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Rampaging Hippos, Rare Big Cats and Wacky Wildlife: South Africa's North-East Coast

Updated on February 28, 2017

The wonders of South Africa's north-east coast

A
Hluhuwe, South Africa:
Hluhluwe, 3960, South Africa

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Get close to rare African wild cats, caracals, servals and cheetahs at Emdoneni Cat Rehabilitation Centre

B
Hluhuwe-Imolofozi:
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, South Africa

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Set up in 1895, this is South Africa's oldest game reserve and has one of the world's largest white rhino populations, now threatened by poaching.

C
St Lucia, South Africa:
St Lucia, South Africa

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Hippos from nearby World Heritage-listed Isimangaliso Wetland Park roam through this town at night, 'mowing' residents' lawns.

Blue wildebeest Connochaetes taurinus at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park. Photo: Matt Feierabend
Blue wildebeest Connochaetes taurinus at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park. Photo: Matt Feierabend
Hippo crossing sign at St Lucia. Photo: Di Robinson
Hippo crossing sign at St Lucia. Photo: Di Robinson

Getting there

The attractions on this hub page are in South Africa's Kwazulu Natal province about 2 hrs north of Durban along the N2 major highway. Saint Lucia lies in the south of World Heritage-listed Isimangaliso Wetland Park. Mkuze Game Reserve, the subject of my next hub page, is at the northern end of this amazing park.

  • The easiest way to get to where you want to go is to hire a car from Durban or Johannesburg.
  • You can organise a shuttle from one of the many tour companies in Durban to a lodge that offers tours. Lodges with activities include Emdoneni Lodge at the cat rehabilitation centre, Hilltop and Mpila lodges in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park and Kwalucia Private Safari Retreat in Saint Lucia. This is not a comprehensive list: check out Google for deals or consult Trip Advisor or Booking.com.
  • Base yourself in a town and organise tours or transport from there. Get a bus to Richards Bay from Durban, then a taxi to Hluhluwe for easy access to Emdoneni Cat Rehabilitation Centre and the Hluhluwe section of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park.
  • To spend more time in Saint Lucia or the Imfolozi section of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park, get a bus to Richards Bay from Durban then a taxi to Saint Lucia.
  • You could also base yourself in the harbour town of Richards Bay.


Between 40-50% of cheetah hunts are successful. Photo: Di Robinson
Between 40-50% of cheetah hunts are successful. Photo: Di Robinson

Help save Africa's big cats

At Emdoneni Cat Rehabilitation Centre, you can find out about the behaviour of, and ways to save, Africa's gorgeous cat species such as the caracal (above) and serval (below). Photos: Di Robinson
At Emdoneni Cat Rehabilitation Centre, you can find out about the behaviour of, and ways to save, Africa's gorgeous cat species such as the caracal (above) and serval (below). Photos: Di Robinson

About Emdoneni Cat Rehabilitation Centre

Emdoneni Cat Rehabilitation Centre rescues animals from the pet trade or injured wild animals who can no longer survive in the wild, and places them in large enclosures that reproduce their habitats as much as possible. Four of the seven big cats species in Africa are represented:

  • African wild cat
  • serval
  • caracal
  • cheetah.

Visiting the centre

The centre runs educational tours for visitors at 10.30 am and 4.30 pm. Book in advance as visitor numbers are limited to 75. A guide gives an informative and fun talk on each animal. You can enter some enclosures and stroke tamer big cats if they are in the right mood.

The animals are encouraged to breed and their young are generally released into the wild. When we were there, four cute baby servals were being kept away from visitors so they would be prepared to survive in a national park or reserve once they were old enough to leave their mother.

On a visit, you can:

  • see and interact with big cat species that are shy and secretive and rarely seen, with the exception of the cheetah, in the wild
  • find out about the behaviour and habits of these beautiful animals from entertaining, knowledgeable guides
  • discover what is being done to conserve these big cats in South Africa
  • adopt an animal, meaning you give a donation to the species of your choice.

