Phinda

Hluhluwe Travel Blog

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I have a new goal.  When I get back to the US and start working again, I have to figure out a way to convince my employer to purchase a luxury game reserve in Africa and then convince them to hire me to work on said game reserve in the summers.  If I learn enough biology, I could be a ranger or a tracker, or I could just organize the camps and be the guest liaison for the whole experience.  Talk about exceptional – I was partly blessed and partly cursed to have gotten to spend a weekend at what has to be one of the best game reserves around.

  It’s potentially all downhill from here as far as game reserves go, but at least I know how cool the experience can be.

    

     Friday afternoon we took off for the highlight of the weekend.  Kubi Yini was a great appetizer; it got me in to the flow of how visiting a game reserve works.  But Phinda was the main attraction, and for good reason.  Phinda isn’t just a reserve that you go to and stay in like a hotel, it’s a whole experience.  You have a camp staff that is assigned to take care of you – a cook who prepares gourmet level meals, a waitress who sets up and takes down all the meals and snacks, a ranger who takes you out on all your activities, a security guard who makes sure you don’t get eaten and a camp director who makes sure you think everything is awesome.

  The accommodations are very large thick canvass tents held up with a metal framework.  There are large screen windows all around the tent, so you can leave things open and feel the wind pass through or close everything up and not be able to see if a lion decides to enter your camp at night.  There is an electric fence that surrounds the camp to keep out the elephants, but its set up a few meters off the ground, so elephants are the only thing that it keeps out.  Any other animal is free to roam in and around the camp grounds.  For that reason, you are discouraged from running within the boundaries of the camp, especially at night.  Running makes the cats want to chase you, and that isn’t good.  Our security guard was named Lucky, and he patrolled around all night armed with a flashlight.  If for some reason you needed to go from one tent to the next, you called to Lucky and he came over and walked you to the place.
  He didn’t seem to carry a gun, so I’m not sure how he would help out in the event of a lion onslaught; the most he could do is annoy the lions by shining his flashlight in their eyes, maybe hit them with a stick.  He did a good job though.  None of us were eaten and the only animals that came around were warthogs and some of the variations of deer.  Warthogs aren’t a problem.  If you approach them they run away like scared little piggies.  They don’t sniff your feet.

     Our chef was named Sipo, and he worked some magic in that kitchen.  Every meal was incredible.  Because of the timing of the game drives, we’d eat a late breakfast, then a few hours later a light lunch, and then a big festive dinner.  Dinners were my favorite because they were served inside this sandy arena, with a large bonfire already going for us as we arrived.

  Off to the side was a large grill.  After the fire had generated some serious coals, Sipo would take a few shovels full of coal over the grill, load it up, and then take the nearly finished food out of the kitchen to complete its cooking outside with us.  It reminded me of the set of the show Survivor, at the end when everyone has cleaned up and there are tiki torches everywhere and they are deciding who gets the million.  Some of the items on the menu included grilled spiced pork chops, spicy chicken curry, butternut squash served with cinnamon, grilled eggplant and roasted potatoes.  Every meal also came with a great tasting salad and this incredible bread that was like corn bread but not as corny.  There was always enough for everyone to eat themselves sick, and I suspect that the staff happily eats all the leftovers.  Sipo also made some fantastic deserts – a carrot cake one night and an angel food cake soaked in fruit syrup served with pudding the next.
  The food was included with the price of the accommodations, as was the game drives and any other ranger activities.  Not bad for $60 per night.

     Barry was our ranger and he took us out on all of our game drives.  When we first arrived, we sat with Barry as a group and we planned out what type of animals we wanted to see.  Our consensus was that we wanted to see cats the most, and elephants the second most.  Anything else was bonus.  MJ and Ross and I had seen most of the other animals on his reserve the previous day, so it was nice to have a head start and not need to spend as much time seeking out the things we had already viewed.

     Everything at Phina is awesome, but it isn’t meant to be a relaxing experience.

