It’s not often you meet someone who has performed the Heimlich manoeuvre on a fully grown nyala bull. But then Phinda Private Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal’s answer to Mpumalanga’s Sabi Sand Reserve, is not your run-of-the-mill place.
I first met Martin Nzwire in the days when Phinda still ran the sand forest walking trail where we stayed overnight in small tents.
He was the camp cook, whipping up homemade bread and potjiekos in an oven which was just a box in the ground. Today, based at Vlei Lodge, he is one of Phinda’s top guides whose knowledge of the bush is matched only by his amazing wildlife experiences.
He and his tracker, Josiah, held down the choking nyala bull until it coughed up a large monkey orange that had stuck in its throat.
“It was a bit groggy for a while,” remembers Martin, “then it tottered off into the bush. We were a bit tired,” he adds laconically.
Phinda means “The Return” in Zulu and today the former pineapple farms, overgrazed pastures, wire fences and habitat destruction of 20 years ago are only a memory.
Since 1991, the previously degraded area has been restocked with game including the Big Five, the bush is once again pristine, and in a historic land distribution deal the area has been restored to its ancestral owners who are joint partners in the reserve.
Phinda sits in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal in Maputaland, and is home to seven distinct habitats including the unique sand forest, sweeping savanna and lush wetlands.
If you can tear yourself away from the wilderness you can watch the great sea turtles lay and hatch on deserted beaches, scuba dive on the reefs at Sodwana Bay, swim with whale sharks or go whale watching.
But on this occasion I’m strictly beating about the bush. The sand forest (once the dunes of an ancient coastline) is a magical place. It’s quite dark, with shafts of sunlight now and again illuminating the sandy forest floor.
Giant acacia trees, straight out of a Grimm fairytale, some over 1 000 years old, stand sentinel over their smaller neighbours, many festooned with lichens such as old man’s deard, epiphytic orchids (they’re the ones that grow out of the branches) and swinging vines that would challenge Tarzan.
Its residents are shy and elusive, but we spot several red duikers which are endemic to this eastern part of SA, and weighing in at just 4kg, the tiny Suni antelope which stays mostly hidden lest a crowned eagle or African rock python fancies it as a tasty takeaway.
If you’re a birder (and even if you’re not) you’ll spot the charismatic purple-crested turaco (formerly the humbly named loerie), every twitcher’s dream – the pink-throated twinspot, and the tiny (but very noisy) green-backed cameroptera (bleating warbler).
The first night, I stay at the award-winning Forest Lodge where only floor-to-ceiling glass walls are between you and the trees. That morning on our game drive, after a wake-up call at 5.30am, we set off into the reserve to see what’s happening.
My friend Coral and I are sharing the game vehicle with an American family from Florida just arrived in Africa for the first time. Barry, our game ranger from Forest Lodge, warns them not to expect a “Ferrari Safari” where things happen with the regularity and speed of a National Geographic special.
Murphy’s law immediately kicks in because what’s happening is a mother leopard out for a daybreak hunt alongside a dam with three small cubs scurrying along behind her.
Minutes later, a large male lion comes down to drink. “Mustafa!” choruses the family. (The Lion King continues to be a big hit in the US.)
Barry points out that lions kill leopards and their cubs. After all, they are competitors.
In the next three hours we see the Big Five, plus scores of plains game and wonderful birds.
“It’s just like National Geographic,” comments the youngest son.
(How do you explain to first-timers that this is really amazing game viewing and that they are super-lucky?)
But that’s what’s so wondrous about the bush – you never know what’s round the next corner.
The next day we are based at the gorgeous Vlei Lodge, where six suites look out over undulating grasslands that stretch to the horizon. It’s winter, so everywhere is dry, dry, dry.
At noon, I sit on the deck beside my private plunge pool and count 17 species of bird coming down to bathe and drink.
My neighbour’s suite is some 50m away and she is sharing her pool with some thirsty elephants which are busy siphoning up the water. Understandably, she delays her midday dip.
On the evening drive we follow two cheetah brothers hunting. The traditional sundowners of G&Ts, chilled white wine or brandy and Coke are delayed because a leopard has been sighted.
Because this is a private reserve we can drive off-road and for the next hour or so serious bundu-bashing takes place.
We bump and grind over and around aardvark holes, through dense thickets, in between thorny branches, up and down humps and hills. All by the light of the headlights, a spotlight and the full moon.
Eventually we lurch to a halt. The night is silent and still. “There’s a leopard lying on your right,” says Martin quietly.
And indeed there was. It lay on its back, massive paws in the air, the roseate-shaped spots heaving softly as it slumbered peacefully, totally oblivious of our presence.
After sundowners by the full moon, as we chug along back to camp, five hyenas are cruising along beside the road. We stop, they sniff the air, give us a contemptuous stare and move off into the forest. Just another day in Africa…
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* Tip: always enquire about special offers. There are often great ones going, especially in off-peak times.