Looking to get away from the Big City and recharge your batteries in a natural environment surrounded by wildlife? Deep in Zululand, far from the hurly-burly, you’ll find Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge at KwaZulu-Natal’s scenic Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. It’s the perfect retreat to reconnect with nature and revitalise your mind.
Established in 1895, Hluhluwe game reserve is one of South Africa’s oldest – older than the Kruger National Park and just a year younger than Pongola Game Reserve. Today it forms the northern part of the greater Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. In the 1950s it was the centre of Operation Rhino which brought the white rhino back from the verge of extinction, and it’s still one of the best places to see these ancient animals.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi covers 960 square kilometres where large mammals like the Big 5 (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo) as well as wild dogs, cheetahs and spotted hyenas live. You might also see other species such as giraffe, Burchell’s zebra and antelope like bushbuck, duiker, grey rhebuck, nyala, impala and kudu. It’s home to 400-odd bird species, 1200 plant species and 150 grass species as well.
Get a kick out of the guided game drives
On our first afternoon drive with Simo Buthelezi from Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge we saw lots of zebras, giraffes and some antelope. As we rounded a bend, we came on a white rhino grazing at the edge of the track so saw it briefly up really close – too close even for a photo – before it moved off to hide behind some thorn trees.
We stopped for sunset gin and tonics at Siwasamakhosikazi picnic site. With a mischievous grin Simo told us how he once convinced foreign guests that warthogs were baby rhinos. He sold the story so well that when he admitted he’d only been joking, they didn’t want to believe him.
On our first early morning drive, the cold air bit at our faces and fingers as dawn smudged the sky with a blush of rose and lemon. Simo had heard there were wild dogs near Hilltop camp so we agreed we’d make a beeline in that direction and not stop for animals like zebra, nyala or impala. Our strategy paid off when we found the dogs running down the main tar road towards us. They were very active in the early morning light, trotting up and down, touching noses, looking in all directions as if they were planning to go down one of the game tracks in search of breakfast prey.
Soon we were off again, this time in search of lions with cubs in the Maphumulo area. We spotted two fish eagles perching in a tree but didn’t find the lions. Simo said he heard them calling deep in the thicket, but Hluhluwe’s rules dictate you’re not allowed to drive off-road.
On the way back after Amarula hot chocolate at Memorial Gate, we found a three-year-old white rhino, some zebra, wildebeest, buffalos in a mud wallow and four elephants browsing, one of them reaching high into a treetop for the choicest bits.
Why to stay at Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge
During our visit we stayed at Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge, which is the only private lodge at Hluhluwe. On communal land on the edge of the park, its setting high on a ridge overlooking a waterhole gives it an Imax-view of the surrounding bush.
Food was top-notch, up there with what you’d expect from a first-rate restaurant. For instance, high-tea might be a three-tiered platter of small portions of bobotie, two different salads, fruit, freshly baked rolls, cheesecake and scones. For dinner one night I chose a delicate prawn and mushroom risotto, while the espresso panna cotta had me rolling my eyes with pleasure.
We stayed in a safari room with a large bathroom and a view from the shower. We loved the comfy bed, the goodie cabinet, the deck and above all the view. If you’re looking for a romantic getaway or honeymoon, consider one of the gorgeous luxury villas or even the honeymoon suite with its own private plunge pool.
See special South Africa and SADC rates here
- The most popular things to do here are guided game drives. Both an early morning drive and a late afternoon drive each day are included in your room rate. Go out in an open safari vehicle to learn from your guide about the animals, birds, trees and landscapes you see. Enjoy a coffee/hot chocolate stop on a morning drive and sundowner drinks and snacks on the afternoon drive.
- Join a bush walk with experienced trails ranger Nunu Jobe inside Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. This is a time to do more than see, to use all your senses to hear, smell, touch and even taste what the bush has to offer. Let Nunu read the tracks and signs to interpret what has been happening at any particular spot, perhaps moments before you pass or even days before. No kids under 14 years.
- Explore the riverine gorge area below the lodge on a gorge walk. This is on the communal land so you’re safe from dangerous animals like the Big 5. No kids under 10 years old.
- Go bird-watching in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, which is home to more than 400 species. Remember to tell your Rhino Ridge guide if you’re a keen birder so s/he will know you’d like to stop for some of them. Bird species you might spot include Wahlberg’s eagle, African finfoot, crested guineafowl, crowned and trumpeter hornbills, narina trogon, red-throated wryneck and woodland kingfisher. Keep a lookout for birds on your walks between the main area and your room at the lodge as well.
- Enjoy a massage at the spa; slow down and let all your physical and emotional stress go. You’ll love the sense of serenity here, the picture window out onto the bush landscape. The spa also offers foot and hand treatments, facial and body treatments. Talk to reception to book your session ahead of time.
Rhino Ridge is part of Isibindi Africa and works with the Isibindi Foundation to foster responsible tourism, whether for the benefit of the environment, conservation or local communities.
For instance, solar energy is in and single-use plastics are out. General manager Bryce Nicholson says they support rhino conservation through donating equipment for the park’s Anti-Poaching Unit. Some 85% of the staff at the lodge come from the local community, many of whom had never been employed before so training is ongoing. Rhino Ridge also supports the local community through food parcels and has helped local schools by planting indigenous trees and providing water points.
The lodge is owned in equal shares by Isibindi Africa, the local community and the National Empowerment Forum (NEF). Once the NEF loan is paid back the community will own 49% of the lodge and Isibindi 51%.
Read more about the Isibindi Foundation’s projects at Rhino Ridge
The easiest Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park gate to use to get to Rhino Ridge is Memorial Gate in the north, where you can buy a map of the park. This gate is about three hours from Durban, just under four from Mbabane in Eswatini, and six-and-a-half from Johannesburg. Turn west off the N2 highway onto the R22; the park is well signposted.
Gate entry times from November to February are 5:00 till 19:00, and March to October 6:00 till 18:00. Rhino Ridge is 28.6km from Memorial Gate. Allow enough time to get to the lodge, perhaps with a stop at the Thiyeni Hide overlooking a waterhole along the way.
Once you leave the main tarred road and turn right at point 7, the roads become rough gravel so make sure you have enough time to go slowly. We did the route in a 4x4 but you should be fine as long as your vehicle has high clearance for the dongas and the low-level bridges across rivers if it has been raining. Low-slung chassis and A-class hired sedans are not recommended.
Note: Consult your doctor or travel clinic about malaria prevention before your visit to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.
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