The ultimate ethical safari experience: &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve

Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
All photographs taken in the wild at Phinda Private Game Reserve

It is getting dark fast now the sun has set. A jackal scurries on the African soil that is still warm after a hot summer day. Crickets tune in forming a loud orchestra while bright stars start decorating the sky, one by one. Agile nightjars catch moths and other insects in the faint headlights of the open Toyota Land Cruiser 4×4 safari truck in which we are seated. A woollen blanket keeps my legs warm while I tuck away my Canon camera after capturing some of Africa’s most emblematic animals. I am keeping an eye out for leopards, bush-babies, genets, and other nocturnal animals which eyes would lit up in the respectful infrared light that our tracker moves up and down the trees. Suddenly, my heart skips a beat: I see fire. Horrified and with all the disastrous wildfires of the Western Cape in mind I yelp: “The bush is burning!” Zandri our ranger answers calmly while steering the Land Cruiser towards the fire: “We will have to check it out then.” As we get closer, I am puzzled when I realize the fire is a clear path of flaming torches. We get out of the 4×4, and following the path, we are lead to a set table with candles on tablecloth surrounded by torches and bonfires. We are greeted by our smiling lodge manager who hands us a delicate refreshment and warm humid towels: “Welcome to your African bush dinner,” he says in a soft voice, clearly satisfied by his surprise effect. Around him, his friendly staff is manning a barbecue and bar area where locally sourced organic products are waiting to be savoured. It has been a day full of surprises since this morning when I opened my eyes before sunrise…

Pint it for later!

That morning at &Beyond Phinda Rock Lodge in the South African bush

I slowly open my eyes after the gentle wake up call. The sun is about to rise as I see a distant glow behind the green hills and Leopard Rock that are visible from my king-size bed. I turn on my back to the African art hanging in the tastefully newly refurbished room. It starts being visible with the natural light coming in through the large windows of which I deliberately left the wooden shades open. I untangle myself from the soft sheets to sit for a few minutes on the balcony of our private lodge. I take in the landscape of the African bush that is slowly shaped by the sunrays announcing a new day. As it is still a bit chilly, I decide against the outside shower or private pool and use the bathroom instead to slowly wake up with the warm shower. It has been one of these nights during which it has been hard to sleep as I want to enjoy every single second. With my weary head a rush of adrenalin gets pumped through my veins: a loud whooping call of a wild animal out of the thick bush right next to our balcony reminds me that I am merely a guest here, in the animal kingdom.

I run out of the shower into my bathrobe to grab my phone and record the sound that I have never heard before. With all my senses in full alert I try to get a glimpse of the animal. I fail. With my recording I eagerly rush into my safari clothes, put on my Rogue hat, grab my binoculars and camera, and walk outside to the reception lodge where I am welcomed by the smell of freshly brewed coffee, home-made cookies and Zandri, our ranger for the day.

I am not the only one thrilled by the sound of the animal that got me jump around like a four year-old in a candy store. Our ranger gets all excited by the recording and my phone soon goes from ranger to ranger. They all agree: this is a hyena calling and apparently a very rare recording by a guest. Hyenas have a bad reputation but are highly intelligent animals that communicate with a wide variety of whoops. We are about to step into the safari truck, and the game drive is already promising!

Zandri effortlessly steers the 4×4 down the sandy road while she suggests:  “Let’s see if we can spot some of the hyenas later: one ranger has just noticed a herd of elephants moving east, a rare sighting in this part of the park!” This is how it goes at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, rangers go out on the game drives with their guests and communicate with each other through their board radios to increase the spotting opportunities. No pre-scanning has been done before, nor feeding of the animals which occasionally happens in certain private game reserves: interference with wildlife are kept to the minimum. Nicknamed “the spotter”, I am fully focused on anything that could indicate the presence of an animal, including smells (sweet popcorn for leopards) and sounds (alarming sounds by birds indicating a nearby predator). Soon, we are observing the herd of elephants: teenage elephants carrying out mock fights, babies drinking, elderlies throwing dust in the air. Although elephants are still hunted for their ivory everywhere in Africa they seem to be doing pretty well in South Africa where their numbers are growing. When the herd disappears fast into the bush we move on. While keeping our eyes open for Africa’s big cats we observe zebras, giraffes graciously walking into the first rays of sunlight, a herd of nyalas that are very commonly spot in the park, the rarer kudus, wildebeests, and plenty of birds. Our tracker seated in front of the 4×4 spots some grey in the bush: three white rhinos! However, tears fill my eyes at the sight of their disfigured faces: their horns have been cut off. Just like every other park, &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve is threatened by poachers who have almost whipped out the entire rhino population of South Africa. Here, after extensive research on the impact of this mutilation on the animal behaviour, the head conservationist Simon Naylor and his team dehorn rhinos in order to save them from being poached and brutally killed.

