South Africa safari

Sunday March 18. Four giraffes towered above the scrub savanna as we approached the entrance to Phinda Reserve.  We were two hours northeast of Durban by car, not far from the coast of the Indian Ocean on the eastern edge of South Africa.

Lisa, Reception at Forest Lodge, Phinda

Struggling to stay awake, we had arrived in Durban, 9:30am after a 90 minute flight from Johannesburg, where we arrived following an overnight flight from Libreville, Gabon.  We dozed on and off during our shuttle from Durban to the reserve, passing immense fields of pineapple and groves of eucalyptus (fueling the paper industry), finally stepping out into the refreshing morning air at the doorstep of Phinda.  The first thing we noticed was we had left the overbearing humidity of Libreville behind us.

Impalas mix with nyalas where the forest transitions to savanna.

Phinda, “the return” in Zulu, is in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, located at the southern end of the Great East-African coastal plain. The Forest Lodge is part of a private game reserve featuring diverse habitat including sand forest, savanna mosaic and wetlands.  Many of the large mammals have been re-introduced from near extinction and are rebuilding populations in the reserve.  Together with &Beyond, an ecotourism enterprise, local community landlords have agreed to preserve this land as wildlife sanctuary into perpetuity.

Wayne, our guide, and Prince, tracker in the Land Cruiser, waiting for a few nyala to cross the track.

We saw impressive results on our first late afternoon game drive, when, after tea and biscuits, we were taken out in the popular Toyota Land Cruiser, customized with the addition of four bench seats and tracker’s seat off the bonnet.  Lisa and I took the rumble seat, a raised rear seat with excellent views all around, though we had to remain vigilant, ducking for low branches and the occasional spider web.

Nyala lamb concealed in tall grass cover, blending in with striped yellow-brown coat.

The most numerous ungulate on the reserve is the nyala, a medium- sized antelope looking somewhat like the sititunga of Gabon.  With white-striped flanks, the females and lambs wear ruddy brown coats.  Nyala rams wear heavier slate-gray coats with shaggy gray manes down their neck and across the back, fringed underbellies, yellowish legs, and heavy, laterally-ribbed spiraling horns.  Nyala were often in mixed herds with impala.  In the sand forest, shy red duikers pranced in the shadows on delicate pencil-thin legs, little antelope with short, back-curved horns, approximately one-third metre at the shoulder.  We came to a pan, a pond of water, where a pod of hippos kept their bubble-eyes on us while remaining submerged.

A pair of cheetahs walking the track in late afternoon.

Through two-way radio, we learned that a pair of female cheetahs were making their way along a boundary road.  As we were already nearby, we repositioned ourselves on a parallel roadway, and minutes later watched as the two cheetahs passed by, barely noticing our presence.  Elegantly sculpted, their sinewy, streamlined bodies were all black spots on tawny, a long swish of tail tipped in a puff of whipped cream.  Their bellies were full, evidence of a successful morning hunt.

Back in the sand forest, a troop of baboons cleared into the bush from the roadside with much barking and coughing, the little ones screaming bloody rebellion as they were disciplined into proper retreat.  Darkness began to fall as Wayne, our guide, together with our tracker, Prince, were now on the trail of a female leopard.

A leopard pauses near the track in the dark of night.

We were all surprised when she suddenly appeared in the illumination of Prince’s torch.  A little nervous, a little shy, she recently survived an illegal snare incident which required a rescue with sedation and the removal of several toes on a front paw.  This potentially disastrous incident was thwarted by careful observation and continual monitoring of wildlife by Phinda rangers.

By 7:30pm, we were headed back to the lodge, so we thought, until we were surprised by rows of lanterns welcoming us to an outdoor bush dinner in the forest.  Beef in a red-wine reduction, pork somehow, and fresh Kingklip, a deep sea fish resembling an eel, were served to perfection along with sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, pumpkin, fresh salad and mocha cake topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Yum!

Bush dinner in the forest at Phinda

A young bull blue wildebeest, sometimes called the brindled gnu.

