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may 5 th, 2004 -> Our Super Shi-Shi Safari : south africa

My heart was thumping. A circle of thorn scrub was all that separated us from the white rhino and her calf. We had approached from downwind, slinking from bush to bush. The rhino has excellent hearing, but poor eyesight. Then again, myopia isn’t exactly a problem when the intruders (us) are standing just meters away. This was as close to wildlife as I would care to get. But it was exactly what we had paid for.

I had wanted to do something special for Nori’s birthday. I had heard that Conservation Corporation of Africa (“CC Africa”) ran excellent, luxurious safaris, but had assumed that the price would be prohibitive. In Cape Town , I visited CC Africa’s desk on the second floor of the incredible South Africa Tourism Office. We were in luck. During the off-season, CC Africa offers special “bush break” packages for South Africans, at about one-fourth the normal cost. The helpful saleslady was willing to offer us the South African rates. I wanted to do a walking safari at the Phinda Reserve – where we tracked animals on foot, and saw things you can’t see from inside a van. I thought the safari would be excellent way to celebrate both Nori’s birthday, and the end of our successful African journey.

Phinda Game Reserve lies in the far east of South Africa , near Swaziland and the southern Mozambique . The reserve is relatively small at 17,000 hectares, but it shelters an amazing diversity of natural environments. In the south of the reserve, the Mzinene River flows past yellow-barked acacias and the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains . In the north are savannah and marshland, as well as large areas of sand forest – a unique biome built upon the deep sands of ancient coastal dunes. Phinda is also adjacent to the enormous St. Lucia Wetland Park – a World Heritage Site that is a bird-lovers dream. But Phinda is not ‘natural’ in the strictest sense. What is now a thriving wilderness used to be a patchwork of pastureland and fruit plantations. CC Africa bought up the land, ploughed the fields under, replanted natural vegetation and undertook one of the most extensive game restocking programs in African history. Appropriately, Phinda mean “The Return” in the Zulu language.

The animals seemed to find it natural enough. During our six days at Phinda, we saw lions, leopards, and cheetahs; rhino, elephants, and hippos; buffaloes and wildebeests; zebras and giraffes. While Phinda does not have large herds of animals – as in Etosha in Namibia , or the Serengeti in Tanzania – the diversity of habitat means that a wide variety of animals can be seen. Two of the smallest antelopes, the duiker and the suni, live in the sand forest. Hippos inhabit the shallows of the river. Rhinos can often be found in the northern savannah. Elephants roam the mixed broadleaf forests. And the birdlife is astounding: malachite kingfishers, African jacanas, purple-crested louries, and scarlet-chested sunbirds to name a few.

While on the walking safari, we stayed at the Tented Camp. What we did was not actually camping, however. We were in the bush, and there was a tent and a campfire, but the similarities ended there. There was no ‘roughing it.’ Our tent had a comfortable bed with a fluffy comforter, a hanging wardrobe, and an attached bathroom with flush toilet and hot/cold shower. The ‘camp’ lounge was a canvas tent enclosing a sofa, bar and refrigerator filled with cold drinks. All our excellent meals were cooked over an enormous fire and served on china, with silver silverware and starched napkins. All house wines, sodas, and spirits were included in the price. We were completely – and unabashedly – spoiled.

Every morning, after a few cups of strong coffee, we would walk to the custom-built, open-topped Land Rover, say hello to our tracker, Aaron (a Zulu), and drive off to look for animals. John, our guide, was a knowledgeable and friendly white Zimbabwean. Aaron was perched on a fold-out seat above the hood, from where he could scan the sandy ground for fresh prints. When Aaron found something interesting, we stopped, hopped out of the vehicle and headed into the bush. John had a rifle and Aaron a machete, but it did not calm my nerves. There could lions in that high grass, or leopards about to pounce from above, or buffaloes about to charge from the bushes. I kept thinking of a certain Far Side cartoon: two alligators, bellies distended, basking in the sun next to an overturned canoe and a pile of human bones. “That was great. No feathers, no scales. Just soft and pink.”

What was best about the game walks were the little things. We learned how to identify the tracks. We snuck up on monitor lizards. We saw several dung beetles rolling their balls of poop down the road. We saw the round patches of ground that territorial wildebeests stomp out to mark their domain. We saw the holes that rhinos gouge to clean their horns. John told us about the trees, the flowers, the butterflies and animals. We learned more in three days than we had learned in all our other safaris combined.

After the walk, we returned to camp, devoured a huge breakfast cooked over the fire, and then had the rest of the afternoon to rest, relax, and read. In the early afternoon was a largely unnecessary lunch (which we all ate greedily) and then we were off for our afternoon game drive in the Land Rover. We had several incredible experiences on the game drives. On the first evening, we watched two male lions have a serious fight. Just a few moments earlier, the head of the pride had surprised us by walking right beside the vehicle. We hadn’t even heard him coming; suddenly Nori was looking right at him. We saw a young male elephant in heat (please see the photo and look for the extra 28 kilogram ‘leg.’) We saw a leopard drooped over a tree limb, having abandoned his kill to a pack of wild boars. After a ‘sundowner’ in the bush, Aaron brought out the spotlight and we looked for nocturnal animals as we drove back to camp. We saw our first and only galago – or bushbaby – an arboreal primate who looks more possum than monkey.

After so much hardship at the ‘camp,’ I thought we should recharge our batteries with two days at the luxurious Rock Lodge, located inside the reserve. If you think my writing is florid, allow me quote from the CC Africa brochure. “Set into a cliff face overlooking spectacular Leopard Rock, Rock Lodge is an architectural fascination combining Malian influences with pueblo panache. Six contoured stone and adobe suites are seemingly suspended over the deep valley below, with solid wooden shutters and doors opening to a private plunge pool at eye level with the soaring eagles.” The whole Mali/pueblo thing is overwrought, but the rest of the description is quite accurate. We were given the honeymoon suite – a large free-standing house, in fact. On the first night, there was only one other couple staying at the Lodge: an elegant lady (who I still think might have been a movie star) and her gregarious, racehorse-trainer husband.

The routine was similar to that of the tented camp, except that we had two game drives a day. In order to get the full experience, we chose several other activities. On the first evening, we went on a sunset cruise down the river. Peter joined us on the boat, and we were able to invite him for dinner at the Rock Lodge. On the final morning, we took the Flight of the Fish Eagle – an hour’s flight over the reserve, the St. Lucia wetlands, and the ocean near Sondwana Bay . It was an amazing experience. A rampart of vegetated sand dunes rises between the wetland and the ocean. Our pilot kept us close to the treetops as we soared up and over the dunes, and then quickly dipped towards the ocean. It was like watching an IMAX film, only better. The water was incredibly clear: we were able to spot whale sharks, turtles, and manta rays from several hundred feet above the surface. It was a great way to end six incredible days.

“Why can’t we do this more often?” Nori asked.