Monday, April 24, 2023

Mpila Camp – Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park. A brief synopsis of the camp


Mpila Camp – Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park. An update to a review I wrote in October 2015

The hectic National freeway with its plethora of Ore trucks and kamikaze road pilots, left to their own devices behind one, as we crossed the cattle grid and entered the Park. The race slows, dramatically slows, the pulse rate slows, back to normal, windows wound down, take a deep breath, the ‘pace’ becomes sedate, therapeutic, necessary. The atmosphere ‘crackles’ – the dust swirls, the scent of the effusions emanating from the myriad types of vegetation, soothes, calms, one’s senses. The gentle warm breeze adds another dimension to the experience, the game reserve experience. Wafting in a host of olfactory information  - a rhino midden buzzing with its detritus collecting bugs, along with the ingenious dung beetles, returning and spreading these vital nutrients to the soil. The pungent remains of a victim to some predator, having a final sanitisation, by a highly active group of Nature’s most necessary and endangered clean-up squad, vultures, seemingly so awkward in their terrestrial feeding environ, combatting one another aggressively for a morsel, in such contrast to when in their avian environment, where they soar and thermal so gracefully.  

The Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park is the oldest protected wildlife sanctuary is South African. A real gem of a game reserve, set in the heart of Zululand’s thornveld

The 110 bed Mpila Camp is located on a chine on one of the ‘rolling hills’ of Zululand, in the southern sector of the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve. With the inevitable bush encroachment, there is very little outward expansive view from the accommodation units as in the early days. Quite a dramatic change from the images in my 2015 review! Sadly this is not only significant with regards to visitor pleasure and outlook, the general encroachment, in particular by the pioneer plant Dichrostachys cinerea, the hard invasive Sickle wood, is seemingly out of control. So many of the view sites that I and fellow Honorary Rangers kept visually clear, are no more and heavily overgrown, they would require heavy appropriate equipment such as chain saws and such to reopen these vistas.

The accommodation is made up of selfcatering  2 x 3 bedroomed, 7 bed Cottages, 

The braai for the 7 sleeper Cottage

6 x 2 bedroomed 5 bed (sleeper) Chalet 

and the 2 bed chalets

Adjacent to the brick and mortar buildings, secreted away is an Senegalia burkei - Black Monkey thorn thicket, is the tented Safari camp, with predominantly 2 bed Safari tents, with only two of the 4 bed Safari tent units. These have two separate 2 bed tents each having their own shower, toilet and handbasin en suite. Both on a deck separated by the kitchen and dining area. These latter are particularly popular and difficult to secure, check availability with us and book as soon as you have your dates. 

A 2 sleeper Safari tent with its kitchen, the reed clad building.

The bathrooms are not monkey proof , the bedrooms are, if zippered closed.

We offer a service whereby only a 10% deposit is needed to secure the accommodation with the balance due 45 days before arrival. There is no restaurant at Mpila Camp. All units at Mpila Camp have their own barbecue – braai !.  You’re in the bush here, with no Wi-Fi and limited cell phone signal with no supermarket in close proximity. Bring all supplies, food, drink including alcohol, drinking water, firewood / charcoal for braai. The camp water is fine for bathing / showering.

The camp is powered by generator, so consequently the accommodation has limited electrical appliances, for example a stove top kettle, no microwave or toaster. The stoves are gas with the fridges on electricity. This power goes off at 22h00 and comes on again early mornings. The fridges seem to cope well with this arrangement. It is advisable to take a lamp for these lights out periods should you need. In summer a rechargeable fan works wonders. All utilities in our cottage worked. The gas heated water, piping hot, stove and fridges all good and lights and fans too when there was power, all operated. That braai too was in good condition , set away from the danger of sparks setting the thatched cottage alight, worked its magic too, with a little help from a friend.

Mpila Camp is not fenced, other than for a ‘high level’ electrified wire designed to keep elephant from entering the perimeter. Consequently, guests may enjoy a wide variety of our wildlife within the camp grounds. So, is it’s the browsing and grazing within the camp by these herbivores that keep it looking so clipped and tidy, all working for the Park? Do take care, as these are still potentially dangerous animals, which have learned trust and a tolerance for people, up to a particular closeness, then their “Flight or Fight” syndrome kicks in, an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or threatening to them, here’s hoping it’s their flight that is engaged, fight can have dire consequences. The change can be instantaneous, and unless one is able to read the animal’s body language, quite unexpected. Keep one’s distance. Use a torch at night if walking between accommodation units.

