Thursday, December 19, 2019

Phinda Private Game Reserve

Travelling from Durban past fields of sugarcane, rural villages and eucalyptus plantations on the N2 north, we took the glide off to the Hluhluwe Village, on our way to the &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve's Forest Lodge. Immediately we were experiencing a more rural Africa. The village vibrant with roadside traders and throngs of people. From Hluhluwe Village, into a section of pineapple farmland, the chosen crop for this area, then rural villages interspersed with bushveld. Here numerous private sanctuaries for our indigenous wildlife flourish.

With a left and a right, we came to the entrance gate to the local community's Manyawana Game Reserve, the greater Phinda Private Reserve. This is amongst the largest private protected areas in Zululand. With the exceptional management skills, Phinda is possibly one of the best venues for guests to enjoy experiencing the very diverse fauna and flora of this special nook of Africa. A well established and controlled reserve, Phinda offers the epitome of a true wildlife experience, giving guests close-up and interesting sightings, dependent on their individual wish-list.
With careful interaction with the game over the years, the animals have become relaxed in a 'game vehicle sighting', tolerating the open vehicles with their load of admiring visitors, happily triggering away on their cameras, recording such special memories. This responsible interaction is strictly controlled by the very informative, experienced rangers and trackers conducting the early morning and afternoon guided game drives.

The gate guard checked our details, confirmed our reservation with the Lodge, then with a smile gave us directions to Forest Lodge. Savannah bushveld greeted us from within the fence, then into the very rare and fragile sand forest, with its special offering of vegetation. A relic of coastal dune forest, separated approximately a million years ago, as the sea slowly retreated eastward, has evolved into a unique forest ecosystem.  Lebombo wattle trees, rare indigenous euphorbia and orchids, with resident mammals such as red duiker, suni and the coastal red bush squirrel Paraxerus palliates. It is also a well known birding area for species such as the seldom seen African Broadbill, Eastern Nicator and Neergaard's Sunbird. We were fortunate to see some raptors here too. This is a Longcrested Eagle.

Described as a Tropical Dry Forest, distinct from all evergreen forests in South Africa. Sand Forest is a dry, semi-deciduous type in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal. It is defined by the presence of the canopy dominant False tamboti Cleistanthus schlechteri, along with Tonga quar Psydrax fragrantissima, Small lavender fever-berry Croton pseudopulchellus, Red heart tree  Hymenocardia ulmoides, Green thorn  Balanites maughamii , some with the bark at the base of their convoluted trunk visibly gnawed by some elusive nocturnal forager, Porcupine! Then the Water ironplum Drypetes arguta, to name a few of the principal ones.
Forest and Vlei Lodges have been sensitively established within this special forest, to make the most of the amazing different bush environment. It's not all bush either, as both Lodges look out onto an extended grass / vlei areas, that often teem with wildlife.

Phinda Forest Lodge

One really needs to appreciate what such a venue offers visitors. We follow the beautiful winding sand track through, amongst and between these tall trees creating a speckled shaded roadway to our destination. There a happy welcoming reception from staff, waving, smiling and profering cloths for a refreshing removal of make-up or travel grime along with a glass of their own iced tea.
Check-in is almost lunch time. We ambled to the expansive main lodge building and to a table on the raised deck overlooking the grasslands &Beyond.

Drinks and a delectable luncheon to suite all tastes from the comprehensive a la carte menu,

before being guided to our delightful suite through the sandy forest walkways, with nyala nonchalantly browsing along the way, looking dolefully with enormous bright eyes, as we pass. Now these 'chalets' are not of the norm one would expect of a luxury wildlife venue. Raised above the forest floor, so as not to disturb the integrity of the undergrowth, these extremely comfortable glass houses offer the incumbents the most incredible, very private  forest vistas.

To get the real feel of being in the bush the veranda has open access to this enthralling interesting backdrop. Whilst sitting there after a game drive we had a couple of the beautiful squirrels scampering up and down and about on the vines and branches offering a display that would make the Cirque du Soleil trapeze troupe green with envy. The vibrant to and froing of forest birds, almost too flitting for us to I.D. with our untrained eyes, but adding so to that wonderful ambience. Topped by a small herd of nyala Tragelaphus angasii with young, slowly munching past.

Our bags all delivered to our room, our reception manager defining the various light switches, air-conditioner and fan controls, locating the hair dryer and bar with fridge and tea station. His and hers gum boots, with umbrellas too, in case of inclement weather, we were set to make the most of this escapade.