Monday, March 19. The telephone rang at 5am, signaling the start of another day of game drives, so we meet for tea and biscotti before heading into the bush.  Through the forest and on to the savanna, we are looking to find two male cheetahs that have been seen earlier on the northern savannas.  The day looks to be brilliant.  Sunlight warming the cool morning air infuses the landscape with the scent of grasses and earth and maybe a little elephant dung.  Soon we locate the cheetahs, camped on an elevated termite mound with commanding views of the extensive savanna all around.  They are wary, always on the lookout to avoid conflict with the lion pride sharing their territory.  It becomes obvious that they are settling in for the day, so we observe them for perhaps a half-hour and then head off for the northern boundary of open scrub, passing herds of wildebeest and zebra, and an occasional nyala browsing beneath an acacia.  White rhinos graze off in the distant savanna, resembling boxcars plowing slowly through the grasses.  Several rhinos have a calf at their side, some only a few months old.

Black rhino cow and juvenile calf.

Among the families of white rhino, we locate the rare, endangered black rhino, this one with a juvenile calf.  We manage to get quite close, the curious disposition and poor eyesight of the rhino working to our advantage, and it approaches our vehicle to within metres.  A fatal behavioral trait, when unprotected, for this makes an easy target for poachers.  Phinda has put security measures in place to protect their rhino population.

It is approaching mid-morning, and we return for breakfast, along the way scouting for a herd of elephants passing through the sand forest.  We find tracks across the road, but are unable to locate them.

In sub-Saharan Africa, below and east of the equatorial rain forests, the measure of safari success is determined by locating and viewing the “big five”.  In some circles, it is defined by the degree of danger involved, in hunting for lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, rhinos and elephants.  Since our arrival, we have seen leopard and rhino, and our afternoon game plan will attempt to find lions and buffalo.  We find an afternoon nap during the heat of the day refreshing before our 4pm tea.  Wayne reports lion tracks discovered heading north along a sand track, so we head for the northern savanna.  Before the end of the forest, a flash of color darts through the canopy above, brilliant orange breast, iridescent green back.  A dove-sized Narina’s trogan alights above the cruiser, providing a rewarding glimpse of this secretive forest bird.  In the transition scrub between forest and savanna, we pick up the lion tracks, stopping to have a closer look at the paw-prints, as long as but wider than a human handprint.  Two large males are on the move.  Following the tracks out onto the savanna, Prince narrows the likely location of the two lions to a two-square kilometre mix of scrub and thick grass, so we leave the road and head into the tall grasses, scouting the shade under the acacias for sign of the cats.  After an hour or so of busting around, we pull out to a track and arrive at a fresh buffalo trail crossing into adjacent scrubland.

Cape buffalo, nearly hidden in the tall grass, eyes us warily.

Circling around to the opposite side of the scrub to narrow the location of the buffalo herd, we learn they are still in the scrubland between tracks.  Various trails cross the scrub through the dry meanders, so there we are, back in the bush, on the lookout for buffalo.  The sun sets quickly in the bush, and in the orange glow of twilight we locate the herd just up from their siesta, browsing in the grass, scratching up against the scrub acacia, sniffing the air, a few juveniles in jousting play.  As darkness arrives, we leave them to their thickets and find our way back to the track.  Returning to the sand forest, we begin a new quest to find a large male leopard rumored to be walking the tracks on territorial patrol.  Within 15 minutes, Prince has located the large cat, and we follow him, aided by a torch.

Leopard drinking from a pool in the forest.

Already halfway to the lodge, we divert to observe the leopard for a kilometre or so, waiting patiently while he stops to mark familiar bushes, sits to ponder a smell wafting through the trees, and stops for a cool drink at a pool in the forest.  We finally decide to leave him to his wander in the darkness of the sand forest, returning to Forest Lodge.

Tuesday, March 20. 5:30 am and we are back in the cruiser heading for the open savanna and scrub of the northern perimeter.  A red duiker darts nervously through the understory, a dapple of sunrise splashing across its plump red coat.  We pass elephant sign, both tracks and aroma; a small herd had entered the sand forest in the night and are somewhere close by.  We note several elephant crossings and plan a late morning return in hope of finding them at a forest pool.  The savanna glows in the morning sun, animated by herds of impala, wildebeest and zebra.

We spot another Phinda cruiser parked off the track, an indication that they have spotted something.  We learn that they have found the two male lions we were looking for yesterday, napping in a piece of shade, just metres from the scrub we were searching yesterday.  The two lions are brothers, six years old, and in prime condition.

A pair of lions rest in the shade during the heat of the day.