That innocuous looking Vervet monkey is an extremely opportunistic pilferer of anything edible and brazen to the extreme. Be vigilant, the camp shops don’t stock too much of a replacement supply.

Hyena and the Wild Pig need to be monitored and watched in the evenings. It has been known for them to remove food from the hot braai grids, if not judiciously monitored and they can be rather persistent. I do not know of an attack on guests by these nocturnal visitors.

Mpila Camp is well located for guests to visit the excellent Umfolozi Basin, a favourite area within the game reserve, that has the Black Umfolozi River bank as a prime attraction. The White Umfolozi River is relegated to the wilderness area of the Park and only possible to access at a view point in the far south west of the game reserve. There are a few view sites and the Sontuli Loop picnic site with ablutions is a favourite.Braai stands, benches and tables and often some wildlife on the banks of the uMfolozi River below.  Bhejane Hide a bit further on, another. 

On a recent visit, after the devastation of the March / April 2023 rains, I found the roads to be in generally good condition and passable in most normal saloon cars, with care. The Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park is suibjected to flooding of certain access roads after rainfall in the catchment areas, this usually in the summer months but can extend trough to April. This can compromise access to the camps, sometimes with extensive detours. Always check in advance and allow oneself sufficient time to experience delays, from road works, accidents, flooding and all sorts of possibilities. The gates have strict closing times with late access possible in some cases, but only by prior arrangement and at a penalty fee. No last minute late arrivals are possible. The camps need to be notified before 16h00. This is made more difficult with the telephone reception being sporadic and affected by loadshedding and other factors. 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park - April 2023

After my not visiting the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park for too long, I had the perfect excuse, my daughter, her husband and their 2 year old, my Grandson, were visiting us from the UK. Time for a little R and R in the bush. This youngster needed an initiation into that which our family are so in touch, our Natural environment and all that goes with it. The two elder parents needed a bit of that therapy top-up too. Can you take a 22 month old child to the Game Reserve and enjoy the experience?

A similar thought must have been prominent in my parent's minds as they took us, at a very early age to various game parks throught South Africa. Here we are in Hluhulwe Game Reserve soon after Shorty had translocated there from the then Eastern Transvaal. The first of the Giraffe in the area.

Can you recognise a little Jeremy? Was blue really my colour?

Game guards would accompany each vehicle back then. Seems like dad was allowed out of his car back then, to take the photograph.

We decide to pop into St Lucia Lake Estuary town for a bit of an update. One really needs to spend a night or two here to make the most of its numerous facilities. The town was buzzing with visitors! From cruises on the Estuary (about 2 hours duration) loads of hippo and crocodile, to deep sea fishing / whale watching. Then tours of the wildlife rich Eastern and western shores, with the Eastern shores terminating at the delightful Cape Vidal beach, with its snorkelling and tidal pools, fishing and Ski-boating. Some interesting wildlife here in the coastal forests too, Somango Monkey, Red Duiker and the Red Thonga Squirrel along with a host of birdlife, some other rarities too, the forests are home to the most beautiful, our largest Adder, the very cryptically coloured Gaboon. This has the longest fangs of any of our southern African snakes and is rather venomous, be vigilant. Another fascinating excursion is with one of the local concession holding Tour Operators, to go out on a nocturnal Turtle sightseeing tour on the beaches of Thongaland.  In my youth, I was a member of a club based at Cape Vidal, and spent many an evening witnessing these giant reptiles laboriously exiting the Indian Ocean, struggling through the dunes, to dig their nests above the high water line, lay their eggs and then abandon them to their fate. We have both the Loggerhead (the worlds largest living turtle) and Leatherback Turtles nesting on these beaches with occasional visitors of the Green, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles foraging in the shallow waters offshore. Thanks to the initiation by George Hughes and the then Natal parks Board, in undergoing extensive research and consequently installing the necessary protective measures so necessary for the protection of these vulnerable bash nesters. On one occasion I was with one of the Parks Board research officers, Warren van Schoor. He explained how so many of the females would lay their new lot of eggs almost on their previous nest or certainly close to. This accurately documents by these stalwarts of Conservation.

The town has a rather interesting claim to fame, the nocturnal visits of hippo roaming the town in search of the more tasty verge grasses? Another, a fair concentration of leopard making their presence known, even in town, but more frequently seen late afternoon on the roads of the Eastern shores, time for a Sunset drive! Makes for exciting nocturnal enjoyment. Our stop was brief, so pleased to see the smiling faces and loaded stalls from local vendors, I had to purchase a bag of ‘Butter'  Avocado Pears and a wire push along toy for my grandson. A further revictualling from the numerous supermarkets and the loads of eateries and coffee houses. Cayden couldn’t resist Tannie’s Vleispastei and promptly sat on the stoep to satiate his hunger. He ate the entire pie without even offering a bit to his dad.