More information

Find out more about tours, deals and the cats

Emdoneni's big cats

Your profile could match you to the powerful and enigmatic caracal. Photo: Di Robinson
Your profile could match you to the powerful and enigmatic caracal. Photo: Di Robinson
The perceptive and patient serval could be your style. Photo: Di Robinson
The perceptive and patient serval could be your style. Photo: Di Robinson
Maybe you're the ever alert and independent African wild cat. Photo: Di Robinson
Maybe you're the ever alert and independent African wild cat. Photo: Di Robinson
Or you could be the peaceful but swift-as-lightning cheetah. Photo: Di Robinson
Or you could be the peaceful but swift-as-lightning cheetah. Photo: Di Robinson

QUIZ: Which big cat are you?

Are you a wily African wild cat, a resilient serval, a tactical caracal or an athletic cheetah?

A. Which landscape do you prefer?

  1. rocky arid scrub
  2. savanna
  3. mountains
  4. wetlands

B. Your philosophy is

  1. patience is a virtue
  2. fight for what you want
  3. carpe diem: seize the day
  4. live and let live

C. People admire your

  1. independence
  2. adaptability
  3. resourcefulness
  4. laid back attitude

D. Your biggest failing is

  1. I don't face up to problems, I avoid them
  2. I'm too secretive
  3. I'm too aggressive
  4. I give up too easily

E. Your best quality is

  1. you play well with others
  2. your patience
  3. your independence
  4. your charisma

F. Your ideal career would be

  1. CEO of an organisation
  2. journalist
  3. detective
  4. own your own business

G. Have you ever been picked on or bullied?

  1. yes
  2. occasionally, but I try and avoid bullies
  3. just let them try
  4. people have tried to bully me, but I fight back and they leave me alone

H. If you could look any way you wanted, would you have

  1. red hair and green or blue eyes
  2. dark hair and hazel eyes
  3. light blonde hair and long legs
  4. dark blonde hair and a sleek body

I. You like clothes

  1. in neutral colours, black or brown
  2. with patches and stripes
  3. with lots of dots
  4. in one bright colour

J. In a past life

  1. you were the power behind the throne for a ruler
  2. you were a sprinter in the ancient Olympic games
  3. you were a high priest or priestess for a mysterious cult
  4. you travelled far and wide, having adventures

Get your score

Add up the numbers based on what you answered for each question.

A. 1 = 3; 2 = 2; 3 = 0; 4 = 1 B. 1 = 1; 2 = 3; 3 = 2; 4 = 0 C. 1 = 0; 2 = 1; 3 = 3; 4 = 2

D. 1 = 1; 2 = 0; 3 = 3; 4 = 2 E. 1 = 2; 2 = 1; 3 = 0; 4 = 3 F. 1 = 3; 2 = 2; 3 = 1; 4 = 0

G. 1 = 2; 2 = 1; 3 = 3; 4 = 0 H. 1 = 3; 2 = 0; 3 = 1; 4 = 2 I. 1 = 0; 2 = 1; 3 = 2; 4 = 3

J. 1 = 1; 2 = 3; 3 = 2; 4 = 0

Totals

  • If you scored a total of 0 - 7, you are an African wild cat. Ever alert and independent, you are also brave and fierce. People can underestimate you as you are amiable, look cute and appear harmless but if they attack you, they will get a surprise.
  • If you scored a total of 8 - 15, you are a serval. Amazingly adaptable and resilient, you are also patient and perceptive which makes you good at problem solving. Gentle yet strong, you don't like conflict but can stick up for yourself if you need to.
  • If you scored a total of 16 - 23, you are a cheetah. Sociable and communicative, you get on well with others. People can take advantage of your laid back nature, but if there is something you really want you go after it single-mindedly.
  • If you scored a total of 24 - 30, you are a caracal. You are passionate, resourceful, graceful and exotic. Powerful yet playful, you can overcome challenges others would quail at and have a sense of mystery others find enticing.

