Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Game Reserve Self Drive

Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve History & Info

Established in 1895 Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park is the oldest park in all of Africa. In addition, it was formerly the private hunting reserve of the Zulu King Shaka-Zulu. The Zulu are a Bantu people with a current population of about 10,000,000.

The Zulu mostly live in KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa. The Zulu formed a powerful state in Africa in 1818 under the leadership of King Shaka until they came into conflict with the British colonists in 1878. After some initial battleground success, the British soon gained the upper hand over the Zulu and they were defeated in 1879.

The Zulu Kingdom was subsequently separated into 13 sub kingdoms by the British. As a result there was a tremendous amount of infighting among the Zulu. The Zulu never regained their former prominence in Africa. After the withdrawal of the British the Zulu again remained subdued under Apartheid. It stayed that way until South Africa came under self rule in 1994.

Hluhluwe Game Reserve Gate Times

Hluhluwe Game Reserve gate times are daily at 6AM sharp and I was there every morning. These entrance times apply to both sides of the reserve.

Self Drive Navigation of Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park

Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park is separated into 2 sections and the dividing line is the R618 road. I drove on R618 to reach the park. The park is split in half. I spent four full days for self drive safari in the Imfolozi Game Reserve and one full day for the Hluhluwe Game Reserve self drive safari. 

Hluhluwe vs. Imfolozi Game Reserve

Imfolozi Game Reserve is located south of R618 and this area is mostly situated between the 2 upper branches of the Umfolozi River. This area of the park consists of wide valleys and also steep hilly areas.

Hluhluwe hilltop area is located on the north side of R618. The area is mostly rugged hills and grasslands. It is not characterized by the wide river valleys that define the landscape of Imfolozi.

I spent most of my time on the Imfolozi side as it was where an encounter with the lions would be most likely. In general, it was an overall better self drive safari experience than the Hluhluwe side of the park.

I was there in the springtime and that was my impression during this seasonal period. Perhaps at other times of the year the situation is different.

Photo sunrise Photo white rhino Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Game Reserve Park

Inside of the park there are large hills and deep valleys. I would enter the park as early as possible and I was able to watch the sunrise from the hilltop while I made my way to the most likely spot to find the lions down in the valley below.

Photo sunrise Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Game Reserve Park

The sunrise was still low on the horizon when I reached the valley.

Photo fog Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

It is not uncommon for the fog to come in from the ocean and creep into the valleys of Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park. This was the scene one morning as I was crossing the hilltop road and driving down to the valley below.

Big 5 at Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Game Reserve Park

Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Game Reserve Park is a total of 960 square kilometers. It is the only state run park in KwaZulu-Natal to have the “big 5” inside the park. Africa’s big 5 consist of the elephant, rhinoceros (both black and white rhino), Cape Buffalo, lion and leopard. I spotted all of these animals inside of the park with the exception of the leopard. The leopard can be very elusive and difficult to spot. The park also has a wide variety of other animal species such as birds, antelope, terrapin, lots of giraffe, crocodiles, cheetah, hyena and of course the ubiquitous burchell’s zebra.

Photo male elephant hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve Park

Hungry male elephant eats his way through some brush in Hluhluwe Game Reserve. I found this elephant while on Hluhluwe Game Reserve Self Drive safari. I sat and watched him for about an hour while I had my lunch.

Photo elephant Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

Elephants have voracious appetites and it did not take him long to eat his way through the entire tree.

The White Rhino at Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park

One of Hluhluwe Umfolozi safaris main attractions is the white rhino. I saw a lot of white rhinos in the Imfolozi Game Reserve but none at Hluhluwe. These animals number about 1000 and I found them many times inside the park.

The white rhino is similar to the black rhino however, they do have some significant differences. The black rhino has a pointed upper lip for eating tree fruit and shrubs.The black rhino also has a more narrow mouth. The white rhino has a much broader mouth because it grazes on grass as its primary food source. The white rhino has a longer and more narrow front horn and its hips are slightly lower to the ground then its shoulders.

Both rhinos were almost hunted to extinction due to the perceived medical benefits of their horns. Although, biologically the rhino horn is made up of the same material as human fingernails. Due to conservation efforts the rhino population in Africa has stabilized for now.

There was a significant presence of armed guards in Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park that begin patrolling at sundown. I noticed this a couple of times when I was exiting the park when it was very near the time that they would close the gate.

Photo white rhino Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

Photo of two adult white rhino seen while I was visiting the Imfolozi Game Reserve. Notice the hips are lower then the front shoulders and also the long pointed front horn, and wide mouth for grazing grass. These are primary differences between the rhino species.