The drum beatring wire push along - even the monkeys were enthralled

We were on our way to the oldest proclaimed Game Reserve in South Africa with its vast diversity of plant and animal life, the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park.

Our destination was Mpila Camp in the southern sector of the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, had it been to Hilltop Camp in the north, the Hluhluwe Section, I would have opted to divert through the Western shores of Lake St Lucia’s Isimangaliso Wetland Park, this loaded with wildlife, and to exit at Charter’s Creek onto the N2, closer to the Memorial Gate entrance into the Hluhluwe Game Reserve sector, bypassing Mtubatuba and making the most of the rich diversity of the area. Instead, the R618 it was, a district road which unfortunately bisects the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park, established when the Corridor was not part of the reserves, now a permanent road to the rural towns to the west of the Game Reserve.

The Nselweni entrance gate

Having recently undergone some repair, it is in good condition.  Entering the Nyalazi Gate we had a bit of paperwork to fill in, with reference numbers and name, we needed to prove our overnight stay was booked. Don’t forget this, important. For those with Wild Cards, which would then cancel the Conservation levy of those persons nominated on the card, you will need the printed receipt to verify its validity, there is no ‘card swipe machine’ there.

The tar road to Mpila Camp passes the well-placed comfort stop where guests are able to get out and stretch their legs and alleviate the constraints of their confines in the vehicle. Centenary Centre with its vast Curio shop, take-away and toilets with an interpretation centre on the organisation’s Rhino and other game capture, is worth popping into and the Take-away staff there can work wonders.


The Vulamehlo Craft Centre at the Centenary Centre


Someone's lunch order

A few kilometers on, I had arranged to have a look at the delightful Masinda Lodge again. This is a 3 bedroomed house with all en suite with full bathrooms, large entertainment, dining, living and veranda areas with an extended kitchen where a resident caretaker can assist with meal preparation. In addition there is a 2 bed annex with a lounging area and own bathroom, only a bath here. From the veranda there is a braai and fire pit, safely distanced from the vulnerable thatch. All these with expansice private views towards the distant Umfolozi river and the bushveld with its intermittent ‘passing parade’.

I found all the staff, from those at the entrance gates, in reception, shop and household staff, all particularly friendly and helpful. I chose our overnight accommodation to be at Mpila Camp, a 5 bed chalet, which was in pretty good general condition. All utilities worked, although I must admit we did not try the TV. Being a ‘high season’ weekend, be sure to book well in advance. 

The tented camp has 2 and 4 sleeper selfcatering Safari tents too.

The shops in the Park only carry the bare necessities, with bottled water, cool drinks and charcoal available when we were there. Some other items too, but rather take all your own supplies.  I take a backup lamp and always a sharp knife despite the chalets being well supplied with all necessary basic cutlery and crockery.

There’s something unique about game reserve accommodation, the smell of thatched ceilings, polished floors and the anticipation of a glorious sunset around the braai. Braais in the UK (well anywhere actually, and even at home), are definitely not the same. The Bush without a Braai is like.... Jayson (son in law) was in his element, he and his family, masters at the coalface, knowing just how and when to add the dinner delights. He soon had the kindling up and on its way, as we sipped on our various nectars of choice, relaxing, settling into the ambience of our Zululand bush, dodging the swirling smoke, as it chose to target each in turn. Cayden, my grandson, was not phased, I guess used to the odd winter barbecue surrounded by snow, clothed in layers from the Icelandic chill. Here in Zululand, down to his T-shirt and running shorts, he easily tolerating the whiff of a bit of renegade wattle escaped from Australia, being rendered to ashes whilst watching the parade of antelope, warthog and monkeys in the grounds at Mpila camp..

