Tuesday, December 21, 2010

& Beyond Phinda Mountain Lodge

Lana and I were looking forward to returning to what has to be the finest private game reserve in Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal for viewing wildlife – the & Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve!

A comfortable 3 hours drive and we arrived at the gates of the Reserve. This reserve is a consolidation of a number of private game reserves and property belonging to the local community. Phinda Private Game Reserve 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. This fascinating variety of landscape and vegetation shelters an abundance of wildlife, including not only the Big Five but many rarer and less easily spotted species, such as the elusive cheetah or the scarce black rhino, all of this contained in an area of 23 000 hectares (56 800 acres). The seven habitats occurring in Phinda are primarily responsible for the rich diversity of species that occur. Always popular are the big cats and Phinda has become renowned for its close viewing of lion, cheetah and less frequently, leopard. It is not only cats that are special here - recently reintroduced black rhino are now regularly seen along with white rhino, elephant, hippo, buffalo, giraffe, zebra and a number of antelope species. We were privileged to see three black rhino during our short stay.

“Phinda” meaning “Return” in Zulu, is an outstanding example of successful, responsible tourism. Initially restoring the misused farmland to its present more pristine state - this started over 16 years ago when initial restocking with the Big Five and other wildlife was undertaken - and developing this game park into an award-winning ecotourism destination. By returning land to its ancestral owners, Phinda’s pioneering land-claim settlement, proves that if the communities surrounding conservation areas enjoy the benefit of ecotourism, they too will support ongoing conservation and biodiversity of game reserves for the benefit of future generations. It’s happening here.

Phinda Mountain Lodge has recently enjoyed a major transformation. A total revamp of the main public areas as well as each of the twenty five chalets having been rebuilt. Each has a private plunge pool and is very comfortable. The open breakfast / lunch terrace has been replaced with a large enclosed dining room. Large glass doors that slide open allow for expansive panoramic views over the bush. One gets the best of choices here – enjoy the views without one of a Lodge’s worst problems, keeping the resident monkey and baboon populations from becoming a dangerous threat to diners.

A bottle of iced water, my camera and we clambered aboard the Land Rover and off into the bush. This is the time of year when so many of the animals have their young. Impala and warthog babies in profusion and all so seemingly vulnerable, lined the road. Giles (our guide) took us to a waterhole where we found a young white rhino calf and mum enjoying the black goo, thankfully the calf staying out of the deeper stickier areas. Another three white rhino were relaxing in the sun hoping the drying mud would assist with the removal of annoying exoparasites. Excitement, a black rhino bull had been found a short distance away! We arrived to find a rather relaxed large bull more interested in settling down for a rest than having to pander to a vehicle load of enthusiastic tourists. A quick photo shoot then enough, and he lay down right close to the vehicle and closed his eyes - so much for its bad tempered reputation.

What next, a pride of lion? Indeed, and as the light began to fade so the two large males and two lioness started to show signs of life. They were more interested in their own relationships and we were ostracized from their attention. A brief attempt at coupling by the dominant male with reciprocal flirting showed that more cubs could soon be on the way. There are two other lioness in the area, each with cubs, one litter very young and only recently being allowed to be visited by the rangers with guests. Our attempts at securing a sighting of them at their den proved fruitless.

One of the highlights of being in Africa is that one may so often, comfortably, dine in the open under the stars and tonight was dinner in the boma. A fire and flaming lamps welcomed us to a lively crowd merrily recounting their experiences of the day over a glass or two. The meals at Phinda Mountain Lodge were particularly good.

Cheetahs were on the menu for the next day and we drove immediately to the area presently preferred by some. Our experienced ranger / tracker team soon has a coalition of two males in sight. They were recovering from having unsuccessfully chased a young waterbuck. Further into this open area and Giles found two younger female cheetahs for us. These too were hungry and on the prowl. We followed them for a while before returning to the first two who had seemingly recovered and were soon up and after a young warthog. Missing the young one warthog in the long grass they retired when mum turned on them with her rather formidable tusks and reputation for fending for her young.

Slowly we drove and saw a wide variety of game, some wonderful birds, Martial Eagle, Blackbreasted Snake Eagle, European Roller, etc. The migrant birds were here adding to the already numerous resident population. More animals, birds and flora, interesting information, amazing tales and company on the vehicles then retire to the Lodge for gourmet meals and time to relax and reflect.

One of our best experiences we had was when we were called to a black rhino and calf sighting. On approaching we found a rather shy cow and calf some 80 meters in the bush and only barely visible. We could not approach as she was inclined to retreat, so Giles turned off the vehicle engine and we sat and waited. Curiosity got the better of her and we had what has to rate as a world class black rhino sighting. She slowly walked right up to the front of the vehicle, had a myopic good look and smell, her calf in tow. She then slowly turned, seemingly reassuring her calf and then walked calmly off and disappeared into the thickets. I must admire the vast knowledge and experience these rangers have - Giles was particularly good at being able to read an animal’s intended action. Here he was relying on a Black Rhino’s inquisitiveness without allowing us to alarm the animals – “keep still and dead quiet” even “no photos” - the cameras were too noisy in this situation! On another occasion two lionesses approached one another. “Watch this, she is going to leap on her sister” and she sure did!

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