Africa is the home of the dirt road. And all dirt roads lead somewhere. Not all, in fact very few, and being honest I cannot think of another, will make you go ‘wow’ when you reach the end. Not all dirt roads though lead to Phinda Private Game Reserve.
Forgive me for waffling and stuttering but with Phinda it is very difficult to know where to start. Maybe at the main lodge? This is where your safari will begin and where you will be greeted with a cool fruit juice cocktail and a team of staff. A friendly, welcoming, enthusiastic and knowledgeable team. There is an incredible and instant relaxed feeling within the main lodge. From the comfy sofa you will see a simple but stunning mix of polished floors, dry stone walls, exposed timber polls and thatch. Flat surfaces and walls are decorated with Zulu, clay, wooden, woven and grass, bowls, plates and baskets.
Guests rooms are simply first class. Constructed as per the main lodge and decorated with similar artefacts along with framed prints and Zulu bead work. Spacious is an understatement. The bedroom contains a seating area with coffee table and two double couches. The bathroom has twin sinks, shower a central bath tub and there is a separate toilet. After a soak there is a choice of robe or sarong to relax in.
Beyond the sliding glass doors is a wooden deck with a private plunge pool, sun loungers and an outdoor shower. Beyond the deck there is the view across tree tops into the bush and beyond to rolling hills and mountains.
Lunch in the lodges’ main restaurant presented many choices. Feta & onion rolls, venison with balsamic marinade, spinach & avocado, lentil babotie with sambals, mushroom quiche. All this served with salads and breads with the chef on hand to advise and serve. No choice here was a bad choice.
Over afternoon tea we were introduced to our personal ranger and game guide Donald. Another key team member who would be our driver for the afternoon, evening and early morning game drives. He was keen to know if we had any special interests or if there was anything we specifically wanted to see. I can’t believe I said what I said. I did at least start with “anything, I am happy to go with the flow”. Before I said it “cats”. Malusi was introduced by Donald and he was to be our tracker seated on the bonnet mounted seat. I had never been on a game viewing vehicle with a tracker seated like this. It not only enhances the experience it works. Within a few minutes Malusi had spotted elephant spoor (footprints) and then the elephant himself. Donald stopped to allow Malusi to leave his venerable seat and join him in the vehicles passenger seat. A rule to be followed when in the proximity of any potentially dangerous big game. The second rule here, due to the large bull elephant being in must, was that we stayed at least fifty metres from him. A rule I am more than happy to be adhered to.
I will take credit for our next sighting, a large bird, spotted through a gap in a thorn tree. As Donald reversed a stunning, very large, martial eagle came into view. Perched on a dead tree perfected framed by surrounding lush green foliage.
After a radio message we departed the eagle and made our way off road through quite dense bush. Under instruction from our guides we ducked, leant to our right and then our left to avoid overhanging thorn laden branches. Our reward for our ducking and weaving was a pride of four lions. A mother with adolescent son and two daughters. And lions being lions they did what lions do for around twenty hours a day. They lay there, flicked their tales at flies, occasionally rolled over, and slept. It was agreed we should find somewhere to take refreshments and come back to the lions once darkness began to fall.
An hour later we were hunting the now wide awake lions in near darkness. They had come to life and moved off into the bush. Even with Malusi’s spotting skills and a powerful lamp we had lost them. Focusing on the lamps beam we were all startled by two nightjars as their wings flashed white as they flew passed our vehicle at speed. It was time to make our way back to the lodge.
Dinner this evening was in the outdoor boma. Soft warm sand under foot, flaming torches, a large open fire, candles on tables and stars above. A perfect setting for another first class meal offering many choices. Butternut pumpkin soup was my first choice, followed by, homemade boereowors, and roast fillet of beef, potatoes and seasonal vegetables to follow. The duck the chicken and the aubergine curry were difficult to turn down. Desert, even for a non desert eater, could not be turned down.
Simon Naylor, Phindas conservation manager, had joined us for dinner. The reserve its self, although only established in 1991, is a huge story of success. We listened and discussed the benefits of how this misused farmland had been re-established into the pristine state it can be seen in today. Partnerships with the neighbouring communities have played a major part in the reserves development and expansion. It has also meant that money generated through ecotourism has been used to provide schools, clinics and other communal facilities. Not to mention creating over three hundred jobs. This in turn has seen the re-introduction of many species of wildlife that includes one of the most successful cheetah breeding projects in southern Africa.
An evening of conversation, great company and fine food also contained entertainment. This was in the form of traditional Zulu singing and dancing. It started with a ‘happy birthday’ to a fellow guest and ended in shrieks and the stamping of feet into the sand.
5:00 a.m. arrived quickly and after an early morning wake up call we were escorted to the main lodge to meet up with Donald and Malusi. Guests are always accompanied by a member of staff when walking around the camp in hours of darkness.
Before the sun had risen we were driving out for the last time. We passed small herds of Buffalo that were still lying where they had slept. A family of giraffe only briefly stopped browsing as we passed. Their very young calve still had its umbilical cord hanging down.
It was not long before we came across proof of the successful cheetah breeding programme. Firstly a beautiful female laid in short grass. She was panting heavily in the early morning sunlight. Maybe she had had a failed early morning hunt? Next we came across a mother and son. They to were stretched out and taking things easy as the sun began to warm the earth. The young male still had his fluffy mane showing his youthfulness.
Pulling up at one of the reserves dams we sat and watched a pod of near submerged hippos. Snouts, eyes and ears were all that showed above the water line. Younger members of the pod dropped below the surface before resurfacing. This seemed to cause grunts of disapproval from the more senior pod members.
The sightings had been coming thick and fast all morning. The grande finale came in the form of black rhino. A mother and son browsing together. As we were up wind of them and their eyesight is poor they were remarkably relaxed. Only the calls of yellow billed oxpeckers alerted the pair to our presence. The oxpeckers were busy feeding on the backs of the rhino and paying particular attention to an open sore on the mothers flank. I had never seen these rare and critically endangered mammals at such close proximity. This was yet another very special encounter and a perfect end to our time with Donald and Malusi.
There was time for one last meal before our departure. Breakfast was another lavish spread including local pineapple and mango, cereals, continental cheeses and cold meats. I opted for a full a full English with a pot of tea. Sitting in the open restaurant enjoying yet another superb meal I looked across the reserve and reflected on what had been a truly memorable stay.
Phinda is known as ‘seven worlds of wonder’ due to the seven distinct habitats it contains. It is also an award winning destination. It has a team of dedicated staff and a wealth of flora and fauna. In Zulu, Phinda, translates into ‘The return’. I very much hope to do so.