  I suppose it could be if you choose to not participate in the activities, but if you didn’t want to go on a safari, why would you pay to do so?  We had set up a pretty full schedule with Barry.  We would wake up at 5:30am and grab a quick tea and biscuit and be ready to take off for the morning drive at 6am.  The morning drive would last until almost 10am, then we’d be back for our late breakfast.  We’d have a few hours to kill until lunch, and then we’d take off for our afternoon/evening drive at 2:30pm.  This drive would go well in to darkness, around 7 – 7:30pm.  The Saturday night of our weekend was a game that we couldn’t miss – US was playing Ghana in the second round, and Barry was nice enough to arrange transportation for us to one of the other larger lodge areas.
  We got to see how the other half lived, surrounded by extreme luxury – a full bar (drinks not included in the price sadly), a reception area with a large flat screen TV, fancy artwork, etc.  I actually like our area better because it was more in line with what a nature experience could be.  Plus, we got to bring our own beverages, and nothing beats driving up to a couple of napping lions and staring at them while you crack open a cold beer.  If only the US had won that game, the weekend would have been perfect.  The rest of the crew was rooting for Ghana, the last remaining African team, so I wasn’t totally devastated that they were able to move on.  I will however be devastated if Uruguay wins after their crap move they pulled at the end of their game with Ghana, but I digress.
  I was happy that they went out of their way to make sure I could see the US play.  It was a nice touch.

     Barry was a great ranger for us.  He had very good ideas on how to set about seeing all the things we wanted to see, and the reserve had a great system for the rangers to communicate sightings so that if a group wanted to see and elephant, they could call a central dispatch and find out where elephant was last seen.  It was efficient and exciting; it almost felt like catch and release hunting, relatively safe within the confines of our roofless land rover.  The lions came up first, and were actually the easiest of game to find.  They just sleep all day, so if you look through the shady spots in their neighborhood you’ll eventually find some.

  We saw 3 groups of lion in total.  2 groups were a pair of females, and one group was a male/female pair.  They are just huge.  I expected them to be big, but to see them from 10 meters away is unreal.  When we view them in the day they appear completely docile, like you jump out of the car and go pet them.  Of course this is not the case, but that’s what they look like.  I’m sure if I had seen one ripping into a wildebeest I would have thought otherwise.  They are impressive to see, but because they aren’t doing much, you can only stare at them for so long and take so many of the same pictures.  It was terribly exciting when one of them got up to walk 10 feet so that she could get a drink of water.  That was the highlight of our lion watching.
  I say that somewhat in jest, but somewhat not in jest because in the back of my head I thought about how helpless we’d be if the lion decided to break all behavioral patterns and jump up into the open vehicle and start swinging its teeth and claws around.  There was nothing stopping the lion from doing so except for the experience of countless safari-goers before us who discovered that that type of thing just doesn’t happen.  There is certainly a level of faith involved.

     Next we set out to find a cheetah.  There were reports of a mother with two cubs in another section of the park and it wasn’t long before we located them.  This was a national geographic type moment.  The cubs were about 3 months old and were jumping and playing and stalking each other while mom stood by and kept an eye out for predators.

  Lions will kill other cats so that they don’t have as much competition for food.  I think leopards will kill cheetahs as well, so they certainly have to be careful.  The cubs were damn cute, and if a lion came up and murdered them in front of us I think MJ would have wanted to go home immediately.  Nothing to worry about, it was a peaceful encounter, other than the cubs wrestling with each other.  One of the cubs was working on tree climbing (not a standard cheetah practice) and his brother or sister was working on knocking him out of the tree.  The cheetahs were beautiful, and because they were doing stuff we ended up watching them a bit longer than the lions.  We were off to a great start.

     We were doing well with the cats, so we decided to spend some time looking for the elephants.

  While doing so, we stumbled upon a black rhino.  Black rhino are a rare sight and it was great that we came across one on accident.  Ross had told a story of the last time he was here, they spent all 3 days looking for the black rhino and finally found it on the last day, which was cool but they had missed out on plenty of other things just to find this rhino.  The black rhino is similar to the more common white rhino but has a different shaped mouth, less of a hump and smaller horns.  I don’t know if they are generally smaller or if the one we saw just happened to be smaller.  They are much shyer than the white rhinos, and we had to drive over some ridiculous terrain to keep in sight of the thing.  We did get a good look at it eventually, and it seemed irritated but not angry that we were trampling bushes to stay near it.  For the record, the white rhinos aren’t white and the black rhino’s aren’t black.
  They are both grey. 

     The elephant search wasn’t going too well, which was frustrating because they are the biggest things in the park; how can they be the hardest to see?  We drove to an area that was a pineapple farm before the game reserve annexed it a few years prior, so it was wide open and plains-like.  No elephants to be found.  We drove through a thicker forested area hoping to catch a few crossing the road.  No dice.  It was starting to get dark, and we had given up on the elephant and moved on to searching for leopard.  As we drove back towards camp through the forested area, we heard a thunderous crash and cracking of tree branches and from the near darkness a huge pissed-off elephant appeared, running towards us, trumpeting and flaring its huge ears out.

