I was fortunate to visit the Phinda Private Game Reserve during early December. This was a belated birthday present, but a number of factors played a role in choosing the date. There had to be availability of course, and then reservations could only be made at very short notice – 24 hours before taking up the occupation! What was good about this short notice thing was I then had a chance to look at the weather forecasts for the next two to three days prior to making the reservation, and unfortunately this is where things fell apart a bit. As from early November the weather seemed to be against me. My primary reason for going was for photography, and to complicate matters more, my main aim was to photograph cheetah and black rhinos – quite a tall order, but I was confident that Phinda could deliver! However, I did not want a cloudy sky or rain - the light I hoped for had to be perfect, with blue skies and low sun. I was maybe a little too demanding, but at short notice, with the benefit of weather forecasts, I felt that this could be done. Little did I know that the best laid plans of mice and men…
Every week I was diligently checking availability and weather, and as the month of November grew longer, so nothing changed - 40%, 50% and more prediction of rain (and you don’t have rain without clouds) for all weekends in November. The first weekend in December looked great, but then I hit a snag – that was the one weekend that I could not go. So, what about the next weekend of the 8th to 11th December? The following weekend after this was a long weekend and I had a tour at this time in any event, and Phinda was pretty full from then on. January, February and March was just too hot for me, so it was now or never (Never…? too strong a word!). The weekend of the 8th to 11th December would have to do, so I duly made my reservation. I also would have liked to have stayed at just one single lodge for the duration of my stay, but with the COP17 conference in Durban coming to an end at this time, this was not possible, so I stayed the first two nights at the Phinda Vlei Lodge and the last night at the Phinda Forest Lodge.
Phinda is a short three hour drive from Durban and easily accessible to any type of vehicle. Upon arrival I was greeted and shown around Vlei Lodge, before being shown my room. I was also warned that I should keep at least my screen doors closed as there were vervet monkeys about, and they did tend to monkey around a bit, but who listens to these warnings? Whilst setting up my camera to take some photos of the suite (I was in the bathroom at this time), I heard a racket from the adjoining bedroom and rushed through, only to find a monkey helping himself to the wrapped nougat which was on offer. He got away with some nougat and sat in the tree above the room; artfully unwrapping the candy and enjoying it. This of course meant less nougat for me. The suites at Phinda Vlei Lodge are free standing, and fringe the reserve’s unique vlei (wetland) system along the edge of the rare sand forest and are intimately integrated into the surrounding African bush. This lodge comprises six thatched suites which each come complete with a luxurious ensuite bathroom, dressing room, private plunge pool and game viewing deck, all overlooking the grassy vlei.
The public areas consisted of a lounge, an inside dining area for when the weather was bad and an outside dining area for when the weather was good. With the weather conditions as they were, this meant that half my meals were inside whilst the other half were enjoyed outside.
Hereunder some photos of the Vlei Lodge.
The game drives at Phinda Vlei Lodge were usually pretty good, but unfortunately for me they were mostly in bad light. The Friday morning drive was done in some light drizzle and for the afternoon drive I did not even take my camera along, such was the rain. Probably the last drive at Vlei was the “worst” of the four, as we travelled all the way to the furthest reaches of Phinda to find elephant. We did in fact find a herd of about 50 to 60 animals, as well as other general game, but for the four hours that we were out, the light did not play along, so I did not take any photos of these magnificent beasts. We also spent quite a long time during my stay here trying to find leopard, as there was plenty of evidence of their presence by the number of fresh tracks that we found, but apart from one very “small” sighting, we could not find them. I will hereunder detail some of the more exciting sightings that were seen and general animals that were seen on both the Vlei and Forest lodges’ game drives included white rhino, and lots of them, nyala by the ton, reedbuck, impala (and many had lambs that were recently born), zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, baboons, the odd duiker, monkeys, wart hog, buffalo, hippos and more.
Some of the sightings from Vlei Lodge, in no particular order, that stood out for me were the following:
- A lactating lioness laying on top of a mound fully at ease, with an odd yawn every now and then. Her cubs were nowhere to be found, but they should have been fairly close by.
- Two large male lions (and even in reasonably good light) that I was told are the two dominant males of the reserve – a large area for them to cover.
- A black rhino and her sub-adult calf. A few days later we also saw a black rhino and calf and maybe this second sighting was of these same two animals. Phinda has roughly about thirty black rhinos on their property and this highly endangered animal seems to be doing well here – long may it continue. Just on that note, with all the rhino poaching currently being experienced in South Africa at the moment, Phinda have not lost a single rhino to poachers, neither the black or white variety.
- Five cheetahs, made up of two males, one female and two sub-adult cubs. The males were obviously trying to impress the female, but she was having none of them. I must also say that every time one of the males approached the female, the cubs would give voice to their displeasure with strange bird-like mewing sounds (very difficult to put into words, this strange bird-like mewing sound).
