Wednesday, 11 January 2012


We saw a rhino within five minutes of entering the reserve. We didn’t even have to search for it. The rhino came lumbering across the tar-sealed road as we rounded a tight corner, small calf close by its side. It walked slowly across the road, obviously familiar with the excited murmurings of park visitors and the whirring of cameras, before heading off into the scrubby brush on the other side of the road. The three safari novices in the car, Mary, Melanie and myself, thought that this animal spotting caper would be a walk (or drive) in a park. However, the quest to see the rest of the so-called big Five (lion, elephant, leopard and buffalo, so named because they are the game animals that are most dangerous to hunt on foot) would prove to be much more time consuming. It would also show that there are a lot of lion and leopard shaped rocks in the park.
First rhino (and calf) that we saw in the game reserve.
Hluhluwe Umfolzi is Kwazulu Natal’s biggest game reserve and the first park of its type in Africa. It is now most famous for its large number of rhinos, in particular white rhinos, like the ones that we had seen soon after entering the park. 1600 of them call Hluhluwe Umfolzi home. We saw rhinos (always white rhinos) on several other occasions until we almost became apathetic with a(nother) rhino sighting.
Giraffes under the shade
Going animal spotting was a different experience than I thought it would be. For one thing, this wasn’t a case of bouncing around the back of an old jeep, holding on for grim life as your driver pursued game whilst dodging anthills and potholes. Instead, you could slowly cruise along tar-sealed roads in a small car, watching intently out the window for wildlife. Nor was this a case of massive herds of gnu and zebra, like you would see migrating across the Masai Mara. But that’s not to say that the park was devoid of life. Birds like rollers and raptors were a common sight. Animals were seen but were often alone or in small groups, grazing by the roadside or in many cases, walking on the road itself, utilising it as just another trail, seemingly unafraid of passing cars. It was hard to know if they were habituated by the constant stream of traffic or if their behaviour had changed because of it.
Warthogs at the front gate
By the time we had seen our first rhino, we had already seen a group of warthogs at the front gate and before that some giraffes and zebras on the hill that sat opposite the park-gates. On our drive from the gate to our accommodation, we saw a variety of antelope (impala, nyala and kudu), a lone baboon and groups of giraffes grazing quietly by the road-side, managing to somehow look graceful and ungainly at the same time. By the time, we reached our accommodation at Hilltop Camp, it was almost dark and as the gates close at night, we had to hurry to ensure that we weren’t locked out for the night, an uncomfortable and potential dangerous experience best avoided. At Hilltop, we slept in round Zulu style huts with thatched roofs. The camps are fenced off but it’s still possible for animals to get in; we saw bushbucks and monkeys in the grounds so I guess it could be possible for larger predators to get in and roam about. It was a thought I tried to not think about too much when I went walking to the toilet at night.
A curious and photogenic male nyala
The next morning at breakfast, we heard stories of a young male lion up a tree not far from camp. We quickly drove to the spot but the guides there said it had left 5 minutes earlier, the first of many near-misses involving felines. That morning, we had our first sighting of buffalo, the second of our big five. A large herd came down a hill following a well-worn track, looking all the world like a herd of admittedly aggressive looking cows on their way to the milking shed. Some of the bulls sported impressive horns and some of their flanks were scarred, most likely from battling with each other. They passed slowly across the road, past our car (which probably weighed the same as one of them) before heading down to the stream on the opposite side of the road. 
Cantankerous bovine
We continued driving, sometimes alone, sometimes following a truck from one of the park’s lodges. We saw cute vervet monkeys playing and watched nature unfold as a Hamerkop caught a fish and then lost it after being bullied out of its catch by a larger black stork. We saw gnu and zebra and had our first elephant sighing as a pachyderm crossed over in front of us and then decided to meander along the road, bringing traffic to a complete halt for a dozen minutes or so.
