Take a look at this,” James Walker says, as he puts his foot on the brake of the safari vehicle we are in and points towards a seemingly inconspicuous old gnarly fallen tree. Merely 10 minutes have passed since we set off from Andbeyond Phinda Forest Lodge, surrounded by dense vegetation, and we are already spotting some unusual markings along the dirt track. “It’s a Sandveld newtonia, a very special species of tree that you find only around here,” our guide explains. “It grows at a very slow rate of about 1mm to 2mm a year, so this one is at least several hundred years old. A herd of elephants came through here not long ago and knocked the tree over.”
The elephants are but one of many large mammals that call Andbeyond Phinda’s private game reserve home. Established in 1991, the reserve has been introduced with various other animals such as lions, cheetahs, and the white and (very rarely sighted) black rhinos. It is sprawled across some 25,000ha. Of this, about 1,000ha in the north of the reserve comprise dry forest on deep grey sands, which are the fossil dunes of an ancient coastline. It is here that the lodge – acclaimed as one of the world’s first eco-designed luxury lodges – is sited. Each room is raised on stilts and fitted with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, allowing for a sweeping view of the sand forest on all sides. The spacious bathrooms, which overlook the surrounding vegetation and canopy, afford a sense of zen and tranquillity.
Driving a little farther, we emerge from the forest onto open land, with a spectacular view stretching as far as the eye can see. In the distance, we notice tiny figures slowly making their way towards a watering hole. Walker, peering through his binoculars, announces: “Rhinos. Let’s catch up with them.”
As we cautiously approach the magnificent creatures while keeping a safe distance in our vehicle, we observe that horns are missing from the rhinoceroses. Walker shares that Andbeyond adopts a pre-emptive measure of dehorning them to deter poaching. “It doesn’t hurt the animal,” we later learn from Simon Naylor, Phinda’s habitat manager, who says that a rhino can produce about 50kg of horn in its lifetime. Dehorning is carefully carried out as and when the horns grow back, which usually takes a couple of years.
In addition to focusing on animal conservation and eco-tourism, Andbeyond works closely with communities surrounding the wildlife areas that it operates. This is done through its community development partner, Africa Foundation, an independent tax-exempt non-profit organisation registered in South Africa. Explains our Africa Foundation guide Bheki: “Our social projects are named after the communities. We work with chiefs and their assistants and seek their opinions on how we can help and what roles we can play.” The efforts extend to providing health care and education.
Bird’s Eye View
After spending a night at Forest Lodge, we leave the following day for Andbeyond Phinda Mountain Lodge. Perched on a mountain crest, the luxury lodge offers enthralling views of the surrounding bushveld where, in the horizon, the dramatic landscape seems to meet the clear blue skies. Each individual private suite comes with its own viewing deck and verandah, with an adjoining plunge pool and outdoor shower to cool off during the warmer months. So spacious and homey is the suite that we didn’t want to leave, if not for the promise of a rewarding game drive.
In the open airy courtyard, next to the lodge’s restaurant and souvenir shop, we meet our guide, Andrew MacFarlane, who promises us that we will get to see most, if not all, of the big five. We learn from him that the mountain is home to two prides of lions, with one dominant male being the father of a few cubs that are several months old, and a few others that are a little more than a year old. “When the cubs reach two years of age, the father will chase them out of the pride; otherwise, they might fight for mating rights with their mothers,” he explains.
Estimates place the number of cheetahs on the reserve at around 30, and the trackers and guides can locate their whereabouts with relative ease. Leopards, however, are a different story. They prove to be extremely elusive, and, as it turns out, we would not see one on this trip.
The next morning, we hear news from one of the guides that a pride of lions has just made a kill, so we set off bright and early, hoping to be among the first on the scene. We arrive to see the lions resting, and glimpse a zebra carcass under a tree nearby. MacFarlane explains that lions hide their kill under trees to prevent them from being spotted by birds of prey and scavengers. Not long after, the lions make their way towards the kill and tear into the zebra, beginning from the animal’s rear end.