Was that hyena calling, as they exited their den to start their nocturnal foray of hunting and scavenging? We were careful to be attentive of our cherished pieces of meat which were being burned on the coals, they are known to purloin morsels from the hot braai grid.  No, instead, it was family getting in first, burning their beaks on boerewors portions, broken off from that serpentine coil Jay was mis-manhandling due to all the interference, from what should have been calm spectators to his wizardry. Anyway, the wors was for starters – being avaricious, cost the gang my creamy hot English mustard and wasabi mix. Never mind. The coals started to get that white crust - ready. With a flourish, the main dish for the dinner arrived in its roasting receptacle, where it had enjoyed an addition of herbs, spices and that mix of sauces, and handed over to our ‘Three hat Dunlop star chef’. Our mysterious kitchen claimant had prepared the rest. Parboiled potatoes wrapped in foil, corn on the cob, also subjected to the enclosure. Despite being South African, we, as a family enjoy an array of vegetables along with the traditional ‘vleis, wors en pap’.

There was smoke, there were flames, there were tears - done, the meat was returned to the dish and the safety of the chalet to rest and let the juices infuse. We took repose at the braai to rest and replenish, and let the juices infuse, Then, too soon, it was ‘Dinner she is served’. With a flurry, the tenderloin carved, spilling its secret stuffing and a bit of resident moisture, as the ropes tethering the flesh were cut as the roll was sliced. Served and dining alfresco on the veranda, repleat, even Cayden tucking into yet another braai. What joy, an entire day's anticipation for our second evening's cookaton, this time a Prime Rib aka Tomohawk.  Jay got this one cooked perfectly to a T. 'Ell that was good.

The embers of the braai, safely some 30 meters from our chalet and its vulnerable thatch, beckoned.

 The coals being rejuvenated by Jay with a supply of timber for after dinner pyrotechnics. Would it be an Amarula rather than the noble warming Port, so necessary in the colder climes from whence they hail. Seated around this column of smoke, flames and joy, to be honoured with a sighting of a rather precocious porker, the Wild Pig have seemed to have replaced the hyena as nocturnal scavengers at Mpila Camp.

The South African way with hospitality is a given, and so enjoyed by travellers and returning SAFFERS, but hey, we’re in da bush. As that eastern horizon hinted at a change of colour, our brave band started to rise and congregate. With Gate opening time at 06h00 there was time to fire up for a round or two of coffee and Jay’s mother’s special rusks. Delish Margie! 

Seated out on the stoep, from where we could see the numerous herbivores, which had ventured to their deemed safe haven (close to man!) for the night, slowly starting to disperse, we enjoyed the cool gentle  breeze, the dawning, the chorus of avifauna rising to a fair crescendo, as the orchestra changed tune from the nocturnal hooting of an owl, the call of a nightjar, the cackling and whooping of hyena and distant resonances of that mighty roar reverberating over the airwaves in rhythmical grunts, rising to quite a resounding cacophony. Panthera leo, we were not disappointed. See you next time.

Ever vigilant of the cunning Vervet monkeys, so opportunistic in escaping with one’s ‘padkos ‘, we loaded our vehicle with the snacks, refreshments, cameras and binoculars. Taking a leaf out of the monkey’s book’, so we too posted a ‘guard’ at the car, to ensure our victuals would be safe for our early morning game drive.

It was not only little Cayden that was excited, as the Land Rover steered towards the Umfolozi Basin and the host of wildlife there, the anticipation was rife, for Lana and I, Jay and Lee too, all with a great deal of time spent in our outdoors, it had been too long. What will it be, that first one out there in the wilds? Slowly we engaged with an assortment of what the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park is famous for.  We had time to crawl along slowly, this really does afford some sightings one could so easily miss. As expected, the vegetation throughout the Park was particularly dense, helped so by the recent abundance of precipitation. So many of the waterholes were available as drinking venues for the game, which consequently spread out to areas away from their normal winter water supply, where they would be able to savour the succulent and abundant vegetation, hardly grazed and browsed upon until summer, these found away from the rivers and permanent water points, where they were forced to imbibe in winter, when needing to be close to water.  We searched Far and Wild and found a fair abundance of game.
We came across one with a flock of White-faced Whisteling Duck and their young.

Some Impala with their 6 month old youmg

Lana managed to capture an image of a White-fronted Bee-eater.

Back for a brunch of – what else? Bacon, eggs, sausage, tomato and Avo  Oh, and that pot of the best smelling beverage out. Lana's reduced portion.

Whilst the family were keen on enjoying the resident wildlife within the camp, there was just so much going on there, from the Vervet monkeys entertaining and showing off to Cayden, the Warthog in somnolent repose, the Nyala coming for a drink, the males testing one another, strutting stiff legged, manes erect and heads posturing as they circle one another with their broadside lateral display, each attempting to be larger than its opponent, then to a mud wallow to gouge their horns and scent mark. The accumulated mud and debris on his forehead and horns bringing attention to his virile status. 