Cape Buffalo at Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park

Another of the Africa big 5 that I encountered while I was visiting Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park was the cape buffalo. Also, known as the African buffalo, this animal has never been domesticated due to its unpredictable and dangerous nature. Ironically, it is a sub-species of the larger Asian water buffalo which has been widely domesticated in Asia.

Photo Cape Buffalo Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

Large cape buffalo keeps an eye on me while they were moving through the area I was traveling through on the Imfolozi side of the park.

Elephants at Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park

The elephants in Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park behave in the same general way as they do in other parts of Africa. The larger breeding groups tend to be made up of about 50 animals and are comprised of the adolescent males, calves and adult females. The adult males are segregated from the breeding group and tend to be loners or in small groups.

Elephant Photo Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

This elephant that I encountered was with a breeding group on the Imfolozi side of the park. They had young calves in the area and she was quick to warn me that I should be on my way.

Elephant Method of Communication

I had come into contact with a large group of elephants. The area where this occurred had limited visibility. It consisted of fairly thick undergrowth, mid sized trees and shrubs. I knew there was a lot of elephants nearby because I could hear the elephants communicating with each other – although I could not see all of them.

This communication is done by creating a very deep humming noise (imagine a cat purring into a stereo microphone). This sound consists of very deep and powerful vibrations. Other elephants can hear this sound over distances of many miles. However, these elephants were all in this general area. They were all around me within approximately a few hundred meters on both sides of the road. Most of them were completely hidden or partially obscured by the underbrush. They were just browsing along talking to each other while feeding on the undergrowth. I turned off the car engine for a while and rolled down the window to listen in.

They knew that I was there and grudgingly permitted it as you can see in the photo above. This female in the above photo was fairly passive about the warning she was giving me. Possibly, because she was an adolescent or maybe she didn’t have any offspring of her own.

However, when I started the engine and started to slowly pull away, I had another encounter that was a bit more aggressive.

Aggressive Elephant at Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park

photo elephant with small calf hluhluwe-Imfolozi park

My next encounter was with a different elephant that was not as passive about me being in her way.

This elephant and I had both surprised each other. I was pulling away and she was just stepping out from behind some brush and was preparing to cross the road.

This elephant was much larger than the other one I had been in close proximity with. This elephant had a calf with her so she was very protective.  She threw out her big ears to try and intimidate me. Then when I did not appear threatening she blow her horn at me (see below) and then eventually crossed the road..

Elephant Photo Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

As I was leaving the area I encountered another female with calf that was attached to the same breeding group. She actually blew her horn at me, I gave her the right away and she crossed the road and was quickly on her way.

Elephant Photo Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

All is well that ends well…..

Elephant Photo Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

Here is a very large solitary male elephant that I encountered. In contrast to the females he was very laid back and seemed to be very content while he was snacking on some tree branches.

Safari Animals at Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park

Photo giraffe Photo Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

The morning fog seems to have sedated this large giraffe in Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park just before sunrise.

Photo Kudu Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

Photo of a large Kudu I encountered on the same morning in the fog filled valley.

 Predators Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park

I did have some encounters with the lions in Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park although due to the distance and a few other factors I was not able to get any good photos and thus I decided I will not post them here. However, I did have some other very good photo encounters with some of Africa’s other predators that live inside the park. 

Photo cheetahs Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

Here is a photo of a couple of cheetahs that I encountered late one afternoon.

Photo hyena Hluhluwe - Imfolozi Park

A solo hyena stalks some wildebeest while what is left of the morning fog dissipates in the background.

Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve Accommodation 

I visited the park 5 times in a 2 week period. I used the small beach town of Zinkwazi for my Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve accommodation. Zinkwazi is about a 2 hour drive to the south of the park. The park is easy to find from there, just go north on N2 from Zinkwazi until you reach exit 375 for R618.

The park gates open everyday at 6AM and I would need to leave Zinkwazi by 4AM to get there on time. It is important to enter the park as early as possible if you intend to make a serious effort to view all of Africa’s big 5.

Most of the animals are easy to spot with the exception of the lion and leopard. In order to view them it is important to be there early because they are most active in the morning. When the day starts to warm up they tend to go somewhere secluded and sleep until evening.


One of the main reasons that I was so attracted to Hluhluwe Game Reserve self drive safari is that it was a world class self tour safari opportunity. I was very apprehensive about going on a guided tour as I was not convinced it is necessary and in fact would make the safari experience much less enjoyable and diluted.

The 5 days I spent in Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park definitely validated this premonition. All you need to enjoy the park is common sense. You can get a good Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park map at the entrance when you pay your entrance fee. I was flagged over several times by guided tours in the park and they would ask me where I could find the lions or other game! So you see you are better off just driving yourself around.

The roads are in good condition and by chatting up park employees you can get some good info on where and when you are most likely to spot the lions or what ever it is you are looking for.

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