The rest of the pride, including cubs, are likely tucked away in the bush somewhere nearby, remarks Prince, the lionesses being shy about exposing their cubs.  We spend 40 minutes observing the lions as they define and redefine cat-napping before returning to the forest to check on the progress of the elephant herd.

We hear them before we see them, the loud crashing of limbs and snapping branches, and suddenly there they are, making a mess of the forest; pulling down lianas, bull-dozing small trees, crashing thickets without regard.  Larger than Gabon’s forest elephants, these savanna elephants stand half-again taller, carry heavier, curved tusks, and wear a wrinkled, dusky-brown hide in notable contrast to the smooth, blue-gray hide of forest elephants.  The wrinkling may be due to the lower humidity and less rainfall in this savanna-forest mosaic.  The herd of possibly six elephants were feeding slowly but noisily through this thickly overgrown patch of forest, lumbering in and out of thickets, eventually feeding away and out of view.  Impressive in size, it is surprising how quickly they can blend into the chaos of forest landscape.

We continued back to the Forest Lodge, settling into a relaxing breakfast and leisurely afternoon.

An elephant regards us with caution, and vice versa.

Our plan for late afternoon was shaping into a trek back to the lion site to reconnect as they began their evening hunt.  Passing the home of the resident ecologist, we notice a large bull elephant in the back garden, obviously helping himself to some greens.  We stop for a few moments, reminded of the close elephant encounters we left behind in Gabon.  Continuing along, we soon bump into a convoy of elephants moving along the track in a slow procession, finding ample opportunities to observe their behavior.  At one point, while stopped behind the procession, we discover more elephants breaking out of the bush behind us and sit quietly as they work their way around the cruiser, one choosing a detour through roadside thickets, while another nervously (for all) scuttles past with suspicion, only a few metres between us.

We leave them to their slow journey as the sun begins to set. Entering the savanna, we slow to allow a pair of rhino, mother and calf, to cross the road in the illumination of headlights, moving into scrub thickets for the night.  Within seconds of the crossing, six more rhino are caught in the headlights by the side of the track, their ghostly-gray jostle of confusion in the tall grasses looking more prehistoric than present.  They thunder off into the darkness of scrub, rising dust marking their retreat.

Crossing the savanna, we see another vehicle at the lion site.  In the darkness, illuminated by torchlight, we see the two male lions energized, moving about, testing the air, manes dancing in the twilight breeze.  Off in a distant clearing, perhaps 200 metres beyond, we hear the agitated barking of zebras, the bellowing of wildebeests.  A herd of impalas burst from the scrub, sailing over the track, the rumble of their mass fading into a distant copse of trees.  The two lions break rank, one crossing the track in front of us at a quick, determined gait, parallel to the flight of the impala herd, perhaps looking for a downwind advantage from which to approach.  Lion number two lingers for a minute or two, then strikes out on a similar course, crossing the track, a little slower but appearing alert to the possibly of any impala that might consider doubling back.  We follow lion number two for several hundred metres into the scrub, illuminating his movement with a red-filtered torch, until the lion steals through a thicket to disappear from view.  The outcome of their activities is left to our imaginations, thoroughly charged by the moments we spent in their presence.

Returning to Forest Lodge, the passing night landscape is punctuated by the eye-shine of zebras, wildebeests, impala and nyala.  We once again come across the procession of elephants; they are trekking off across the open savanna, single file, their slow-motion march fading into the black distance barely illuminated beneath the shimmering stars of the night sky.

Wednesday, March 21. We have lobbied for a look at the south region of the park.  It is hilly with narrow riverine forests and scrubby hilltop savannas.  The drive is slightly challenging as the roads are less traveled and more prone to eroded washouts on the steep hillsides.  Enormous spiders, some the size of a thumb with eight long legs, have stretched tightrope webs high over the track, some not so high overhead and so we learn to keep an eye open lest we get wrapped up in the unusually tough silk threads.  We pass nyala feeding in the open forest, and several families of greater kudu, the dominant males sporting towering spirals of horns.  They are the largest of the antelope in Phinda, standing 1.5 metres at the shoulder.  We find an open pool and stop for coffee and crunchies, and are surprised to see a rhino snoozing at the water’s edge.  Lying in a wallow partly submerged in water, it is unconcernedly blowing bubbles with each breath it exhales, a curious sight for such a behemoth.