The Hamerkop, right before losing its fish to a bigger black stork.
We still had no sightings of a cat (lion, leopard or cheetah) and about this time, the concerted effort dubbed Hunt for Big Pussy was initiated. Kerry randomly met friends who had been in the park for only a day. In that time, they had seen the Big Five, hippos, cheetahs and even wild dogs. Such reports gave us hope, made us optimistic that by persevering we could hope to see all of the animals that we wanted to. For a change of pace, we went to check out several of the hides erected around watering holes that may or may not prove tempting to animals. At one, we were able to watch a herd of impala for a long time, at another, some birds with beautiful long tails. But still no cats.
One of the hides, no cats but we watched a group of impala from here.
That night, we took our first guided trip. We sat on the back of a jeep with a family from England (the father talked incessantly on his cell-phone to an employee in England, much to the annoyance of everyone else on the tour). We enjoyed a beer at one hill-stop top, enjoying the last glimpses of light before we got back onto the truck, ready to begin spot-lighting. Night viewing is not as good for photography but can be a good time to spot animals, in particular the nocturnal predators. Leopards are commonly caught up in trees by the spotlight but not that night.  The highlight of our trip was a sighting of a rapidly disappearing hyena escaping from the spotlight and a civet that darted across the road in front of us. Not to be discouraged, we signed up for a dawn ride for the next morning as well, chancing on some elephants and a group of rowdy bull buffalo wallowing in mud. We also saw our first leopard, not a cat but a leopard turtle, one of the so-called little Big 5 (the others being the Elephant shrew, the rhino beetle, the Buffalo weaver bird and the ant-lion). Frustratingly, this would be the closest we would get to a leopard sighting during our time in Hluhluwe Umfolzi.
Our guide with a leopard turtle, one of the little big 5
Kerry was probably getting sick of the three of us wanting to drive and search for animals every waking minute but us non-South Africans were still keen to try and glimpse a big cat, eye RSI and scanning the horizon head-aches notwithstanding. We were rewarded for our persistence with a glimpse of a male lion, sitting majestically and aloof on a rocky outcrop, a good 100 metres from the road but easily seen through binoculars. In contrast to our excitement in seeing him, he seemed nonchalant, dismissive of our existence. The cliché misnomer “King of the jungle” never seemed more apt as he sat overseeing his domain, with us being just another of his insignificant subjects. This, after all, is his habitat, his environment and we were encroaching on his life-style.
The conclusion of Hunt for Big Pussy 
The greatest sight we saw was one of the last things we saw on our third night in the park. We stopped for a big solitary bull elephant that was acting aggressively (in the end, he actually charged at one car). The reason for his angst may have been that he wasn’t alone; instead, he was at the head of a thunder of about 50 elephants, including several juveniles. The elephants, ignorant of time, made their way slowly across the road as cars backed up on either side, waiting for the great beasts to cross. It was a majestic sight and easily the sight of our time in Hluhluwe Umfolzi. As we drove off marvelling at the size of the group we had just witnessed, we came across another one, this one maybe even larger in number than the previous one, foraging in a field not 500 metres from where we had waited for the other beasts to pass. Again, we took time to watch them interact with one another, being careful to keep a safe distance (unlike the car-load of Asian tourists we saw the next day who got out of their car to take pictures of an elephant less than 25 metres).
The second thunder of elephants we saw.
Hluhluwe Umfolzi may not be South Africa’s premier safari destination (that honour would fall to Kruger whose big cat sightings are legendary) but it makes for one hell of an alternative. Kerry’s father was probably right when he said that you needed to walk in the African bush to really savour and experience it fully, to get to know its sounds and smells (some of that smell in my case would have been fear). But that being so, I don’t feel cheapened by my experience. Those three days, as an avid animal follower, were a dream come true and something that I definitely want to repeat at other parks in Africa.

