THE lions were a surprise. They appeared at the edge of the road, as if from nowhere, two hunting-lean females standing shoulder to shoulder. We stopped the car and there was the usual shuffle for a good line of sight and the right camera lens. Another lioness emerged from the bush, and then a shaggy male sauntered up the road with the insouciance available only to those at the top of the food chain. Then another three. There were seven lions, now, lying on the tar before our incredulous eyes.
"What a nutty nyala," I said, unable to resist the alliteration. Two of the pretty buck, a mother and her offspring, had tiptoed onto the tar.
The lionesses' heads swivelled; their shoulders tensed. The nyala tottered about like high-heeled teenagers.
One of the lionesses gathered herself in crouch position. We watched, breathless, but the hunter thought better of it and flopped back to the road. She yawned, we sighed.
It was early morning in the thick bush typical of the landscape that was once Zulu King Shaka's hunting grounds. Now, more mundanely, it is known as the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve.
About 45 minutes later, after lolling on the road for almost all of that time the pride, many of them licking wounds we presumed came from a night-time hunt, disappeared silently into the bush, raising barks from nervous baboons.
When we arrived at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi's Hilltop camp the day before (it's a 280km drive from Durban, 700km from Johannesburg) a troop of the endangered Samango monkeys - every bit as cute, and pesky, as their vervet cousins - was there to greet us. The monkeys clattered through the trees, picking fruit while keeping a keen eye on the boxes we were unpacking as we settled into one of the older self-catering units. The camp - camping is not allowed anywhere in the park - was extensively rebuilt and enlarged in the early 1990s and now offers a range of accommodation, from a luxury lodge to a variety of self-catering units. All are serviced daily. While cooking was impossible in our unit, this was hardly a problem. We braaied every night but one and there is a well-appointed, and exquisitely clean, communal kitchen close by. However, I was puzzled that the cleaning products here and in other state-run parks are not "eco-friendly", and there are no dedicated recycling bins. Shouldn't these places be taking the lead on this?
The night we didn't braai we had supper in the camp restaurant, which provides a delightfully old-school buffet, and, in the morning, a full English breakfast.
It was Easter, the weather was generally warm, and Hilltop has a lovely salt-treated swimming pool, which we enjoyed after cajoling from our six-year-old, who was delighted that nyala picked their way past our rondavel every day.
She also enjoyed the Umbhombe Forest Trail that slinks along the side of the Hilltop camp. It's an easy 30-minute stroll dotted with information boards, from which we learned Hluhluwe gets its name from the umHluhlue (Dalbergia armata), a spiky, rope-like vine, the bark, leaves and pods of which are sought-after black-rhino food.
Walking the trail, we heard a rustle in the undergrowth and caught sight of the hindquarters of the elusive blue duiker, the smallest of the antelope family (35cm at the shoulder).
The iMfolozi side is easily visited from Hilltop as a day trip (Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is really two conjoined parks), but we would enjoy having more time to explore the fabulous vistas along the Black iMfolozi River and decided that if we go back to the park, we would rather stay on the iMfolozi side.
It appeared to us the game viewing is easier there because the bush is less dense. Around almost every bend was another animal. Elephants cavorted in the river, warthogs rooted for grubs and birds zipped from tree to tree.
We saw lots of rhino on both sides, once being forced to stay put for almost an hour because a large male rhino was standing in the middle of the road, eyeing us balefully. Coming around a dusty bend on the iMfolozi side of the park, we saw a rhino couple snuggling under a tree. Given the onslaught against South Africa's rhinos - more than 200 already lost to poaching this year - it was especially wonderful to see so many in the park, even if the sightings conjured up thoughts of those lost.
iMfolozi's Mpila camp has self-contained three-bedroomed cottages that have a cook on hand to prepare food supplied by guests, self-catering chalets and a tented camp, and there are several bush lodges across the greater park. A flamboyant flutter caught our eyes. We had been watching a baby kudu cavort in the morning sunshine. The flutterer turned out to be a long-tailed paradise whydah, a gorgeous bird with broad, elongated black tail feathers (up to 36cm long).
Another eye-catcher is the crested Guinea fowl, whose pied polka dots are finished off with a fabulous mop of unruly curls atop its head.
The park is yet another of South Africa's excellent birding sites, with several types of kingfisher, lots of raptors and several of the lovely bee-eaters sharing the trees with the tiny and exquisite blue waxbill.
As the morning mist rose from the Hluhluwe River, we heard a hippo grunt and watched a purple heron and a Goliath heron stand Beefeater-still above the river. We had opted to cook an al fresco breakfast on a skottel hired (R15) at the Maphumulo picnic site. It was, as it is always, delightful to eat outside. The autumn sun warmed our backs, birds twittered and squabbled, crocodiles floated as silent as logs and a peaceful easy feeling settled on us.
On the drive back to Hilltop, to pack and leave, we passed rutting giraffe and a herd of buffalo covering themselves with mud against the sun's sea ring mid day rays.
We stopped to watch zebra foals alternate between play and running back to their mothers for a suckle, and gazed wistfully at the lovely road that turns along the park fence, rising up into the hills and offering wide-angle views that show off Zululand's beauty.
And we decided that we will probably be back.