Safari at Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa
A safari has been on my wish list for many, many years, and I was thrilled when the opportunity arose to join a group of friends in South Africa last month. Our destination was Phinda, a private game reserve in the northeast corner of South Africa. I don’t think a blog post can do justice to what it’s like to spend 5 days in the bush on safari. But I’ll share some of my favorite photos while I mention some of the more extraordinary things we saw during our time there in the hopes you can get the overall feel of how great our trip was.I’ll start with the elephants. They are regal standing alone in the bush like the first photo above. But more impressive was the elephant herd we saw on the move. I had no idea how large they are or how fast they move, making it hard to even snap photos.
We came across a buffalo herd in an open field and almost couldn’t tear ourselves away from the action. We watched 50 buffalo playing, wallowing in mud, mating, peeing, fighting, and more for 20 minutes.As we drove up to a watering hole, we found a female white rhino with her baby. A male approached from the woods, tried to go near her to mate, she protected her baby and clearly rebuffed him. He backed away and walked behind her and past her, marking territory along the way (a huge display of blowing spray). She eventually rounded up the baby and turned to follow him. We can only guess what eventually happened next!
The hippos don’t come out of the water during the day, and at the large watering hole, we were tickled to watch a baby hippo trying to stay on his mom’s back in the water. We did see one hippo at night, but he was running too fast to get back to the watering hole and bit the dust. Do you know how funny and sad it is to see a giant hippo rolling down a grassy hill into the water? We felt badly for laughing, but just couldn’t help ourselves!
There are monkeys out in the bush in the trees at Phinda, but actually many more of them around the lodge. They aren’t stupid – at the lodge they sneak dinner rolls from the buffet when the server walks away, they try to steal your shoes as they play around the pool, and one actually followed me to my room, trying to sneak in with me for my afternoon nap.We spotted our first lion cubs on our first game drive, a pride of cubs waiting for the lionesses to return from hunting.
But it was this cub with the huge paws who stole my heart.There are only two male lions on the reserve at Phinda, and this male had only recently been relocated to Phinda. We were actually the first people to even make eye contact with him, and this was the only shot I could get of him through the thicket. The tone of the picture says it all.On our last morning we came upon a female cheetah sharing her kill of a gray duiker with her baby. That’s not much food for two cats to share, and when the mom tried to get a taste, the baby actually bit the mom on the face and wouldn’t let go for a couple of minutes. This shot was taken right after the mom backed off.We had an amazing tracker, Sipiwei, who could sight just about anything. He’d point out things like this African chicken (actually quail) in the daylight, but also night sightings in the pitch black while our truck was moving quickly. In one night alone he picked out a black mamba snake, a rare spider, a Verduxx’s eagle owl, a bush baby in a tree, and a chameleon. None of us would have seen any of those things without him, and it gave us great respect for his skills.You would think based on sheer size alone, that an elephant would win out over a baby hippo, but we drove by the watering hole one morning just in time to see the baby hippo snap at the back leg of a large elephant and actually send him running from the water. The baby hippo just frolicked back to his mom!This guy is the second male at Phinda, the king of the jungle in the north. He’s so regal and seems so imposing, so you can imagine how our hearts melted when we saw the lionesses and cubs come over and nuzzle with him.Many of the cubs in his pride were just too tired to move, but at one point a lioness actually got up and walked straight to our truck – I was on her side, and in the front low seat, and was actually terrified for about 10 seconds until then she veered left and went to relax with the rest of the pride.One of the options on safari is to track some wildlife on foot. Always concerned about whether my knees are going to hold up hiking through rough terrain, I opted to stay on the truck with our guide while the rest of the group set out to find a rhino. That turned out to be fortuitous as I was treated to this herd of impala (along with with one wildebeest, oddly) running down the hill to the watering hole in the morning.I also was treated to seeing the entire southern pride of lions right out in the open near the airstrip, bellies full from what must have been the last night’s kill. We watched them until they one by one got up to move to a cooler and shadier spot to sleep, this little guy the last to go.I never considered myself a “birder”, and certainly didn’t arrive on safari expecting to be so intrigues by the birds. But there are so many of them that are so gorgeous, and our guide and tracker were so great at pointing them out, that this turned out to be a surprising bonus of the trip.Perhaps the most fascinating of the birds we saw are these little yellow weaver birds. The males work like crazy to weave these nests, and the females then come to inspect them. If she’s impressed, she moves in and they mate. Fascinating!One of the other fascinating mating rituals we watched was between two male nyalas. They do a sort of wrestling match with bowed necks until one finally quits. The one who quits (above) walks away