Sometimes I honestly forget how lucky I am. I know I shouldn't but I do. Luckily there are other times when it hits me. The past couple of days it hit me often. I did when I leaned back against the headrest of a landrover we were driving and just looked up into a night sky that had more stars than not. It also did when I sat a few meters away from three lion cubs suckle. And of course, it did when I finally got to take a giraffe selfie. I am a lucky girl.
A few weeks ago I got invited by Thomas Cook to attend their latest press conference announcing their winter 2017 program. Lucky me this was to be in Durban, a city despite my years in South Africa, I have never visited. The big announcement of this press conference was the expansion into the premium and luxury market with their new lines "Thomas Cook Signature" and "Signature Finest Selection”. South Africa is also the best African country for safari (in my humble opinion that is) and to experience some of their luxurious experiences and accommodation options we went to visit the andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, one of the game reserves in KZN (Kwazulu-Natal). If you are looking for a luxury safari in South Africa, forget the Krugerpark and head to Phinda instead. Especially for a safari in Durban, Phinda is a great option as it is only a three-hour drive from the city and offers a variety of different lodges, all of them with their own unique features.
Skip ahead to my tips for visiting game reserves in KZN here.
My little group stayed at the Rock Lodge, where each suite comes with its own Nyala and/or elephants drinking out of your private plunge pool. I mean, have you ever?! That in addition to the best bed ever amazing views from the bathtub, the shower, and the toilet as well as a fully stocked minibar and instructions on how to make the perfect Safari G&T. Whether you are on a safari honeymoon or solotrip you need a proper G&T.
This all has to wait though as we are off to our first game drive immediately upon arrival with our ranger Eric and tracker Pat.
Game reserves in KZN usually offer multiple game drives per day and are led by a ranger and a tracker to find you the most exciting wildlife. Honestly Pat has the best seat in the house and I am more than a little envious. Mind you, my eyesight is crappy even at the best of times so it is really better for everybody involved to leave the tracking - and the seat - to the expert.
Phinda is one of the biggest game reserves near Durban with 24.000 ha and offers, of course, the Big Five - lions, rhinos, elephants, buffalos and the very elusive leopard. As if they are not scarce enough already, they are also the only ones who can easily jump the 2m fence that surrounds the borders of Phinda. But there are also plenty of other animals like cheetahs, warthogs, kudus, nyalas, zebras, hippos, monkeys, and giraffes which obviously make me especially happy. Mind you, this is one of the best game reserves in South Africa offering real game drives so be prepared that you will see a lot of impalas and other bookies everywhere but you will have to be quite lucky - and have a great tracker - to see the really cool stuff. It ain't no zoo!
While I can't tick off my 'See the complete Big Five' from my non-existing travel bucket list, we do see a lot of cool animals very, very close.
Obviously, I am more than excited when we see giraffes and I am not even ashamed to make the whole jeep stop so I can take plenty of giraffe selfies.
The giraffes are followed by some elephants munching entire trees and a few hornless rhinos. South Africa has an incredible rhino poaching problem with one rhino being brutally killed every 7 hours! Since Phinda is easily accessible from the N2, one of the main South African highways, their rhinos are in constant danger despite tight security. As it is hard to catch poachers and they are not really being persecuted, a lot of times the only solution for game farms is to dehorn their rhinos in order to protect them. In May most of Phinda's rhinos were dehorned and while I know that makes it possible for them to live in peace, learning that is quite heartbreaking and sad to see. Mind you, rhino horns take about two years to regrow and I am hopeful, maybe naively so, that the situation for poaching in South Africa will have changed by then.
If you are looking for a safari in Kwazulu Natal, Phinda a great option and is the Zulu word for 'the return' and was chosen to reflect a return to nature. Formerly degraded farmland is restored back to its natural state, making it literally an animal kingdom. Not only has wildlife returned since Phinda was born in 1990 but a lot of land has been returned to the ancestral owners of the Makhasa and Mnqobokazi communities in the area. Phinda works closely with these communities making it a place that is as luxurious as it is sustainable. Obviously, that entails that one cannot touch any animals and even the best giraffe selfies have to be taken from a distance - bring your binoculars and a zoom lens! Animals can, however, get close on their own terms and that means a ranger will escort you to your room at night, the animals cannot read the do not disturb signs.
While I do I enjoy my suite amenities and the best night's sleep to the fullest the most luxurious experience comes in the morning during our second game drive. Eric and Pat have decided to give us a bit of action - we are tracking lions and not any lions but a mother and her three cubs. Even though it is early my eyes are wide open, trying to imitate Pat who is in full force on his seat. Hand actions to slow down, go left or right or stop altogether so he can check the lions' tracks. Eric thinks they haven't gone far from their last seen spot the night before. After all, the lion cubs are only four months old. It turns out that he is very very wrong which luckily I don't know at this point; I just take comfort in the fact that he says when we find the lions not if.
But first, we learn how to tell lion from hyena tracks and that little lions like to run around and play making it really hard for them to be tracked - that’s the exciting part of a luxury safari in South Africa - even the luxury involves work. Pat and Eric leave the vehicle a few times to search for the tracks, only armed with a machete (for the bushes not for the lions!) and each time we keep very still to see if we can hear some little lions growl. We can't.
Two hours later we have lost them numerous times, driven in circles and over mountains, our last hope is a waterhole on the other end of the reserve. By now I am feeling hungry, am in dire need of coffee and not so sure anymore if lions are worth all the hassle. It is just then that Mandla, our Thomas Cook tour guide, points into a bush. There! He has spotted a Nyala carcass, a pretty fresh one at that. Now Pat starts to point as well, he has spotted the lions and starts to grin. We get high-fives all around before any of us in the peanut gallery has actually seen them but a moment later we have gone offroad to meet them.
They are incredibly close and don't seem to mind us very much after their big meal. Two females and three cubs. The dad is nowhere in sight, just like a modern day patchwork family he splits his time between them and another wife and kids. The cubs still sport the typical baby spots and paws that seem too big for the rest of their bodies. It is snack time for them and one after the other they wiggle closer to their mum to drink. Once they are done, one by one they roll off and fall asleep on the spot with what I think are happy faces.
"They are not gonna move anymore for a while now," Eric declares which means it is feeding time for us now - breakfast awaits. While I wish I could have taken another nap in my very comfy bed, I make do with a Bloody Mary, a Ranger's Omelette and a nap on the bus that takes us back to the airport. Just like a little lion cub, I am not very fussy after being fed and sport a happy face for the rest of the day.
Tips for visiting Game Reserves in KZN:
- If you base yourself in Durban you have the perfect location for safari and beach holidays. Durban has some of the nicest beaches in South Africa, great food and a vibrant art scene. From here it only takes 3 hours to get to Phinda, one of the best game reserves in Durban area.
- African safari cost vary greatly by country and game reserve. Phinda is definitely on the high end for a game reserve in KZN but worth it. Not only are their accommodation and food absolutely incredible but they also do a lot for rhino conservation and animal welfare in general.
- Pack safari clothes - sensible shoes, muted colores and a hat - Kwazulu Natal gets hot and the tracking vehicles are open air. Game reserves in KZN don’t require malaria prophylaxis but do bring a good DEET based mosquito spray.
- There are many direct flights to Durban from Europe and the US depending on the season. Alternatively you will have a layover in Johannesburg - if that is the case, do make sure you calculate enough time to pass through immigration and clear customs as you will need to get and recheck your luggage here.
Thank you very much, Thomas Cook, for the invitation and this amazing experience!