Now find some fun facts about your animal

The lovely serval has the longest legs of any cat in proportion to its size. Photo: Matt Feierabend
The lovely serval has the longest legs of any cat in proportion to its size. Photo: Matt Feierabend
Domestic cats are descended from the African wild cat which has been around for centuries and was honoured by the Ancient Egyptians. Photo: Matt Feierabend
Domestic cats are descended from the African wild cat which has been around for centuries and was honoured by the Ancient Egyptians. Photo: Matt Feierabend

Fun facts about the big cats

African wild cat Felis silvestris lybica

The adaptable serval has a varied diet and can survive in different habitats. Photo: Matt Feierabend
The adaptable serval has a varied diet and can survive in different habitats. Photo: Matt Feierabend

Serval Leptailurus serval

Cheetahs have semi-retractable claws like spikes on athletes' training shoes. Photo: Di Robinson
Cheetahs have semi-retractable claws like spikes on athletes' training shoes. Photo: Di Robinson

Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus

A playful caracal kitten. Photo: Kristian Thy, Copenhagen, Denmark, photo courtesy Wiki Creative Commons
A playful caracal kitten. Photo: Kristian Thy, Copenhagen, Denmark, photo courtesy Wiki Creative Commons

Caracal Caracal caracal

  • Of these four cat species, the caracal is the most efficient predator as it has powerful jaws to overwhelm and subdue,and long legs to leap on, its prey. It can even leap 3 metres (10 feet) into the air to catch birds in flight by batting them with its large paws.
  • The name 'caracal' comes from the Turkish word 'karakulak', meaning 'black ear'.
  • A playful entertainer, the caracal was trained in the Middle East to catch pigeons, and it is thought the term 'put a cat among the pigeons' comes from this practice.
  • This exotic big cat had religious significance in Ancient Egypt, and has been found in paintings and is the subject of sculptures in some tombs.
  • This beautiful animal uses its distinctive ears to communicate with other caracals. When still at a distance from each other, caracals will make head and ear movements to signal status, identity and intentions, such as the desire to mate.
  • Caracals have 20 different muscles in their ears to detect prey.
  • Preferring dry rocky habitats, caracals do not need to drink water very often.
  • They generally shelter in crevices, behind rocks or up trees during the day and hunt during the night, but in some areas they are active during the day too.
  • Caracals will attack animals that are bigger than they are such as eagles and antelope, even ostriches, but not human beings.
  • Their resilience and resourcefulness have enabled them to survive persecution across their broad range across Africa, India and the Middle East, and despite being rarely seen they are not endangered.

The African warthog Phacochoerus africanus seen here in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park has poor eyesight but excellent hearing, and can use its impressive tusks to defend itself. Photo: Di Robinson
The African warthog Phacochoerus africanus seen here in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park has poor eyesight but excellent hearing, and can use its impressive tusks to defend itself. Photo: Di Robinson

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park

Map of the national park showing the two parts: Hluhluwe in the north and Imfolozi in the south. Map courtesy Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife
Map of the national park showing the two parts: Hluhluwe in the north and Imfolozi in the south. Map courtesy Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife | Source
Young elephants at play in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park. Photo: Matt Feierabend
Young elephants at play in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park. Photo: Matt Feierabend
Sunrise over hilly Hluhluwe in the north of the park. Photo: Di Robinson
Sunrise over hilly Hluhluwe in the north of the park. Photo: Di Robinson
Lion Panthera leo. So exciting to see this beautiful animal padding through the bush. Photo: Matt Feierabend
Lion Panthera leo. So exciting to see this beautiful animal padding through the bush. Photo: Matt Feierabend
The attractive male nyala Tragelaphus angasii with his distinctive yellow legs, and curved horns. Photo: Matt Feierabend
The attractive male nyala Tragelaphus angasii with his distinctive yellow legs, and curved horns. Photo: Matt Feierabend
Female nyalas eye up the male. Photo: Di Robinson
Female nyalas eye up the male. Photo: Di Robinson
A brown snake eagle Circaetus cinereus searches for prey. Photo: Di Robinson
A brown snake eagle Circaetus cinereus searches for prey. Photo: Di Robinson
Young warthog Phacochoerus africanus. Warthogs are one of my favourite African animals with their comical trot, flicking tails and sociable nature. Photo: Di Robinson
Young warthog Phacochoerus africanus. Warthogs are one of my favourite African animals with their comical trot, flicking tails and sociable nature. Photo: Di Robinson