A herd of impala ewes and lambs scramble across a track.

In the open hilltop savannas, large herds of impala prance out of our way.  Zebra, in groups of 15-20 animals, churn in dazzling, wide circles as we approach, perhaps a response that may confuse a predator.

A small zebra herd lingers in the track.

The views from hilltops across forested valleys are spectacular, and we can see several giraffes feeding along a public throughway a few hundred metres distant; unfortunately for us, the public road is off limits to Phinda cruisers, but by now we are in the thick of wildlife, and a small herd of nearby buffalo provides easy distraction.

Cape buffalo grazing on an open hillside.

We approach the herd as they graze peaceably near the track, and spend some time as they feed through, the older bulls regarding us with suspicion, or is it aggravation?

Closing the loop of our south-side tour, we arrive back at Forest Lodge a little earlier than usual, so that Lisa and I can visit a nearby village to meet one of the elders and gain insight into Zulu daily life, with an added visit to a Sangoma, a traditional healer.

Pila, our guide, drives us to the nearby communities of Mduku, Mnqobokazi and Nibela, where &Beyond has contributed to the schools and hospital, and helps to improve quality of life issues prevalent in many African communities.

A sister of the late village Chieftan welcomes us to the Grandmother's house, the traditional house for receptions and spiritual matters.
A Sangoma, traditional healer in the community, chants and dances to bestow good health upon the spirits.
a Sangoma, a traditional Zulu healer, converses with the spirits.

We meet the sister of the previous chieftain of a community, and she demonstrates the greeting customs of welcoming guests into the community, how the the palm wine is prepared, how it is passed from host to guest, even how people sit in a room.  This, we did as guests, invited to sit in the “Grandmother’s house”, the spiritual center of a family compound that may contain many houses, some for living and some for sacred purpose.  She also demonstrated the clothing styles that are worn by girls and women as they grow to adulthood.  We passed through the community where Pila attended school, noting the changes since his days as a schoolchild, where his “classroom” was taught beneath the big trees still growing and much respected in the new school courtyard.  Our next visit was to a Sangoma, one of the traditional healers in the community.  We sat in the sacred house, where the Sangoma called upon all spirits in the house to be of good benefit and led a dance with chanting accompanied by apprentice Sangomas, to bring good health to those present.  Our last stop was to the Mbhedula Craft Market, to see the quality of the baskets, wood carvings, the handbags, and the jewelry made by the hand of local villagers.  It was an insightful look into village life and the positive impact and commitment to provide reciprocal value between the community and &Beyond.

Tracker, Prince, heads off into the savanna, hoping to locate fresh sign of the lion pride.
Tracker, Prince, heads off into the savanna, hoping to locate fresh sign of the lion pride.

We returned to Forest Lodge in mid-afternoon, and after tea, were ready for our afternoon game drive.  Wayne brought us back to the northern savannas, looking for the lionesses and their cubs, who managed to remain elusive.

A pair of cheetahs rest in the evening sun overlooking a pan.

During our search, we found the pair of cheetahs we had seen in the savanna on our first morning drive, and were now comfortably reclined on a roadway overlooking a water pan, enjoying the evening breeze.  They were relaxed, in no rush to be off hunting, so we spent an enjoyable 40 minutes observing them as the sun set.  Our tracker, Prince, had left earlier in our drive to search for the lionesses on foot, and as the sun set, we felt an urgency to locate him, so we finally broke from our perch to track down our tracker, finding him a few kilometres away with no news on the lion pride.

An early evening break to stretch legs and enjoy cool drinks and snacks in the cooler evening air.

Coming upon a splendid view of the twilight sky across the savanna, we stopped for gin-tonics, beer, nuts and biltong, a cured, spiced meat originating in South Africa.  We surprised a few rhinos as they were crossing the track, and they thundered off into the dusky twilight.

A pair of cheetahs return to the savanna.

Our safari vacation was rejuvenating.  In spite of the early morning call to safari, we felt rested and rewarded with a new approach to wildlife encounters, much different from the challenges of the Gabonese rainforest.  The service and commitment to our well-being were impeccable.  The most difficult part of our stay at Phinda Forest Lodge was the morning of our departure, knowing our sojourn had come to an end.

Afternoon tea at Phinda Forest Lodge.


One response to “South Africa safari”

  1. What a wonderful trip and great photos!

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