There are places I keep returning to, despite having a long list of travel destinations I want to explore. For a number of years, I returned to Buenos Aires drawn to its kinetic energy, decadent, decaying architecture, grass-fed steaks, and the chance to visit with a close friend. And, nothing signals the end of summer for me like my yearly pilgrimage to Maine the last week of August to experience the serenity of the ocean as the summer slips into autumn. And in South Africa, with three visits in nearly seven months, the place I keep returning to is Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal.
The passage of time at Phinda is marked by the number of game drives. At first starting with how many drives you have accumulated until hitting the midway point of the trip and starting the count down of the number of drives left. Mornings begin at 5:00am with a courtesy wake-up call and by 5:30am everyone has gathered for coffee and rusks (almost like biscotti) before clamoring onto the vehicle for a 3-4 hour morning game drive. Mornings are my favorite at Phinda as the sun filters through the thickets and you set off to find the animals. The days begin with so much possibility. At some point during drive, the vehicle stops for a morning coffee break or, in my case, a decadent combination of hot chocolate, coffee, and Amurula (a local liquor similar to Kahlula). After the drive there is breakfast and then a few hours to laze around watching the monkeys frolic outside of your room and antelope drink from the plunge pool. Next up on the schedule is lunch (never mind that you just ate). And, then it is time for an evening drive, but before you leave there is coffee and sweets just in case you are hungry. Another obligatory stop during drive is for a sundowner at some picturesque waterhole or spot with an amazing vista of the setting African sun. By 8:00pm, you will likely be back at camp for a dinner in the Boma, on the deck, or on the vlei (marsh) under the stars. Then, sleep and repeat. For those who don’t want to spend their days reading by the pool, there are activities – massages, trips to the local Zulu community, to the beach in Sodwana Bay just to name a few of the options.
The game viewing was superb this trip and was all about the lion, although I was lucky enough to see a huge male with what appeared to be a recent warthog kill and mating leopards. This was my first leopard siting at Phinda and since they both occurred at night, I don’t have any photos. Nonetheless, it was incredible to track a pair of leopards through an incredible thicket listening to the racket they make during their frequent, multi-day coupling.
Being spring, many of the animals had babies – newborn nyala, wildebeest, impala, giraffe, and the incredibly comical warthog piglets that I could watch dart around for hours. There were five month old cheetah cubs that poked their heads out from behind long grasses while mum scanned the horizon.
One of my personal favorite critters to watch is the dung beetle rolling its perfect ball of dung and with its mate clinging on down the road. They will bury the ball and lay their eggs inside. Our tracker also spotted a snake that looked identical to a tree branch, but when they pointed a stick in its general direction it puffed up and turned blue stymying identification until we stopped another vehicle to thumb through a snake identification book. After consultation with the other ranger and tracker, it was determined to be a boomslang – one of Africa’s most venomous snakes.
A highlight of this trip was the bush walk. The first time I did a bush walk I had a moment of panic as the vehicle drove off leaving us on top of a hill to hike back to the lodge. With my heart thumping I thought, “why am I doing this? There are lions out here.” I nearly missed the serious set of instructions about following directions, military style hand signals, and no talking – hand clicks being the preferred method of communication. On all of my subsequent visits I have done at least one walk because despite my initial terror it is an exhilarating experience to see animals on foot. Our ranger also talked about the less appreciated components of the bush – trees, grasses, and flowers.
For this bush walk, my ranger upped the ante when he announced we were going to search for elephant bulls, a herd of buffalo, or black rhino tracks and then follow the animal(s) on foot. The goal to approach the animal without it knowing we were there. We ended up tiptoeing through the thicket to catch a glimpse of an elephant bull chomping away on a tree. It was incredible to be that close to an elephant and vulnerable. Yet, I felt utterly safe. Of course, had the ranger mentioned before our walk that earlier in the week they had come across a male leopard on foot, I may have reconsidered.
The reason I had gone to Phinda in November, besides not wanting to spend Thanksgiving in Johannesburg alone, is to see sea turtles nesting on the beach in Sodwana Bay. We departed for the beach after dinner under cloudy skies, although once we arrived the sky cleared giving us the only glimpse of the stars during four nights at Phinda. Unfortunately, the turtles weren’t interested in laying their eggs on the beach that night. We saw a number of U-turn tracks leading out of the sea and then straight back into the ocean. It was a comical trip where the beach vehicle had a flat tire, the gates to the beach were locked, the rains started, and their were no sea turtles, but nature is fickle and part of the adventure is enjoying the experience.
Phinda is run by andBeyond. I have quickly been converted into an andBeyond groupie because of their conservation and community-minded approach and because all of the properties are luxurious and the staff are committed to giving guests outstanding experiences. For a solo traveler, another important benefit is no single supplement – a dreaded levy for anyone traveling alone that usually adds an additional 50% to your final bill. This trip I split my time between the north and south of the reserve something that I would recommend to all visitors in order to best experience the varied landscape. I stayed at two of the smaller, intimate lodges, Rock Lodge and Vlei Lodge. The service was impeccable, the food incredible, and as I mentioned the rangers and trackers at both lodges were the ones who made the entire experience memorable.
I don’t know when I will be back, but I know I will.