from the female herd (we felt he looked so ashamed) and then the winning male stays to mate.Giraffes are plentiful at Phinda, but I must say never get old. We saw such graceful beauties moving around the reserve every day, we saw this 6-week old newborn hiding behind his mom, we saw an elderly female gently dip her long neck down to the watering hole to take a drink, and we even saw a young giraffe running wildly through a herd of zebras trying to get them to play with him. Adorable!The cats are often hard to find, so we felt lucky to see as many of them as we did, including the cheetah mom above, the young female cheetah in the middle, and the lion cubs at the bottom. We saw for only two seconds the very elusive leopards, but then listened to them mating in the thicket – an eery sort of moaning sound.All of us had crushes on the baby warthogs that are running around the reserve. They seem like a cross between a pig and a corgi, and they generally stay together with 2-3 females and several babies. They are easy prey for large predators, so they stick together and move quickly when they need to.Perhaps the greatest ritual of a safari is the evening stops for cocktails, known as the Sundowner. The guide and tracker set up a small bar, complete with wine, beer, mixed drinks and snacks, right in the middle of the bush, usually somewhere we can enjoy the gorgeous sunset.But that’s not all they did for us. We were treated to a surprise Sundowner with a big cookout of meats one afternoon, a surprise breakfast in the bush, and a surprise dinner all by candlelight and torch light in the bush. Those experiences, especially coming as a surprise, were highlights of our trip.Corrocodiles are not easy to spot – they slink through the river or watering hole sneaking up on prey. But we were treated to seeing this mama along with what looked like 100 hatchlings, on the morning we took a lazy cruise down the river.Fever trees are iconic images from South Africa, and we never tired of seeing them.It may seem like a simple thing, but breakfast has never tasted better than after a morning game drive. You get up at 5:00 am during your time at Phinda, and head out to the bush with usually just a cup of coffee in your tummy. We wouldn’t return from our morning adventures until about 9:00-9:30, but when we got there, a huge breakfast spread would be waiting for us. Possibly the most memorable thing I ate the entire week was this chile flake and salt mixture that they sprinkle over olive oil marinated sliced tomatoes. You can also notice some crackers and a big wheel of cheese – we would just keep slicing of long pieces of that tangy cheese and enjoy it on those crackers along with the smoke salmon that was out. There were egg specialties every day as well, and plenty of champagne and orange juice in the morning. It’s no wonder that so many of us headed straight to our rooms after breakfast for a nap!Before I went to South Africa, I had never heard of a dung beetle. Turns out they are quite important to the ecosystem here. The large animals create a lot of dung, and these clever little bugs roll the dung up into balls and lay their eggs in the dung. While they are rolling the balls, the male does the work and the female just hangs on and gets rolled around. Quite clever and we never tired of shouting “dung beetle!” when we saw one in the road.It makes a safari great to have a great guide. While everyone in our group thought their guide was the best, we loved how our 25 year old guide Ricci would smile and how her face would light up in excitement at everything we spotted along the way. She seemed to have as much fun on the game drives as we did, and she took very good care of us, including backing up the vehicle at 20 MPH when an elephant started to charge.The reserve is full of all sorts of symbiotic relationships – from the way the zebras and wildebeests hang out in the same pasture, to the dung beetles and more. But perhaps the cutest we saw was how the birds hang out on the backs of the water buffalo and constantly eat the bugs off them, including dipping into their ears to clean out the bugs.There are both solitary species like the cheetahs or the giraffes, and then there are those species who hang out in herds, like the impala. Our guide explained that it has a lot to do with size and whether the species is susceptible to becoming prey to some larger predator.Maybe it was the time of year that we were there – summer – but Phinda was full of babies of every species – zebra, impala, warthog, hippo, giraffe, elephant, lion, cheetah, crocodile, rhino, monkey, and more. I’m not sure why, but the baby of any species just pulls at your heart when you see them.I don’t know what I was expecting, but I never expected to see such a wide diversity of things – and so many of each animal – on safari. We joked that it almost felt like we were being pranked, like we were under a dome of The Hunger Games or in the Jurassic Park movie. We’d come around the corner on a road and see something so amazing it almost seemed as if someone had just instructed “release the herd of elephants”. Yet that wasn’t the case, this is just a really well run game reserve with a great variety of wildlife being cared for in a responsible manner. If you have the chance to visit Phinda, jump on it. You will be glad you did, I promise!
Phinda Private Game Reserve
The Mountain Lodge
For information on African safaris and tours, or about any travel to Africa:
Phone: +27 11 809 4314
Wildlife We Saw:
Large spotted genet
White trailed mongoose
Bell’s hinged tortoise
Serrated hinged terrapin
Mozambique spitting cobra
Special birds (too many to count, but these were special):
Osprey on river
Verrdux’s eagle owl
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