  Our guide hit the gas and we got out of there quick.  It was the closest that we had come to danger the whole weekend and IT WAS AWESOME!!!!!  I am a big elephant fan, but until this point I had only seen placid playful Asian elephants.  African elephants are much bigger, and they are not peaceful if they think you are invading their territory.  When we got back from the trip and were talking with some of Ross’s parent’s friends, they told us a few good “when elephants attack” stories.  The first was about an English guy who came down and was driving himself around on a self-guided tour at some other preserve.  He got too close to an angry elephant, and the thing rammed his car and drove his tusks right through the door and impaled the guy.  He didn’t make it.  The second story was about a friend of his that had taken his companies 4wd up to a reserve and had a run in with an elephant.
  The elephant ran up and attacked the car.  Everyone in the car ducked, and the tusks when in through the windshield, and the elephant picked the car up and tossed it down on to its side and then stormed off, its point having been made.  No one was seriously hurt, but the car was totaled, and the insurance company refused to cover the charges because what the hell were they using a company vehicle for on a game reserve?  Evidently elephant attacks were not part of their corporate policy.

     So we got to see our elephant, but just for a few seconds as we were trying desperately to get out of its way.  I think there was a few other elephants with the one we saw, mucking about in the woods, but we couldn’t stick around to be sure and I didn’t imagine anyone but me wanted to go back and see.  We did manage to find a few more the next morning, and these elephants were much calmer.

  They didn’t come fully out of the woods though, so I didn’t get any great pictures.  If possible, I am going to stop at one of the elephant reserves we go by in our upcoming travels and try to see some more.  They are very impressive.

     The last thing we tried to find was a leopard.  We spent part of a night and most of a morning looking for the leopard but no luck.  Barry had followed track and found a kill (an adult nyala) and figured that the leopard was within this one block of land, but we couldn’t find it.  Leopards can be difficult to see.  While we were watching the game the previous night, this guy I was talking to told me that he had been on 200 game drives, and had seen leopard twice.  Ross had seen one before but it was by a total fluke – he was driving in to a reserve for a lunch, and a leopard had set up shop by the side of the road.

  It was just sitting there, hanging out.  When you want to find one, you can’t, and when you don’t expect to find one, they just pop up.  It remains on my list of “too be seen”, but it gives me one more reason to come back and try again later.

     The entire experience was fantastic.  From the moment you arrived to the moment you left, everything was unreal and extraordinary.  The company I work for is in the business of trying to find locations where extraordinary experiences can be delivered, and I had never really felt that on the receiving side until now.  The company that runs the reserve is called &beyond, and they are buying up land around Phinda as it becomes available, and they are also buying up other reserves that they feel are worthy of the &beyond label.

  I think it would be a great thing to get in to – maybe not from a business perspective, but certainly from a “what a cool thing to do” perspective.  The company also has a direct involvement and interest with the community.  They hire, train and promote a percentage of their staff from within the surrounding communities, which are mostly Zulu (I think).  Barry told us how he had started as a waiter, and then worked his way up to tracker and then to ranger.  Abel, our camp director, also worked his way up from an entry level position.  Based on what we tipped, I have to think these guys make decent money.  For Barry, he sees his job as his career.  The company does have a portion of rangers that come in from other countries, like the UK or Australia, and work a few seasons and then go back to doing whatever it was they did before.
 Much of this place reminded me of my job back home.

     Phinda has different camps to choose from, and some of them are ridiculously expensive.  I think I saw one camp that runs $5,000 per night.  If you can afford to stay at one of the less ridiculously expensive ones, I highly recommend it.  Better yet, if you have a friend of a friend who works at the camp, and can get you in with his friends & family discount, I even more highly recommend it.  It is an experience that you will never forget.  Now as I go through the rest of Africa I’ll have this really high water mark to compare to.  I’m not to worried about it though.  The best part is really just being out in a completely new place seeing completely new things.

  If you have a beautiful place to stay and all you can eat gourmet food, then that’s a bonus.  Here is the web site for the place if you want to learn more about it:

 

  http://www.andbeyondafrica.com

 

 

 

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Hluhluwe
photo by: inkie1010