Read more ...
For most Americans, the holiday season often conjures images of tree decorating, gift-giving and wintry weather. It is difficult for many of us to imagine Christmas without also thinking of snowflakes, sleigh bells and a yearly visitor from the North Pole. And, though I remember very few years in which we actually had a white Christmas in Oregon growing up, the cold winter weather did not make it difficult to imagine a snowy wonderland outside.
It rarely occurred to me that, for those, living South of the equator, Christmas and snowflakes do not necessarily go hand in hand. I hardly ever thought about the fact that, for people who experience the holidays in the heat of summer, the word Christmas is unlikely to conjure images of sleigh bells, snowmen and hot chocolate by the fireside. I found it nearly impossible to imagine a Christmas with sunshine and long summer days.
Until 2014, when Dan and I spent the holiday season in South Africa and our notion of Christmas was flipped upside down.
Once we learned that we would be spending the 2014 holiday season in South Africa, Dan and I figured we might as well spend it in the sun at a beach--since finding a winter wonderland nearby seemed an unlikely possibility. Besides, I was excited to fully immerse myself in the Christmas experience of those hailing from the lands down below.
So, on Christmas day, Dan and I ventured toward a beach near the St Lucia estuary and prepared for a day of soaking up Vitamin D in the warmth of the African sun.
But Christmas decided to throw a curveball our way.
Shortly after we arrived at the beach, I went to change into my swimsuit and came back to our rental car only to find Dan looking helpless and perplexed. He told me he had accidentally locked the keys inside the car and could not access them since we had just rolled the windows up. Thus, our Christmas on the beach turned into a daylong process of looking for the one locksmith in the area that would actually be open on Christmas Day.
We searched the internet, asked around and twiddled our thumbs to no avail. After a while, we found a police station that was open and discussed our waning list of options with the man standing behind the desk. He flipped through the phone book and called around. Finally, the police officer was able to put us in contact with a locksmith in Richards Bay--a city more than 150km away. Since we had no other options, we spent much of the rest of our day sitting outside the police station and waiting for the locksmith to arrive.
Despite the lack of cold weather and holiday cheer, it was hardly the Christmas we'd imagined.
Perhaps our South African Christmas didn't go exactly as planned, but spending December 26th at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park more than made up for our misadventures the previous day. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is a wildlife reserve known for its remarkable contributions to the preservation of rhinos in southern Africa. It is the oldest nature reserve in Africa and spreads for nearly 1,000 square kilometers over the hilly, lush terrain of Kwazulu-Natal.
If we had come to South Africa and only visited Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, it would have probably been difficult for us to understand the country's dire rhino poaching problems. The park is chock-full of these beautiful animals.
In the early 1900s, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi spearheaded a preservation campaign that is largely responsible for bringing the white rhinos back from the brink of extinction. Yet, rhino poaching is still a major problem in South Africa. Every year, poaching claims the lives of hundreds of animals whose horns are sold in Asia for medicinal purposes. Though rhino poaching is illegal, the demand for rhino horns is so great that selling them in the black market remains a lucrative business.
The park has not entirely escaped the poaching problems that plague the rest of the country, but Hluhluwe-Imfolozi still boasts the highest concentration of rhinos in the world. Throughout the day we would encounter these majestic horned animals on numerous occasions.
|Rhinos at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi|
Although the park is known for its rhino population, many other animals find a home in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi as well. The game reserve houses Africa's Big 5 as well as a diverse array of small predators, herbivores and birds. Throughout our self-guided game drive, we had many wonderful wildlife encounters, despite the thick foliage and tall grasses of the rainy season.
|Beautiful Bird in Tall Grass|
|Family of Warthogs Crossing the Road|
|Herd of Buffalo at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi|
Our most prized animal sighting came toward the end of our drive, while Dan and I were finishing our loop of the park. We were meandering along one of the park's smaller roads when, all of a sudden, we encountered a line of cars stopped near a dry riverbed.
Dan and I rolled down our windows and craned our necks to see what was going on, but found nothing except for grasses and shrubs. We asked the passengers in the stopped car in front of us, but the driver merely shrugged and pointed at the other cars, suggesting they knew something he did not. When the cars lined up in front finally continued on their way, we pulled up into their places and scanned our surroundings.
And then we saw the prize. Sitting under a tree in the distance was a pack of rare wild dogs, whose patchy brown and black fur camouflaged perfectly into the surrounding area.
The dogs were far away and I had to sit on the car's window ledge to see them. I took out my camera and screwed on the 300mm zoom lens to try to capture an image of the animals.
Though the quality of the image is compromised due to the extended zoom and significant cropping, I am happy that we were able to at least capture memento of the wonderful sighting. Seeing the dogs was a wonderful belated Christmas gift that nearly made us forget our misadventures the previous day. It rounded out an incredible week of wildlife sightings and close encounters with the continent's most dangerous predators and was a great finale to our whirlwind three-week tour of Africa's southern tip.