Sunday, 1 January 2012


Recently, the results of the quest to find the seven natural wonders of the world were released. Some, like the Amazon basin or Table Mountain, were obvious choices. Some, like Jeju-do, were surprises. The fact that Jeju-do, a Korean island 85 kilometres south of the mainland, is included on the list is perhaps more testament to the power of the internet (which is perhaps greatest in a country like South Korea with its ultra high-speed connections) and speaks volumes for the patriotism of Koreans in pushing Jeju forward, than it does to the qualities of the island itself. That’s not to say that Jeju-do doesn’t have its charms It has several that range from quirky to awe-inspiring. We went to Jeju with Brian and Andrea, a couple from America, for three nights, flying down from Seoul after absconding from work a little early one Thursday afternoon. We procured a rental car, complete with GPS (which we were almost entirely ignorant in the usage of for the duration of the trip) at the airport from a small rental car company that worked out of the back of a van in the Jeju airport car-park. Our hotel was about 20 ks from the airport, in a small town called Hamdeok, a resort town that really only has hotels, convenience stores and one small temple. Initially, the hotel didn’t want the four of us to share a room. Apparently, we were a suicide risk and the management only relented when our Korean friend vouched for our good character and non-suicidal tendencies.

Temple door at Hamdeok Beach.
Jeju is frequently compared with other places, like Hawaii, the Mediterranean, Disneyland and generally the comparisons aren’t much good. It is the home of Korean honeymooners wearing matching clothes, of corporate junkets, a place of great nature beauty and equally of tacky theme parks. It was to tacky theme parks that we first turned our attention. The first we visited was Mini-mini land, a theme park that has mini-models of famous buildings from Korea and around the world, like Osaka Castle, the Forbidden City and the Beehive. 

Arc De Triumph and a three year old Korean girl for scale.
Next on our theme park list was the bizarre Loveland, a theme park of 140 sculptures of genitalia, phallic statues and stone labia, in a variety of sexual positions and formations. This is billed as a “place where love oriented art and eroticism meet.” Busloads of titillated middle-aged women poured into the park when we arrived, visors steaming up as they jokingly climbed upon a statue of an erect penis or stood by labia somewhat larger than life. The fixtures were made by university students in Seoul and are said by some to act as either a visual aphrodisiac for the many honeymooners or as a form of sexual education for those honeymooners who may be unaware of the more carnal aspects of marriage. 

Phallic fountain.
The genesis of the park is said by some to date back to times when many Korean marriages were arranged and couples arrived on honeymoon in Jeju in need of sexual education. Simon Winchester, the British author who wrote a book talking about his walk from Busan to Seoul during the 1980s, said that hotel employers would act as icebreakers and hotels would offer an entertainment program that featured erotic elements and double entendres to help the newly wed (and in many cases newly met) couples relax. The museum in Love-land sold sex-toys as well as having little dioramas that showed clay characters indulging in sexual behaviour in a variety of settings; love motel, bathhouse, bathroom and the class-room.

What goes on in the bath-house stays in the bath-house.
After enough tackiness at the theme park and after safely avoiding eating horsemeat for lunch (the car was split 50:50 on the morals of eating equine), we turned back to Hamdeok Beach for some sea kayaking. Jeju might be compared to Hawaii but even in June, it’s still sub-tropical and pretty cold. We got some nice surf around the point and played around in the shallows for a while but an hour proved long enough for everyone bar me. 

Enjoying the semi-tropical climes.
When exploring the surrounds of Hamdeok beach, we found several replicas of harubang, life sized statues of men (harubang means grandfather) carved out of lava rock that are now the symbol of Jeju. Like similar statues seen on a much grander scale on Easter Island, their precise function remains unclear. They have been attributed to be gods offering protection against demons or as statues related to fertility (which may be a more recent attribute given the honeymooning status of the island). My favourite theory is that they were spread by a shamanic mushroom culture, who descended from the north, and who proceeded to establish a magic mushroom cult on the island. The statues (who look vaguely mushroom like) were used to prevent people tripping being attacked by spirits from another dimension. I love how absurd this sounds, like a medieval UFO cult but it is, at the moment, the most likely theory. Shamans, who predated the arrival of Buddhism, still play an important role in Korean society, although when I’ve seen them on hikes, it’s usually a pig’s head, not mushrooms they have been praying to. Sadly, the magic mushroom cult appears to have disappeared as well.

Protectors of a magic mushroom cult??
The next day (groggy after a couple too many rounds of mokgolli, the pungent Korean rice wine), we set off to look at two of Jeju’s World Heritage sites. The first stop was at Manjanggul, which has the world’s longest system of lava caves, 13.4 kilometres long. The caves are wonderful; looking like they were created by a giant fire-breathing serpent has forced its way through the volcanic rock. Inside are lava stalactites and stalagmites, lava columns and flowstones, helictites, blisters and rafts, benches and bridges, tables and plateaus (not all of these are real but the list of lava structures seemed so long, it doesn’t hurt to add a few extra).  As you walk down into the caves, it’s like entering a different time, a time when men saw caves as places of safe havens and not as places of horror ala “The Descent”. The air was different down there, not stale but of a different type of vitality and the lights placed every few metres on the cave walls gave it an eerie feel.

