, a reminder of the beauty that awaits in our own backyard.

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