South Africa journey Part IV: Phinda delivers
Travel brochures are made to trick our eyes. A cruise ship room usually looks cavernous online or in a brochure. Those people sitting back in spacious economy seats are usually on the small side. And the beautiful secluded beach where you might want to soak up the sun is often going to have a few hundred more people all wanting the same thing.
But with its 74,000 acres, Phinda Private Game Reserve delivers on the brochure's promises. All of the Big 5 -- the African lion, the Cape buffalo, African elephant, the leopard and the rhino -- are found here in abundance. So is top-notch food, service and accommodations.
Owned by andBeyond, a company that operates lodges in several African countries, South America and the Beverly Hills Hotel in the United States, Phinda is home to six separate and distinctive properties.
Rolling up to the Forest Lodge's circular driveway, (it's actually sand) we were greeted by three members of the staff who provided us with a welcome drink and a warm towel. The lodge is made up of 16 cottages. Each is isolated to the point that others aren't visible. There is a veranda and main lodge building and a reception area along with a gift shop. In a nod to helping prevent pollution, the lodge uses almost no plastic products.
After introductions we were ushered out onto the veranda, which overlooks acres of grassland ringed by thickets. The two couples next to us were having lunch. They talked about polo and their long weekends at their friends' country house with 20 servants. One of the men sent his Caesar salad back because the croutons weren't crunchy enough.
With me rocking the Adidas shorts and a t-shirt, and my wife wearing roughly the women's equivalent, we started to feel like the Clampetts without the millions in the bank. We're pretty low maintenance and don't get worked up over croutons, regardless of their quality.
Forest Lodge's friendly staff quickly eased us into the experience. Phinda doesn't have fences around their lodges so there are strict rules about moving around after dark. Guests are asked to call security if they want to go to the pool or main lodge but in general things wind down early here.
Just after checking in, we met Kerri, our ranger-guide, who sat us down and asked us what we wanted to see. Ten minutes later we set out on our first game drive at Phinda.
And it didn't take long to hit the jackpot, a Cheetah that had downed a nyala.
It was helpful to have someone with you interpreting the animal's behavior. In a nutshell, the cheetah didn't immediately chow down because she was exhausted from the energy expended making the kill and because she wanted to make sure there were no lions in the area before getting on with her business.
After spending some time with the cheetah it was off to look for lions. With dusk approaching we found ourselves staring at three females lying on a sandy road.
The playfulness would later extend to a half-hearted attempt at chasing five giraffes.
After the lions we stopped near a pond and the guide and tracker set up a drinks table and snacks.
"Drinks break" is a safari tradition. I had my first ever gin and tonic. We chatted with the guides and the South African couple who joined us for all of our game drives. In the small-world department: They had visited both Bartlesville and Tulsa in the last 20 years.
By the time I sipped my last bit of G&T it was dark. We headed back to the lodge, but not before stopping to see a leopard sleeping in the grass and to adjust our route because of a giant bull elephant blocking the road near the lodge.
The next day, we went looking for elephants. Because of the reserve's size, some effort is required to find animals at Phinda. Elephants like thickets and can disappear in them for hours. As our tracker scanned the dirt road for tracks, we looked for about an hour. Without warning he motioned for the guide to stop. We sat for a few minutes in silence. There was the sound of a twig breaking. And another. The tops of the small trees began to shake. One-by-one, seven elephants emerged and crossed out onto the road.
One showed some interest in us which required us to back up.
A cheetah and her two cubs highlighted the evening game drive. This mother had three cubs, but our guide said one had been killed by a lion two days before. Lions don't see them as a food source, but rather competition for food. She said the mother was observed trying to wake up the dead cub by nudging it with its nose before finally giving up. On this night, they ate well.
The following morning Black rhinos were the target of our final game drive. They had been elusive at Zulu Nyala and I didn't expect to see them here either. There was a thick fog hanging low to the ground when we began. As the fog began to burn off it wasn't long before we found three black rhino.
Black rhinos are critically endangered and are different than the more-numerous white rhino in size and shape of their body. Phinda trims the horns off their rhinos to help prevent poaching. Without the horns the animals look different, but offer far more unappealing targets. And they stay alive. In the photo above, the bird with its head inside the animal's nostril eats ticks and is tolerated by the rhinos.
After a bush breakfast we said our goodbyes back at the lodge. Phinda had delivered in every way imaginable.