The world's longest system of lava caves.
From underground delights, we headed to Sunrise peak (Ilchulbong), an extinct volcano, with a punchbowl shaped crater at its peak. It’s biologically and geologically important as the only known hydro magmatic volcanoes with a well-preserved tuff cone and diverse internal structures along a sea cliff. In real-talk, it makes for a nice view, looking over the forested crater out over to the ocean, although you have to be on the lookout for errant elbows in the back from over-enthusiastic elderly Korean hikers when hiking up or down from it. From here, we got good views of the eastern part of the island, over to Hallasan, South Korea’s tallest mountain, which Brian and I would climb the following day and out along the rugged shore-line, with its surging surf and ragged rocks.

Climbing down from sunrise peak.
In the bay below Ilchulbong is a headquarters of sorts for haenyeo (which literally translated means sea women), the famous female divers of Jeju. These women, dive to collect shellfish, descending to depths of 20 metres for a few minutes at a time. They don’t use oxygen tanks, preferring to free dive, which leads to their signature high-pitched whistle they make when they break the surface. Haenyo, once known as the breadwinners of Jeju, work in co-operatives, sharing their catch and pay with one another. Their prowess led to a matrilineal society where men would stay at home and look after the children and the women worked (almost unheard of in such a patrilineal, Confucian society like Korea). Haenyo were famed as the mermaids of Jeju and in popular western media, were often portrayed as young sea nymphs, diving naked or at least topless, a Korean version of the dusky maidens of Polynesia popularized in the 19th Century. In reality, most of the haenyo are now grandmothers with few young recruits joining the ranks as diving is dangerous and jobs in tourism are better paid. Unfortunately, we missed the small show that some of the haenyo put on every day for tourists. The sea was too rough, even for these hardy women.

On the left; the fantasy and on the right: the reality of haenyo, Jeju's famous women divers, most of whom are now well past 50.
Conquering Hallasan was Brian and myself’s goal for our last full day on Jeju. Hallasan’s peak is 1950 metres above sea level, and it dominates the Jeju landscape, visible from most anywhere on the island (there’s a saying that Hallasan is Jeju and Jeju is Hallasan). Hallasan would complete my trifecta of the tallest three mountains in South Korea (Seoraksan and Jirisan being the other two). The walk up Hallasan is relatively easy, with its gently sloping flanks, typical of volcanoes of this sort. Along the way, you could catch glimpses of roe deer through bamboo and shrub, and see eagles, woodpeckers and crows flitting through and above the deciduous forest. At regular points, you can stop at huts to have a drink (you can even buy beer and soju) and share kimbab and stories with other hikers.  I met more foreigners here than on other hikes around Korea, a noisy group of students from the Americas (North, Central and South) and a German scientist returning home from a sabbatical in New Zealand. Hiking in Korea is a communal event, as you want in long lines to make the final push for the summit.

Getting in line for the final push to the top.
Hiking is one of those situations that draws people closer together, as if a bond has been made by all those who have conquered or are trying to conquer the mountain. Even normally reticent Koreans were calling out words of encouragement and greeting us, both in Korean and English, the frequency increasing the closer we got to the top. The final assault to the peak is on wooden boardwalks, made to limit the damage that the numerous hikers make to the delicate ecosystem. Cute Asiatic chipmunks play in the trees and rocks alongside the boardwalk, staying a careful few metres away from the hikers. At the top is a large crater, Baengnokdam, 3 kilometres in circumference, a reminder that this is a volcano, albeit one that has been dormant for over a thousand years. It’s a pretty sight, partially filled with water, with hardy pink  azalea flowers growing in other parts. Crows are the only other living things you can see at the top apart from people and they compete acrobatically to win the scraps given out and left behind by the hikers.

The crater lake and azaleas.

If you live in or are planning to visit Korea, you have to visit Jeju to make your own mind up on the merit on it being listed as one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World. Koreans will ask if you have visited Jeju or have plans to. It’s best to say yes, otherwise you will be told exactly what you are missing out on by. Ignore all of the comparisons and hyperbole and just take it for what it is, an enjoyable three or four day excursion from mainland Korea.