How Not to Get Eaten by a Crocodile

Trip Start Sep 09, 2013
Trip End Dec 16, 2013

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Flag of South Africa  , KwaZulu-Natal,
Saturday, November 9, 2013

We arrived in Durban with a few days to explore, before our first volunteer stint in South Africa was to begin. With strong recommendations from locals, we headed to the north coast of Kwazulu Natal to visit the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park, a unique and beautiful world heritage site and home to thousands of hippos and crocodiles.

The Ezemvalo Wildlife tourist board has put together a few words of advice for anybody visiting the park, part of which is quoted here:

"Never dangle your legs, toes, backside or any other part of your anatomy in the water... A crocodile is unable to distinguish what is acceptable prey and what is not. All it sees is food, bikini-clad or not, it is all the same to the crocodile."

That certainly gave us pause for a nervous chuckle. But we really started smiling once we got out onto the wetlands, ensconced on a boat which kept all parts of our anatomy safely above the waterline. We did see crocs, the largest of which was about 2.5 metres long, although apparently they are occasionally known to get into the 4 metre range! But the hippos were the real attraction, those pudgy floaters burping, farting, snorting and playing - such awesome manifestations of the Creator's sense of humour. These are not the hippos of cartoon lore, though - one does not want to come across a large hippo at night, when they come out of the water to feed on the marshland grasses. They are known to come into town and munch in people's gardens as well!

Next we headed to Imfolozi Game Reserve, the oldest national park in South Africa (second oldest in the world behind Yellowstone). Though it is dwarfed in size my the more famous Kruger National Park, it offers everything (in terms of wildlife) that Kruger does, as well as cheaper and perhaps more intimate safaris. After a bleary eyed pre-dawn departure from our hostel, we were in the park at the break of day and within moments had our first elephant sighting. Lions, rhinos, giraffes and water buffalo soon followed.

For a Canadian, it was difficult in the moment to truly apprehend what I was witnessing - these massive and exotic creatures from my childhood storybooks, like scenes from National Geographic - yet here they were, so close I could hear them breathe, smell them, see the colour of their eyes (with the exception of the lions, we didn't get THAT close). Spring in the southern hemisphere also meant that we got to see many babies and juveniles in all species (again, with the exception of the lions). The most dramatic moment came when our jeep turned a corner and we met up with a herd of elephants - in all I counted 20, but our guide said there was probably more than 60 as we could hear them crashing around the bush one either side of the track. Our job was to get out of the way, and our guide slowly backed up the jeep for more than a kilometre before the elephants gave us room to get by. The photo ops were astounding - I had to restrain myself for fear of filling my 8GB memory card in 5 minutes!

The saddest story from Imfolozi is the losing battle being waged for rhino conservation. Poachers slaughter hundreds of these wonderful creatures, solely for their horns, every year in the park, in spite of armed patrols designed to stop the practice. Outside the park, a rhino 'cemetery' has been erected to try and draw attention to the fact that 600 rhinos were killed in 2012. In 2013, the numbers read 862. There is an insatiable desire for rhino horn in east Asia, and a desperate need for cash in Africa. Conservation, our guide says, "is a First World issue," and it is a clash of cultures that will never easily be resolved.

In the mean time, we are thankful and humbled by our wild life experience in this little corner of Africa. We are thankful to the nations and the people who try, sometimes against all odds, to save and preserve the magnificent wild heritage of the African continent. We certainly do not want to be eaten by crocodiles, but of course crocs are not the problem. People are.
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