- A very young white rhino calf with its mother. This little animal reminded me somewhat of an aardvark, with its large ears and small body. One of those animals that all on the vehicle ooh’d and aah’d about.
- A wildebeest that was trying to give birth, but with little privacy. The baby’s front legs were already protruding from the mother, but every time she settled down to do what had to be done, she was surrounded by more wildebeest from her herd and sometimes even some zebra. We never did see here complete her birth.
- On that same morning we were watching a mother cheetah and her two sub-adult cubs, just lazing about on a termite mound. All of a sudden the mother perked up and looked off into the distance, this intense look soon to be followed by both cubs. What they had seen, and which we saw a few seconds later, was a male lion bearing down upon them from a distance. Needless to say, the cheetah left in a hurry, being chased by the male lion, which never caught them, because we saw these animals again.
- Two male cheetahs devouring an impala lamb. We had found the remains of an impala lamb that had been killed and eaten a short time before we came upon them, just starting on their meal of a second impala lamb in probably as many hours. They had just started and within 20 to 30 minutes it was all over – all that was left of the impala was the bottom bit of four legs, some skin and a few bones. We even watched them crunch their way through the impala’s skull and I suppose a two week old impala still has a soft skull. All this on the afternoon that I did not take my camera!
After my visit to Vlei Lodge, it was off to Phinda Forest Lodge for my last night. Set deep in the heart of a rare and beautiful dry sand forest, the spectacular Forest Lodge fuses architectural design and conservation. The creation of this safari lodge was an exemplary exercise in building eco-sensitive structures with a light footprint (not one tree was felled during construction). Inventively designed in Zulu Zen style, each handcrafted, glass encased suite is a combination of glass, wood and minimalist design incorporating high-gloss wooden floors, richly tactile fabrics and crimson Zulu artefacts. These sixteen private stilted suites each feature luxurious ensuite bathrooms with double vanity hand basins, and viewing decks. There is also a sparkling rim flow swimming pool and lodge sitting areas with expansive viewing decks affording panoramic views of the game-filled plains. What one finds quite a lot of at Forest Lodge is the red duiker, browsing within close proximity to guests.
Hereunder some photos of the suites and general areas of Forest Lodge.
That afternoon I went out with my new guide, Wayne, and we went looking for leopard. We did find a leopard, or more accurately, we found about a ¼ or less of a leopard. No, let me rephrase that, we saw only the tail of a leopard. This animal had crawled into deep undergrowth and only its tail was visible – but it was a leopard sighting. There are obviously quite a few leopards at Phinda, but these are not often seen, being the secretive animals that they are. Had we been prepared to wait there a few hours, we would in all probability have seen the leopard eventually move off, but there were other animals to find.
We also found two male cheetah, and lo and behold, the light was improving, in that the sun was shining, albeit a bit watery, but I did manage to get some half-decent photos of them in various poses. We did learn later from the other guide that was also viewing them that they made a kill (yes, you guessed it – another baby impala) and this was witnessed by the people on the other vehicle - lucky them, unlucky impala. So, as far as I was aware, the score was cheetah 3, baby impala 0! What we later did find was the two dominant male lions, but this was in the dark twilight and they were disinclined to move, so we did not stay with them for too long. The following morning produced quite a lot of general game and again two black rhinos, but again the light let me down, but hey, one does not see black rhino ever day! We also saw the two male lions, but they had followed the leopard’s example of the night before and had ensconced themselves into a deep thicket where they had settled for the day.
Phinda is a superb destination. Set within easy reach of the Indian Ocean coastline and the famous iSimangaliso Wetland Park (St. Lucia) in northern KwaZulu-Natal and is known for its abundant wildlife, diversity of habitats and wide range of activities. Thanks to its coastal rainfall pattern, Phinda enjoys a lush green environment that contains seven distinct ecosystems - a magnificent tapestry of woodland, grassland, wetland and forest, interspersed with mountain ranges, river courses, marshes and pans. With six lodges sharing an area of 23 000 hectares (56 800 acres) guests are assured an exclusive game viewing experience.
If one has the time, and if one has the money, and if one has the passion for wildlife, you can quite easily tailor-make an itinerary to suit your viewing preferences. For example, if cheetah and black rhino are high on your list of animals to see, Phinda is the place to go. If it is leopard that you have to see, Phinda has four sister lodges in the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve which will undoubtedly produce an abundance of leopard, but very, very few cheetah and surely no black rhino. If it is lion, elephant, buffalo and more, either of these areas, i.e Phinda or the Sabi Sands, can take care of this. In fact, depending on what type of animals you want to see, South Africa with its vast expanses can offer you much in terms of wildlife, from the abundant elephant herds of Addo, the marine wildlife off our southern Cape coast, the one hundred and forty seven mammal species of the greater Kruger Park, the dry Karoo and desert regions, the rhino populations in KwaZulu-Natal, the cross-over between Kalahari and bushveld in the Pilanesberg and Madikwe areas, the options are almost limitless, and as for the birding…..we’ll leave this for another time.