Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is KwaZulu-Natal’s most outstanding game reserve, considered by some even better than Kruger. While it certainly can’t match Kruger’s sheer scale (Hluhluwe is a twentieth of the size) or its teeming game populations, its relatively compact 960 square kilometres have a wilder feel. This has something to do with the fact that, apart from Hilltop, an elegant hotel-style restcamp in the northern half of the park, none of the other restcamps is fenced off, and wild animals are free to wander through. The vegetation, with subtropical forest in places, adds to the sense of adventure. The park also offers the best trails in the country.
The park used to be two distinct entities – hence its tongue-twisting double-barrelled name (pronounced something like “shla-shloo-wee-oom-fa-low-zee”) – and the two sections retain their separate characters, reinforced by a public road slicing between them. The southern Imfolozi section takes its name from a corruption of mfulawozi, a Zulu word that refers to the fibrous bushes that grow along its rivers. The topography here is characterized by wide, deep valleys incised by the Black and White Imfolozi rivers, with altitudes varying between 60 and 650 metres. Luxuriant riverine vegetation gives way in drier areas to a variety of woodland, savannah, thickets and grassy plains. The notable feature of the northern Hluhluwe section is the river of the same name, a slender, slithering waterway, punctuated by elongated pools. The Hluhluwe rises in the mountains north of the park and passes along sandbanks, rock beds and steep cliffs in the game reserve before seeping away into Lake St Lucia to the east. The higher ground is covered by veld and dense thicket, while the well-watered ridges support the softer cover of ferns, lichens, mosses and orchids.