Top ten facts about Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park

  1. Hluhluwe-Imflozi is the oldest game reserve in South Africa, established in 1895 for the entertainment of Zulu chieftains.
  2. The national park covers a total of 96,000 hectares and consists of Hluhluwe reserve in the north and Imfolozi in the south. Hluhluwe is hilly whereas Imfolozi contains more open grassland. We visited Hluhluwe on safari and had a splendid time.
  3. You can see all the Big 5 in the park. We saw lions, buffalo and elephants but not leopards or white rhino. There are plenty of other amazing animals to see, including the cat species seen in Emdoneni Cat Rehabilitation Centre (see above).
  4. Because of the variety of habitats, more than 300 species of birds have been recorded. Hluhluwe River floodplain is one of the only areas in the whole of South Africa where yellow-throated, pink-throated and orange-throated longclaw can all be seen.
  5. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is the basis of Operation Rhino, a project began in the 1950s to conserve the white rhino. There is now a healthy population of these animals in the park.
  6. There is a great deal to do. Choose from day and night safaris, self-driving trails with picnic areas and hides overlooking the river, bird watching tours and guided walks. There are three self-guided walks in the Imfolozi section of the park, and boat tours on Hluhluwe Dam.
  7. There are four wilderness trails in Imfolozi from 2-4 nights long based in the pristine 25,000-hectare wilderness area in the park's south-east. Two staff members lead all walks with access being only on foot. We did not have time to do one of these but they look smashing.
  8. There is accommodation to suit all budgets and much of this offers activities in the park as part of the package.
  9. Because it is easy to gain access to this park from all sides, there is a huge problem with poaching, especially of rhinos. When we were there we heard elephants trumpeting in alarm and other alarmed animal sounds, and a helicopter piloted by a ranger flew overhead. Our guide said although poachers were caught, more kept coming. It's really sad.
  10. To finish on a high note, conservation and education are central to the park's activities and the knowledgeable guides can tell you a great deal about current conservation projects in the park.

The animals of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park

St Lucia

St Lucia's groovy little dock. Photo: Di Robinson
St Lucia's groovy little dock. Photo: Di Robinson

Home of hippos

St Lucia is a pretty little town at the south end of World Heritage-listed Isimangaliso Wetland Park. It is surrounded by an extensive area of bush, wetland, dune and beach and an estuary that has been closed off from the sea for 8 years. Warthogs wander aimlessly through the town by day and hippos visit at night. They are light-footed for their size and just nibble the tips of grasses so are great lawn mowers.

There is a great deal to do in this friendly, colourful town surrounded by natural beauty.


Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)

Hippos are cute yet are deemed to be the most dangerous animals in the world, due to their skittishness. They will attack when frightened. Photo: Di Robinson
Hippos are cute yet are deemed to be the most dangerous animals in the world, due to their skittishness. They will attack when frightened. Photo: Di Robinson
Nile crocodiles Crocodylus niloticus, the second most deadly reptiles in the world after the Australian saltwater crocodile, live in the estuary. They grow more than 5.5 metres (18 feet) long and weigh a ton, literally! Photo: Di Robinson
Nile crocodiles Crocodylus niloticus, the second most deadly reptiles in the world after the Australian saltwater crocodile, live in the estuary. They grow more than 5.5 metres (18 feet) long and weigh a ton, literally! Photo: Di Robinson
The saddle-billed stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis frequents the grasslands at the estuary's edge. Photo: Matt Feierabend
The saddle-billed stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis frequents the grasslands at the estuary's edge. Photo: Matt Feierabend
A hippo yawns: it's been a long day. Photo: Di Robinson
A hippo yawns: it's been a long day. Photo: Di Robinson
The African fish eagle Haliaeetus vocifer checks out the area for prey. Photo: Matt Feierabend
The African fish eagle Haliaeetus vocifer checks out the area for prey. Photo: Matt Feierabend

