Gathered around the bar at Wendy’s Country Lodge, there are over a dozen of us enjoying pre-dinner drinks. Our host is getting everyone together for informal introductions. Paul and I, friends, and now road-trip companions, are last to join. The first thing we notice on entering is the change of temperature. The blistering outside heat, as hot as I have experienced in Zululand, is replaced by the cool air-conditioned atmosphere. Gavin waits to be joined by his wife, and fellow host Jenny, then proceeds to go round the room and introduce everyone by name. There is an art to this and if you struggle with names you will really appreciate it. Paul and I awkwardly raise our hands to the small crowd in recognition of our names being called out. I love a good story, especially telling one with a touch of humour, but I am a little nervous of what I think is coming. I crack open another ice-cold beer to ease the situation.
Gavin regains everyone’s attention and points me out again. I now know what is coming. “Mark, I am going to tell everyone the story of how we met” he shouts, eyes wide, big smile, excitement written on his face. I raise my beer to him. “Driving along a narrow dirt road, my game viewer full of guests, I was confronted by a huge a bull elephant only meters from a small white hire car” I did interrupt him, throwing his flow. But I needed to point out that it was him who directed me to the position I now found myself in. Gavin, earlier in the day, had pointed me in the direction of a lioness in a tree. And yes, you may have already guessed, but that was me in that small white hire car. There were only three things I could see until the arrival of Gavin made it four: A tree in my left rear-view mirror. a steep ravine behind to my right, that my rear wheels were now perilously close to and the rest of my sight was obscured by grey. The grey of elephant skin with the occasional flash of white as his tusks moved up, down and side to side. Gavin, that day, through his actions saved my life. He managed to distract the elephant, a massive, aggressive bull acting under the combined influence of testosterone and hormones, in a state of musth. My last vision of that encounter was dust, a game viewer reversing at speed, and an enormous grey bottom in hot pursuit.
I have kept in touch in touch with Gavin and Jenny since that first adrenalin filled meeting. But I had not stayed with them at Wendy’s Country Lodge for over a decade. After years of messages and chance meetings in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park now was the time to make an effort and visit them properly.
Their lodge is situated in the town of Matubatuba and is a perfect location for exploring not only Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, but also the neighbouring town of St Lucia and the iSimangaliso Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. This part of Zululand is packed with places to visit and things to do and experience. It is a paradise for lovers of wildlife and one of the few places on earth where it is possible in the same day to see elephants and humpback whales, the two largest mammals on land and out at sea. The area offers opportunities to spot Africa’s big 5, plus endangered species such as cheetah and wild dog, and the largest concentration of hippos in Southern Africa. If you are extremely lucky you may even spot turtles on the beaches. And for birders and twitchers sightings can be exceptional. You do not even have to explore alone, the lodge will take you out in one of their vehicles.
On our way to Wendy’s, while in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, we had some amazing sightings and encounters. At one lion sighting we even bumped into Louwrina who works with Gavin and Jenny at the lodge. Zululand is a small, exciting, and friendly, world. If you want to hear the full story of how Gavin saved my life, then you should really plan to visit Wendy’s Country Lodge. You can relax in the hosts immaculate tropical gardens, swim in the pool, dine and on the finest steak (as we did) under the stars. You will be fed, entertained and sleep in comfort, as if you had been saved by your hosts.