All this with a profusion of avifauna doing their survival tricks too. Lana and I decided to pop down to a favourite camp of ours, the Nselweni Bush Lodge, to see how it and the access road had fared after the recent rains.

We found the camp to be in a generally fair condition with the access road even having had a bit of TLC, particularly where it gets washed and rutted a bit with heavy rain in one steep section. The drains off the road were also newly graded. Well done KZN Wildlife.

The Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife organisation has, over the years, had its budget cut drastically, which has adversely affected general maintenance. The ravages of Covid certainly did not help either, consequently all their camps are in various states of repair stress, with many general maintenance issues slowly being attended to as funds allow. If you require all to be in 100% working order and condition, possibly let us confer on alternative accommodation options. Despite what some folk think, the accommodation in their Parks is still good value, in such a special place nogal.

Probably the most important issue for guests, is to rather bring in all your own supplies, including drinking water. There is certainly no tangible stock of general food items. There was water and charcoal at both Mpila and Hilltop camp shops, but this could run out. Liquor is no longer available, so bring your own. There is no corkage charged at the Hilltop Camp restaurant. Note that Mpila Camp, Nselweni, Gqoyeni and Hlatikulu Bush Lodges are all on generator power with varying on off times. Normally off at 22h00 and on again early mornings, so in summer, no fans during those night time hours. Worth bringing a torch or lamp. Charge all cameras, lamps, mobile phones timeously. Hilltop Camp is on Eskom power with some generator backup. I could not get over the enthusiasm of a soon to be 2-year-old, on how he so  appreciated the animals, he quickly had all regular one’s names down pat. Even telling us what that large grey behemoth with massive ears, tusk and trunk should be known as. The Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park certainly is a welcoming haven for families, us oldies too. We were fortunate to have some large animal fairly close to our vehicle, I don’t think that until then, Cayden quite appreciated the enormity of some of our large animals. He has it all now though with Giraffe towering taller than their London home??

Probably the most popular picnic braai stop in the Umfolozi sector of the Park is that on the Sontuli Loop. Toilets, braais, tables and chairs with an outlook over the Black Umfolozi River, a favourite, with sincere thanks to the Umfolozi Honorary Officer Corps for their generous maintenance thereof. For many years I was part of that noble gang, being Chairman of the Hluhluwe Group, before becoming the Regional Co-ordinator of all the Honorary Officer Corps of the KZN Wildlife Game Reserves in Zululand, with all the Park Honorary Officer Groups constantly visited or kept in touch with. A very rewarding time.

Despite some rather torrential downpours in the area, the general condition of the gravel roads that we traversed was good, with a few washed and rutted sections across the roads. These easily negotiated by pretty well any normal car with care. The very low-slung cars should rather keep to the tar roads.

I started visiting the Hluhluwe and the Umfolozi Game Reserves at a very early age, was it just after they were proclaimed? Certainly before the Corridor became part of the integral Game Reserve. With literally more than 100 visits to the parks, it is still a matter of luck having unusual / good sightings to a large extent. I have no special formula, other than to be out early and return as late as possible in the afternoon, with siesta over mid-day. I have only ever seen four leopard properly in this complex. Now one of those that I saw, walked across the road behind a car that I was following at a reasonable distance, and there paraded in front of my car and gawking occupants, to the total oblivion of the preceding, receding car. Had they only looked in their rear-view mirror. Luck? An aid to guest are ‘sightings boards’ at various camps where guests indicate where target species have been seen. Good to locate animals that are fixed to a spot such as on a kill.

Jay. Lee and Cayden had limited time on this visit ‘home’, with only 2 nights allocated out of their meagre few to the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park. Despite this, I see images of elephant herds striding through the bush or wallowing in the plentiful waterholes, zebra not giving way on the roads, impala doing their thing, 

nyala, kudu, warthog, rhino, giraffe, all coming up in a kaleidoscope in his mind given the right stimulus. 

There was tortoise, terrapin and so many birds. A reasonable gathering of White backed Vultures too.  Then his affinity with the primates with whom he would have loved to engage more but mum wisely took care of his enthusiasm and deferred his ambition to pet the odd monkey or baboon. Maybe photographs of his holiday will do it. He has a collection of African animal toys at home that will conjure up memories of Africa. We’ll look for the lion and cheetah on the next visit. Maybe even Wild dog! Yip this reserve can and does produce the most amazing game viewing, rather spend a couple of nights more though, to make the most of this wonderful part of Zululand.