Top 10 things to do in St Lucia

  1. Take a boat ride on the estuary. From the little dock just outside town, you can choose whether to go on a basic no-frills trip or on a swanky liner with a bar and food and a crew in uniform. We went on an unpretentious boat and had a fantastic adventure up the estuary with a guy who told us all about the birdlife and wildlife we saw. See the video beneath.
  2. Visit the wetland reserve. Servals and elephants have recently been introduced and there are other African animals too. You can go on safari by day or night, take a guided walk or go on a birdwatching tour. The birdlife here is amazing.
  3. Hike the Mziki Trail which is three day-long loop walks from the same starting point passing through very different terrain each day: dense forests on sand dunes, grasslands and coastal rock pools. If you walk all three trails, you walk 40 kms (25 miles). The walks are guided and led by an armed national park ranger as there are crocodiles, buffalo, rhino and elephants.
  4. Want to range further into the wetland park? Trek 52 kilometres (32.3 miles) along the five-day Emoyeni Trail. An armed ranger accompanies you and you walk through dune forest, swamp forest and wetlands, skirt lakes and stroll along a swimmable beach to a bat cave. You stay in a different campsite each night and carry all your own gear. It can be hot and humid so is best done in winter.
  5. Stroll along the beach. If you are lucky, you may see a hawksbill or loggerhead turtle, dolphin or, in winter, humpback whales. Do not swim here as there are strong rip currents in the sea.
  6. Love horses? Go horseriding along the coastline.
  7. If fishing is your passion, you can fish from the beach or take a deep sea fishing trip out in the Indian Ocean.
  8. Cape Vidal is only 32 kilometres away. Here you can snorkel and in summer, watch loggerhead and leatherback turtles lay their eggs on the beach.
  9. Visit the Imfolozi section of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park, only 45 kilometres away.
  10. The dock is a great place to talk to the locals and find out about the culture and wildlife of this fantastic place.

A boat ride on Saint Lucia estuary

A saddle-billed stork flies past basking hippos in the estuary on his way home. Photo: Matt Feierabend
A saddle-billed stork flies past basking hippos in the estuary on his way home. Photo: Matt Feierabend

Which attraction is the one for you?

If you visited South Africa's north-east coast, would your preferred trip be to

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Comments

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    • Di Robinson profile imageAUTHOR

      Di Robinson 

      20 months ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thank you Nicki, and you are a serval eh? Like Matt. Glad you enjoyed the page, and see you soon.

    • profile image

      Nicola F 

      21 months ago

      I am a serval!

      Enjoyable read, well done. Fantastic pictures too. Thank you for sharing.

    • Di Robinson profile imageAUTHOR

      Di Robinson 

      21 months ago from Sydney, Australia

      Cheers Jez and Jane. I'm a cheetah too. What's Bex? Thank you both for your nice comments, I really appreciate the encouragement. Do go to South Africa, it's the most amazing place.

    • profile image

      Jane 

      21 months ago

      Looks amazing... another place for the bucket list ... every time I travel, (or now read your web page), the list grows longer :)

    • profile image

      Jeremy 

      21 months ago

      Your writing always inspires me to travel. You and Matt have that rare ability to make me move out of my comfort zone. I've moved South Africa's north-east coast up to number three on my must see list. Tentative 2018. Pix are great and the quiz told me that I'm a cheetah- can't wait to tell Bex that I'm not a sloth.

    • Di Robinson profile imageAUTHOR

      Di Robinson 

      21 months ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thank you Daniel, and good to know you're a serval. They are great animals.

    • profile image

      Daniel 

      21 months ago

      Great work, well done Di & Matt. Wish I can go back tomorrow.

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