Gather at the main lodge for teas and cakes, meet our ranger Andrew, then off through the forest to the waiting open game drive vehicles where we met our tracker, Dan the Man, who would hopefully guide us to our quarry. All aboard and off, snaking our way through the dense forest, avoiding the age-old giants so well entrenched in that fragile, sandy soil. An nyala herd, some zebra, then wildebeest, a grey duiker ducking and diving away, a pygmy kingfisher next to the road, no wait two of them. A lizard buzzard with distinctive double striped black beard looking quizzically down at our intrepid crew, from the top of one of the forest giants, and so our game drive proceeded. Into an area of reclaimed farmland, ex pineapple fields now with the indigenous shrubbery making a stoic comeback. And there, amongst that low-lying mass of vegetation lay two black maned lion. We had to 'off road' to get closer to them. As we approached so one roused and began vocalising. I have heard this deep roar, seemingly emanating from the very depths of this felines body, on a number of occasions. Their particularly strong vocal cords enable their method of communication to rise to around 114 decibels, that is loud. Here we were right up close, with this intense vibration penetrating our immediate atmosphere and letting any competitors, along with the nearby pride of lioness with subadult cubs, know just where they were at. Most impressive, it gave me goosebumps!

We enjoyed these most magnificent felines as they became mobile. Then off to find more, with a sundowner stop to fire up the participants in anticipation of a spotlight lit drive back to Forest Lodge and dinner. 

These evening drives often reveal nocturnal animals and birds, the genet, hyena, night jars, owls  and often the more secretive animals such as leopard, porcupine and aardvark. There is a project at Phinda whereby the hyena are being monitored by means of a specialised team supported by camera traps set throughout the reserve. Another new research on a species, is the reintroduction of Pangolin with monitoring. Also principally nocturnal, these have been tagged to assist in relocating and following their activities. A fairly recent research project here was Phinda's Panthera research, here leopard were the target animal, with a very successful project completed, soon to be reinitiated once more.
Since our previous visits, the greater Manyawana Game Reserve has been enlarged somewhat, to nearly 29,000 ha, a sizeable area able to support the full spectrum of historic animals found here in the 1800's. Phinda is isiZulu for the translocation (of the wildlife) back to the area. To 'repeat' the diversity that was here.
So with a lantern lit walk back to the central facility and dining area alfresco, to drinks and dinner. We had an inkling of what was on offer for dinner at lunch. A blackboard with the dinner menu thereon inscribed, stood proud. This, I would say, to initiate salivation of the expected meal and to warn guests of what was to come, this to afford the opportunity to request an alternative, should there be any special dietary requirement, such is the standard of service with &Beyond.

The camp is not fenced with only a high wire exclusion zone electrified 'fence', primarily to keep elephant out of the immediate area. This primarily to stop any possible destruction of the vegetation within the camp precinct. As an added benefit there is the safety of guests to account for too. As animals of a lesser stature are able to enter the area under the wire strands, consequently 'security' is required to walk guests back to their rooms. Interesting, as the light is shone this way and that, lighting up a pair of reflective eyes here, a retreating flicking tail of white there, up the stairs, slide the mosquito netted doors and to our turndown.
A 05h00 wake-up call for us to meet at the central station by 05h30 for our game drive departure at 05h45. Being early risers, we were up, showered and enjoying a hot cuppa from the tea station on the deck, listening to the dawn chorus, when the phone rang.

There is an indoor shower , but if you walk through that, its out to one set in the forest openess.

No 'security' needed on the way to departure as the dawn had arrived, with our being able to see deeply into the tangle of trees, shrubs and vines in that glorious crepuscular light for any ambush.
Slowly our fellow guests arrived for the laid out refreshments, then off to the waiting vehicles. We had dipped on the small pride with cubs the previous evening, so we unanimously agreed to see if we could locate them. After a bushveld meander producing some more of what Phinda is about, with supportive information from our entertaining guide Andrew, whilst driving to the area where they were last sighted. We, well our tracker, Dan, located the gathering of felines out in the scrub. How he saw them? Well that is what trackers do.
Off road once more, slowly approaching the recumbent leo's. An ear here, a yawn there, slowly they revealed themselves.

Now contrasting behaviour. Some fun as the young one's bit mum's tail, wrestled with a sibling, unknowingly gleefully entertaining us, making us feel part of their enjoyment of life. Was that a smile, a wink?

Loads of traversing, chatting and sightings. A refreshment debus for Amarula liqueur, hot chocolate and coffee, to swill down the variety of snacks set out on the table, So that's what Dan is pouring into the mug.

That is the set daily interaction provided by most Lodge venues, back to camp , breakfast and then guests normally take it easy at camp, enjoying the swiming pool, the camp bush, curio shop and to chill. Phinda add a number of possible excursions to that period between breakfast and departure on the afternoon into the evening guided game drive.
One can opt to take an excursion to the coast, to an African village, an aerial flip, These would be at an additional cost.  Rangers can offer guided walks, generally after breakfast on a multiple night stay.
Lana and I wanted to see the fairly recent soft refurbishments, as well as a Lodge I had never visited in Phinda. We were taken to Homestead. Well, what an amazing sole use venue.

Phinda Homestead Lodge

Lounging area

Bar and snack station

TV and Video Room

One of the bedrooms overlooking the nearby waterhole which is a popular drinking spot for the full spectrum of wildlife in the reserve, birds included. There was a fish eagle perched on a dead tree vantage point when we arrived.

