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Beyond The Wild
THE CALL OF the wild is what brings us to South Africa, and while predators hunting prey is a stark reality, it’s still hard to watch a scene so ferociously primal - a pride of lions devouring a rhinoceros calf unlucky enough to be brought down.
We stifle our gag reflex at this visual and olfactory feast, yet are mesmerized enough not to want to leave just yet. When we do, it is to retire to the civilized and luxuriously appointed surroundings of Phinda Mountain Lodge, where our own dinner and more wildlife adventures await the next day.
And so this upscale African safari unfolds, with us spotting the Big Five and more at Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal – a coastal province with mountainous regions in southeast South Africa.
Run by the andBeyond group, this fenced private game reserve covers 286 sq km - ensuring a huge swathe of woodland, grassland, wetland and even sand forest for a controlled number of vehicles, so you don’t see a large congregation of Land Cruisers whenever an animal or some special action is spotted. With eagle-eyed rangers well-versed with local terrain and wildlife, strangers (read: poachers) are less likely to come in to pick the animals off.
It’s hard to imagine this vast and thriving reserve was derelict farmland about 30 years ago. That was before the founders of andBeyond realised their vision of transforming it into conservation land through land rehabilitation and wildlife reintroduction in 1991 – described as one of the world’s most ambitious and successful models for ecotourism.
Driven by its core values of Care of the Land, Wildlife and People, they called it Phinda, meaning “the return” in Zulu. Indeed, not only was wildlife returned to the rejuvenated land, but over the years, a significant portion of the land has also been returned to its ancestral owners in a partnership between andBeyond and its neighbouring communities.
Such is the success of the partnership that the communities have requested the returned land be incorporated into Phinda because conservation tourism has given them the best financial returns.
To care for the people, andBeyond established a fund in 1992, now the independent, non-profit Africa Foundation, which works closely with the rural African communities neighbouring Phinda, empowering them to successfully develop on a sustainable scale. Amongst other things, Africa Foundation has provided support to 10 high schools, 20 primary schools, one special-needs school, 15 crèches, as well as two medical clinics in the area – on top of training, job opportunities and tertiary education for deserving students.
With flourishing wildlife across seven distinct habitats, Phinda has donated lions and in 2013, became the first private game reserve to give rhinos to another country.
Amid ongoing conservation, protection, monitoring, maintenance and research, Phinda is partnering the African Pangolin Working Group in a path-finding project to reverse the locally extinct pangolin population. Not only is this the first of its kind for pangolins worldwide, it is also key to the long-term survival of the heavily poached species.
The model is sustained by revenue from the six award-winning luxury safari lodges built within Phinda. The recently-renovated Phinda Mountain Lodge with its sweeping views of the Ubombo mountain range and surrounding Zululand bush, is the family-friendly flagship with 16 suites, six cottages and one family suite. The other five lodges are more intimate, with each sporting a unique design, character and setting. And of course, all lodges are full board, including tea breaks and bush bars that rangers merrily set up for thirsty travellers in the middle of twice-daily game drives.
Today, the success of andBeyond’s painstaking efforts to reintroduce native wildlife in its early years is evident throughout Phinda. We followed three lionesses on the hunt, silently flanking their potential prey; and two cheetah brothers tensely patrolling their territory, never looking in the same direction at the same time. A herd of elephants emerged from the woodlands; a mother and calf pair of hippos enjoyed a soak; and in some extraordinary drama – a pair of leopards mated with, well, wild abandon.
We felt the vibrations of a lion roaring metres from our vehicle – a magnificent event that led to him flopping onto his side immediately after. We marvelled at the capacity of the white rhino’s bladder, whose pee gushed out in such a powerful and sustained jet, he could have put out a bushfire. And it was always amusing – plus strangely mesmerizing – watching dung beetles frantically rolling their perfectly spherical dung balls.
As our ranger, Grant, pointed out different animals, it was intriguing to observe the latter’s behaviours – the shy jackal and scrub hare in the savannah who quickly darted away, a female cheetah nervously checking for predators and scavengers before taking bites off her fresh kill, a clash of white rhinos “having a bit of an argy-bargy” – with the confrontation ending when the offender wisely decided he was outnumbered and better off grazing on grass instead.
Not surprisingly, the hardest to track down was the rare and highly endangered black rhino, which we almost missed because he was hanging out with a herd of buffaloes.
Because of the abundance and diversity of wildlife encounters, it didn’t take long before the sightings of impalas, giraffes, wildebeest, zebras and warthogs went from “marvellous” to “meh”, as we looked to Grant and our tracker Sifiso, to help us find the next thrill.
Still, seeing the natural world go about its business and observing its power and balance – from the strength of the male lion’s paws in flipping a dead rhino calf over, to the claw marks on the rump of zebras which survived a lion’s attack – remains awe-inspiring. That, plus a tiny bit intimidating, because occasionally, you are reminded that the handsome big cats sauntering within patting distance have soft, realistic hair because they are real.
The writer was a guest of Phinda Mountain Lodge. For bookings or more information go to www.andBeyond.com.
01 PANGOLIN CONSERVATION EXPERIENCE
This can’t be recommended enough. Most people don’t even know what pangolins are, and very few will ever see one. Yet, these gentle and solitary mammals are the most trafficked in the world - because some people in China and Vietnam think their scales, which are made of keratin, just like our hair and nails, have medicinal value.
Thanks to Phinda’s involvement in a pangolin conservation project, guests now have the rare opportunity to see these critically endangered animals, as pangolins rescued from the illegal wildlife trade are rehabilitated, then released here. To closely monitor and research these elusive mammals, each pangolin wears two tracking tags, which require regular replacements.
Guests will follow Phinda’s specialist conservation team as they locate the animal, replace the tags, do general health checks and gather crucial research data. The pangolin will then be released, and if it is relaxed, can be followed to observe its behaviour and feeding.
The experience doesn’t come cheap at ZAR 30,000 (about S$2800) for a maximum group size of six, but that’s only because the money goes to the costly and frequent replacement of tags.
02 AFRICA FOUNDATION
Generally, guests are not charged for this community excursion, which offers a great opportunity to learn more about the people of KwaZulu-Natal - via first-hand knowledge of the Foundation’s various projects in the area to improve education, healthcare and access to water, as well as develop local businesses.
Visit Khulani Special School, created by two community members for children with disabilities who previously had to travel over 150 km to the nearest formal special needs school; and Mduku Clinic, built by Africa Foundation in 1995, and now operating 24 hours a day, with a TB/HIV facility to boot. Prior to this, the closest hospital was 70 kilometres away, with the only access to a nurse being a mobile clinic that visited fortnightly.
Contribute to the local economy and empower women by buying handmade gifts from the Mhbedula Craft Market, which is run by a cooperative of local women and sells woven, wood and bead products they make.
Most of all, visit Nkomo Full Service Primary School to meet its vivacious founder-principal Nomusa Zikhali (aka Mama Z). Her extremely inspiring story of pursuing education for children despite ridicule, having to cross a croc-infested river twice daily to get to and back from
“school” and teaching from under a tree is movie script-worthy. Today, Nkomo is a full service primary school with more than 20 classrooms and over 1,000 pupils.
03 SLEEPING UNDER THE STARS
Comfy beds draped with billowing mosquito nets in the bush. Above you, the starry night sky and around you, chairs surrounding a campfire while twinkling lanterns hang. The evening starts with sundowner drinks, followed by a delicious meal. Fret not about getting eaten right in your bed, as an armed guard patrols the site all night.