By now, the rumbling of our tummies is nearly as loud as the growling of the lions, so we head back to the lodge for breakfast and to luxuriate in our suites. Following a heavy lunch at the lodge’s dining hall, we set off for another afternoon game drive, which customarily continues till after dusk. The terrain here in this part of Phinda is noticeably hillier, and from certain vantage points just before twilight, the characteristic yellow-green of distant fever trees in the valleys look almost surreal.
Returning to the lodge in the evening, we adjourn to the dining room for dinner. A typical meal in South Africa is usually meat-heavy, and it seems especially fitting that during our time here we should take every opportunity to tuck into game and speciality offerings such as kudu (a species of large antelope) and Karoo lamb, which gets its distinct flavour from the lamb’s diet of shrubs and bushes.
Bank On It
After spending a few days at Phinda, we depart for Zambia, from where we cross the border to Zimbabwe on our way to Andbeyond Matetsi River Lodge. Sited on the banks of the Zambezi, the luxury lodge comprises two camps of just nine suites each, with every suite spaced comfortably apart. Decked out in warm wood and stone with contemporary furnishings and fixtures, the suite is bright and airy in the day and dim and cosy at night. The design of the lodge makes full use of the 15km concession of private Zambezi river frontage, so whether you are dining at the guest areas or lounging next to your private plunge pool, you get to take in a dramatic view of the river.
Covering about 45,000ha, Andbeyond Matetsi’s game reserve is significantly larger than Phinda’s, with its own unique terrain and wildlife. Here you typically get to see the usual suspects like lions, elephants and zebras, as well as a diversity of birds such as hornbills, kingfishers, African fish eagle, spur-winged geese (the largest of the geese family), and the incredibly beautiful lilac-breasted roller (supposedly the national bird of Botswana). Our guide, Milton Mpuche, informs me that the river is home to about eight different species of fish, which include tiger fish, bream, catfish and nembwe – sport fishermen should have their rods and tackle ready.
Being on the Zambezi, Matetsi gives you the opportunity to go on a luxurious water safari, which is a great way to spot crocodiles and hippopotamuses. Land animals such as elephants and lions also come to the river to drink, so you might have a good chance at spotting them by the banks. Up river, villagers can be seen fishing using reeds that grow in abundance. As with all Andbeyond game drives, drinks and snacks are available if you are feeling peckish.
One of the must-see places on your itinerary when you visit Matetsi is Victoria Falls, which is a mere 40km from the lodge. Known in an indigenous tongue as “the smoke that thunders”, it is the largest (based on combined width and height) waterfall in the world. We recommend seeing the falls in the morning, returning to the lodge for lunch, then going out on a river cruise to see the sunset. Peak season is from April to July, which is when the falls is most breathtaking; bring a raincoat.
On one of our last nights at Matetsi, the team has one last surprise in store for us. After nightfall following a game drive, on our way back to the lodge (or so we thought), Mpuche takes a detour, and, before we know it, we find ourselves jumping off the vehicle in the middle of nowhere to a warm welcome from the staff at the lodge. It turns out they have just set up our dining table under the stars next to the Zambezi, while nearby the chefs watch over an array of meats, fish and vegetables on the grill. It is one of the little treats Andbeyond offers, giving guests an opportunity to pull up a chair out in the wilderness to dine (while guards patrol the area so we don’t in turn become dinner).
Speaking as one who has finally been there, southern Africa truly has a lot to offer – from the lush environs of the unique sand forest to the wildest boundaries of the savannahs, enthralling surprises await at every turn. Exploring them will take a bit of time and patience, but it is all worth it. And it isn’t just about getting a once-in-a-lifetime luxury safari experience; the animals and the communities benefit too.
For more information, visit: andbeyond.com
How to get there:
Shuffling between South Africa and the various andBeyond private game reserves is a breeze with easily available domestic flights operated by South African Airways (SAA).
From O.R. Tambo, you can fly in to Durban to get to Phinda, or to Livingstone in Zambia to cross the border before arriving at Matetsi in Zimbabwe. For long-haul flights in particular, business class on SAA affords a highly pleasant and comfortable flying experience. The airline’s carefully curated food and beverage menus feature a selection of the best that South Africa has to offer.
South African Airways (SAA) offers daily services between Asia and South Africa. Book your flight through http://www.flysaa.com