An en suite bathroom with a view of the water

Children's bunkbed room with en suite bathroom


Sunken braai / fire pit, overlooked by the veranda bar

The large swimming pool

From there we popped into the nearby Vlei Lodge, but with the camp's chalets all occupied, we were not able to have a look inside these. The changes to the central area were however impressive.

Phinda Vlei Lodge

Deck dining venue

Vlei's fire pit and Vlei beyond

Phinda Mountain Lodge
Across to Phinda Mountain Lodge. A friendly welcome, our katunda removed from our vehicle and translocated to our suite, the car spirited away to a parking out of sight. So many improvements here, I love the care and attention to detail made. Again, primarily a soft refurbishment with some structural changes.

Bathroom with outside shower - indoor toilet and shower on the right

The central reflection is from the indoor shower glass

The chalets had a 'dressing room' wall behind the headboard removed, this opening up the chalets to their real large footprint. Improvements to the main venue was the relocation of the bar area making for a more convivial social hotspot. The curio shop / reception expanded with loads of appropriate goodies, the dining area had a service counter installed. Quite an interesting feature. There were Panini, toasted ciabatta with a wide choice of filler offered, a chef would then prepare this to one's liking. Breakfast had a waffle iron there, with a chef to produce a preferred choice, (special attention here for the younger set with marscmallows and all sorts of kiddie favourites) another day it would be pancakes, I would guess sweet and savory. The following luncheon would have the wood fired pizza oven producing an array of those round discs, cut with a round blade into triangles, thankfully not into a square box, but rather a round prewarmed dinner plate providing a square meal.


New swimming pools, gym and Spa.
The school holidays had begun. Phinda Mountain proved to be particularly child friendly. From the fun swimming pools, the special meal options and guided game drives. There is even a family suite close to the main lodge swimming pool.

Here we met Pete and Mr M, our ranger and tracker who briefed us, checking on our preferences for sightings. Carl, Alexa, Lana and I, the guest team on the afternoon gamer drive, were keen to merely see what this southern sector of the park could offer, letting them know that we had had excellent sightings of lion, so excluded chasing after the prides in the southern sector.
Pete decided to take us onto the Getty side of the reserve, here, an excellent possibility of finding cheetah along with a wide variety of game. En route we stopped at a rather active watehole.

The concentration of game when we were there in early December, seemed to be more abundant than the northern sector. On a particularly wide-open plains area, there was something to see in every which way one looked.

We dipped on the cats but saw pretty much all of the balance of high-profile animals along with an abundance of 'plains game', including a large - shall we join the fun - and call them, a large 'tower' of giraffe.

Spring and loads of young keeping close to mum.

 And so the exploring and game viewing continued with afternoon and early morning excursions. The joy of these open vehicle guided game drives is the unobstructed close-up viewing of the animals.

The rangers and trackers are particularly responsible within the &Beyond environment, having had exemplary training and experience. Safety is paramount, even for themselves. In a 'dangerous animal' sighting, the tracker will transfer to the passenger front seat and relinquish his vulnerable frontal tracker position on the special seat mounted on the bonnet. This happened at both the lion and elephant sightings, both were in close proximity to our vehicle. In a safe area we all debus for refreshments, anyone for Amarula?

This particular type of private lodge experience offers first time, as well as seasoned wildlife visitors, possibly their most incredible game viewing. Over the years Lana and I have enjoyed the most amazing sightings at various &Beyond venues, always with the added benefit of knowledgeable guides and trackers, along with the most incredible housekeeping, front of house personnel, as well as general lodge staff.

The main lounge

The standard of the equipment, decor, softs, down to the cutlery, crockery and general utilities is excellent. Imagine beautifully crafted French Laguiole cutlery for meals, beautifully sharp knives. Then there are, well, so many quality items, one needs to see for one's self to properly appreciate.

&Beyond are particularly innovative in adding a variety of different styled refreshment stops on game drives, breakfasts or dinners. We had inclement weather when there, so the set up Boma dinner had to revert to the dining room.
What a lovely touch. Time to leave, we checked out, had our gate pass stamped, then wandered down to the carpark where our vehicle was waiting, luggage loaded and ready to go. Our butler for the duration of our stay at Phinda Mountain, handed us a paper carry bag with the most delectable 'padkos' and bottled water in glass.
&Beyond is constantly upgrading and refurbishing their various lodge venues. On leaving Phinda Mountain Lodge, staff arranged for Lana and I to pop in at Phinda Rock Lodge and see the latest upgrades. Well expanded decks, a colour change, opening up of a rooftop dining area, along with furniture and decor changes, beautifully done.

One of the chalet's entrance

For such an incredibly good wildlife venue which offers really good sightings I do strongly recommend that guests choose to stay for a minimum of three nights and rather four. This, so that the possibility of seeing a full spectrum of the various animals in the park can be properly enjoyed. The quality of the sightings is generally so good, so seeing a vast variety well is particularly special.

Phinda Game Reserve has its own tarred runway with SA Airlink having regular flights into the Park.

All photographs and opinions are by Jeremy and Lana Williamson

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