After thoroughly scanning a small clearing, we all get out of the 4×4 and stretch our legs while our ranger and tracker are setting up a table covered by a tablecloth on which they display home-made cookies and cups. Their drink suggestion seems obvious: a Mocha-choco-rula, of course! [a delicious drink made of coffee, chocolate and a shot of Amarula, the South African drink comparable to Baileys made from the fruit of the Amarula tree that gets monkey and elephants drunk].

The sun is out now and we are warming up fast. Back into the Land Cruiser, it does not take long before Zandri stops again and our tracker gets into the car, the sign that a big cat is close by. His trained eyes have just spotted the typical white tip of a cheetah slightly above the high grass. Within seconds, we are right in front of a mother cheetah with her three two-month old cubs playfully climbing on her. Zandri switches of the engine. “You guys are incredibly lucky! They are awake and so close by!” The cubs seem to be playing a game of tag, chase butterflies, jump up and down, and get an occasional beating from their mother when they wander off too far. A couple of years ago, this same female cheetah successfully raised two cubs, and this is promising for the three young ones we are observing. Constantly aware of her surroundings, she keeps scanning the area for potential predators like hyenas or lions that could be a threat to her cubs. When the early morning hunting time comes to an end, she decides to retreat in the shade of a tree. She calls her cubs that immediately stop their games and obey like extremely well raised kids to follow her into the shade.

Driving through this landscape it is hard to imagine that this land used to be farmland some years ago. In 1991, the &Beyond group was created and bought overexploited land to develop Phinda Private Game Reserve and reintroduce the large mammals that once roamed freely here. At the cutting edge of conservation, their business model encompasses the care of the land, care of the wildlife and care of the people in order to make it sustainable and as such, to protect this precious ecosystem for future generations.

It is mid-morning when we arrive back at our lodge for breakfast. Enjoying the cooked to order appealing food, we occasionally pick up the binoculars to observe wildlife on Leopards Rock. We pick up one of the plentiful leather-bound wildlife books before we return to our private lodge to cool down by our pool and rest.

Back to the bush dinner

As our waiter brings us a glass of the award-winning Hamilton Russell’s Pinot Noir crafted in the Eastern Cape, we are discussing our incredible day with our ranger and the couple of other guests we shared the game drive with at our private table. It is hard to decide what the highlight of this day was! Maybe the encounter with the rare black rhino? Or maybe these cute and playful cheetah cubs? Or spotting a lioness with her three cubs on top of a cliff overlooking the bush and bathed in the sunset light, as if it were taken out of The Lion King? The discussion is friendly and interesting as Zandri explains more about the conservation work that is carried out here at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, making it one of the best ecotourism initiative worldwide.

Enjoying our last drink of Amarula under the stars in a warm bath at our lodge, we take in the sounds of the African night. Soon, we will be wrapping ourselves in these soft sheets again, dreaming about what tomorrow’s game drive will bring.

Travel tips:

  • To book your perfect safari please refer to &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve.
  • Different lodges each with a specific atmosphere are located at the &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve: Rock Lodge, is very exclusive with only six private lodges and a no-child policy, Forest Lodge is immersed in the rare and precious sand forest, and Mountain Lodge caters more to families yet in a quiet environment. More lodges are to be explored.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

Like it? Pint it!

For more safari-inspired articles, click on these images:

Part of this article was published in the Beyond Boundaries e-magazine by Xtreme Adventure:

Cover - Big 5 & Top 8 - Beyond Boundaries

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