Located in the heart of historic Zululand in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is the oldest proclaimed nature reserve on the continent. It has set the standard for conservation efforts in Africa since 1895, and was instrumental in the fight to save the white rhino from extinction in the the mid-20th century. Today, visitors travel to this undulating, hilly wilderness to marvel at its abundant wildlife on guided game drives and multi-day walking safaris. It remains one of the best places in Africa to see wild rhinos.
About the Park
The land that now makes up Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is steeped in history, with archaeological sites dating back to the Iron Age. Functioning as a royal hunting ground for the rulers of the Zulu kingdom, the Hluhluwe and Imfolozi game reserves were later established in 1895. It wasn't until the addition of the Corridor Game Reserve in 1989 that they would merge into a single park.
The initial purpose of the parks was to conserve the white rhino. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were just 10 white rhinos left, all of which lived in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi. The rhinos thrived under the park’s protection, and in the 1950s, Operation Rhino was launched. This project saw the relocation of breeding rhinos from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi to other national parks and protected areas of South Africa. By 2010, the national population stood at 17,000 white rhinos, making Operation Rhino one of the most successful conservation stories of all time.
Unfortunately, poaching continues to threaten South Africa’s rhinos, and the park’s governing body, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, employs stringent anti-poaching methods. Today the park covers a total area of roughly 370 square miles, divided between the Imfolozi area in the south (primarily savannah grassland between the Black and White Imfolozi Rivers) and the forested hills of the Hluhluwe area in the north.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi’s wide range of habitats provide a home for 80 different mammal species, including all members of the Big Five. Both black and white rhinos are seen here, although the latter is spotted far more frequently as the park continues to have one of the healthiest white rhino populations in South Africa. It is also a sanctuary for the endangered African wild dog, and supports key predators like the cheetah and spotted hyena. Equally abundant are prey animals, including zebras, wildebeest, giraffes, and a host of antelope (most notably the nyala, which occurs in large numbers here). Hippos and Nile crocodiles inhabit the park’s rivers and dams.
Important Bird Area
Representing around 46 percent of all species found in the southern African sub-region, more than 400 different types of birds have been recorded in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi. It’s the most important site in the province for the conservation of large raptors like bateleur, martial, and tawny eagles. During the rainy season, water-dwelling birds such as storks, herons, and pelicans flock to the park. Globally-threatened birds like the southern bald ibis and the southern ground hornbill mark this park an Important Bird Area. Additionally, keep an eye out for endangered and critically-endangered vultures, including the white-backed, lappet-faced, and white-headed vulture.
Top Things to Do
Game Drives: The most popular way to look for Hluhluwe-Imfolozi’s incredible wildlife is on a guided game drive. Two game drives depart daily from the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife camps: one at dawn and one in the late afternoon (these are the best times for spotting animals in action). You can also drive your own vehicle around the park on a self-drive safari, giving you the opportunity to explore 190 miles of roads at your own pace. Make sure to stop off at the viewing hides strategically located at the park’s pans and waterholes.
Bush Walks: If you want to venture out into the bush on foot, you can do so on the guided game walks offered at both Ezemvelo camps. You’ll be accompanied by an experienced armed ranger who will tell you all about the park’s flora, fauna, and history along the way. For those that have the time and the stamina, there are also five guided, multi-day Wilderness Trails. These range from two to four nights and allow you to immerse yourself completely in the park’s untamed interior landscapes.
The Centenary Center: The Centenary Center houses the park’s Game Capture Complex, where captured animals are kept for the purposes of veterinary assistance or relocation to other parks. Head to the interpretation center to find out about the methods used to safely and humanely catch and transport different wild animals. The Centenary Center is also home to a community-run craft market—a great place to meet members of the neighboring Zulu villages and to shop for souvenirs in South Africa.
Where to Stay
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has two safari camps in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. The first, Hilltop, is located in the Hluhluwe section on the edge of a forested hill with beautiful valley views. Accommodation ranges from simple rondavels with a communal kitchen to an eight-sleeper bush lodge with a private chef and tour guide. The second Ezemvelo camp, Mpila, is located in the Imfolozi area on a high ridge. It offers one, two, and three-bedroom self-catering chalets; two-bedroom safari tents; and a range of eight-person private bush lodges.
For the most luxurious stay, make a reservation at Rhino Ridge. As the only private lodge located within the park’s boundaries, it offers a choice of 5-star rooms and bush villas. The Honeymoon Villas are the most decadent, with a private plunge pool and stunning park views. Rhino Ridge also has an infinity pool and a gourmet restaurant and bar. Activities offered include guided game drives and bush walks, spa treatments overlooking the lodge waterhole, and traditional Zulu homestays.
Weather and When to Go
The park has a subtropical climate with two distinct seasons. Summer, which lasts from October to March, is hot, humid, and sees regular rainfall. Winter lasts from April to September and is mild and dry. On average, the minimum temperature in the park is 55 degrees Fahrenheit while the average maximum is 91 degrees.
Typically, winter is considered the best time for game viewing. This is because the dry weather causes animals to congregate around the rivers and waterholes, making them easier to find. Plus, clear, sunny days make for great photographs.
Summer has its benefits as well. The landscapes are lush during the annual rains, and the arrival of seasonal migrants makes this the best time for birding. Resident birds are also more impressive in their breeding plumage. Although this is the rainy season, downpours are interspersed with periods of bright sunshine. Be aware that parts of the park are in a low-risk malaria area, and mosquitoes are more prevalent in summer. Before traveling, make sure to consult your doctor about whether or not you should take anti-malaria medication.
The nearest international airport is King Shaka International Airport in Durban. It's approximately 170 miles to the park; drive northeast along the N2 highway before turning left onto the R618 at Mtubatuba. The ride takes between two and a half to three hours. To get to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi,
The nearest city is Richards Bay, which has its own domestic airport. From there, the directions to the park are the same as from Durban, though the journey time is reduced to just over an hour.
If you’re traveling south from Mkhuze Game Reserve or the Swaziland border, drive along the N2 until you reach Hluhluwe town and then follow signs for the park. From Sodwana Bay and the Mozambique border, follow the R22 south to Hluhluwe town. Be sure to plan your journey carefully, as gate times for the park are strictly enforced. The gates are open from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer (November 1 – February 28), and from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in winter (March 1 – October 31).
Visitors to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park will need to pay a daily conservation fee of 240 rand ($13.29) per adult, or 120 rand ($6.38) per child. Discounts apply for South African and SADC nationals. Guided game drives from either of the Ezemvelo camps are charged at 720 rand ($38.28) for two people, with a supplement of 360 rand ($19.14) for each additional person. Guided bush walks are charged at 300 rand ($15.95) per person, while the Wilderness Trails start at 2,805 rand ($149.14) per person. All Wilderness Trails are fully catered and are available for individuals aged 16 and older. For a full list of park rates, visit the Ezemvelo website.