Phinda private game reserve: No rest for the eager

As boisterous and playful as kittens, these three male cubs are oblivious to their mother's concerns.
PAMELA WADE

As boisterous and playful as kittens, these three male cubs are oblivious to their mother's concerns.

When a man with a gun greets you at 5.30am with the cry, "This isn't a holiday, it's an adventure!" it's wise to play along. Putting aside all thoughts of the still-warm bed back in my comfortable suite, I followed Matt out into the grey pre-dawn where, he promised me, all sorts of delights awaited.

Duelling giraffes certainly made an excellent start to my first game drive at Phinda, in South Africa's Maputaland. Two males recklessly whacked each other with their horns while the female they were fighting over nibbled, unimpressed, at the tender shoots of an acacia tree. We drove on a bit and there were impala and zebra nervously sipping from a waterhole right next to a crocodile. Next, a herd of buffalo grazed on a plain of golden grass, the low sun throwing long shadows before them. Porcupines fussed beside the track, various sorts of antelope twitched and darted, birds swooped and hovered, we glimpsed a hyena in the distance. It was a splendid introduction to the reserve, and three hours flashed by, followed by a breakfast that we really felt we had earned: all that concentrated spotting can really take it out of you, despite the amarula-laced hot chocolate with biscuits at half-time.

Photo: PAMELA WADE

Rock Lodge is one of six accommodation options on andBeyond's 23,000 hectare Phinda Private Game Reserve, each of them different. This one consists of just six adobe suites perched on a cliff overlooking a bushy valley and Leopard Rock beyond. My room was full of thoughtful touches, from the sherry decanter on the coffee table to the private plunge pool outside — most of them, sadly, wasted since all my time at Phinda was taken up with game viewing, or eating and sleeping. 

Actually, sleep was a low priority, because there was just so much to see. Even with two scheduled game drives a day, it felt wasteful to squander time by resting, and instead I got up even closer to some of Phinda's bigger animals.

The reserve has a proud record of not just preserving and protecting species, but of increasing their numbers: cheetah, lion, leopard and rhino being the stars.

Hearing how threatened the black rhino is, it was a special treat to go along on one of Sipho's daily monitoring rounds. This is a sad necessity because of the deadly threat of poachers, who stop at nothing to get their hands on the horn: it sells for irresistible sums on the black market, destined for use as traditional (though useless) medicine in China and Vietnam.

Photo: PAMELA WADE

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Far more than a battle, it's an all-out war with no holds barred, and even daily patrols of registered animals on a private, fenced reserve are no guarantee of their safety, so it was both a thrill and a relief to locate #146. An old bull, he was dozing peacefully in an area of bush-fire ash. We tiptoed silently towards him in single file, putting our trust in the ranger's assurances that rhino, while their hearing and smell are excellent, have very poor eyesight. With no sturdy trees at hand for emergency escape, we trod very carefully indeed to within 30 metres of him: even so, the bull became aware that something was up, and lurched to his feet. It was a breathless, timeless moment, looking at a member of this extraordinary species, on the planet for 50 million years, totally at home in his environment. He lifted his head and snorted, and it suddenly felt the perfect time to leave.

Out again on the afternoon game drive, Matt asked what we hoped to find. "Cheetah? Let's see what we can do." And so it was that the five of us in the tiered seats of the open-topped Land Cruiser had, within the hour, up-close grandstand views of a gaunt and hungry mother surveying the savannah for prey while her three grown and gawky sons goofed off, batting balls of dung around, rolling in play fights and climbing a fallen tree.

Photo: PAMELA WADE

We were scarcely five metres from them; but while we stayed in the vehicle, it was as though we were invisible, and they ignored us completely. We all felt for the hungry mother, handicapped in her hunting by her ham-fisted cubs, and we wanted a happy ending for them all; but then a crackling voice on the radio reported a black rhino nearby. Spoiled for riches, off we bumped along the dirt track — until another crackle had Matt wrenching the steering wheel around, 'bundu bashing' off-track through the open bush back towards the cheetahs. 

Photo: PAMELA WADE

"She's running down a nyala!" he shouted. "Hold tight!" Whooping with excitement, he roared along at 50 km/h until we came right up to them, the mother leaping powerfully behind the terrified antelope, one son at her heels. And then it was all over — except that it wasn't. Yes, the nyala was down and one of the sons had its neck clamped between his jaws; but it was still alive, the suffocation insufficient, and we could hear its wailing cry as the ravenous cubs began to gnaw at its hindquarters while the mother kept watch.

It was brutal, but "This is Africa," Matt said. "This is what happens." It was a sobering lesson on the circle of life; but it was also a rare thing to see a cheetah kill, and our sundowner stop was celebratory, while later back at the lodge there was champagne with our dinner on the deck.

Photo: PAMELA WADE

It was another big cat that gave me my lasting image of Phinda. A solitary lion lay at his ease at the top of a bank, just a few metres from where I sat in the Land Cruiser. His luxuriant mane looked combed, his face was handsome and unscarred, muscles rippled beneath his shining coat. Of all the many birds and animals I saw in my short time at Phinda, he was the superstar, and the one I will remember.

MORE INFORMATION

Phinda is a three-hour drive north of Durban; it also has an airstrip. The reserve encompasses seven unique ecosystems, home to the Big Five as well as 415 bird species, and offers a choice of six luxurious lodges. Contact your Africa travel specialist or visit andBeyond.com.

Pamela Wade was a guest at Phinda Private Game Reserve.

 - Stuff

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