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A Safari with style and substance

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1 June 2009 by Pete Mathers

Pete Mathers finds safari nirvana in South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve and visits those set to benefit from the Wexas Travel Foundation.

A squeal of excitement got caught in my throat. All eyes followed the tracks in the long grass that crossed the dirt road and stopped just short of the treeline. A female cheetah had dragged an impala towards relative safety and was lying in the grass beside her still-warm dinner, recovering her energy. We couldn’t have missed the kill by more than a minute.

“She’s nervous,” explained our ranger, Richard, as he drew us alongside her. “Dusk is a dangerous time for cheetahs. They prefer to hunt by day, when there’s less chance of lions or leopards trying to poach their prey. She’s built for speed not hand-to-hand combat. If another cat came to scrounge a free meal, she’d probably be forced to flee.” As he spoke she began to feed quickly, looking up periodically, her ears pricked against danger. She went straight for the most nutritious cuts first, the rump then the vital organs, so as not to miss out if she was forced to cut and run.

I was awe-struck. An hour earlier I’d arrived in heavy rain at Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal. The sky had sagged earthwards and rain had turned the pot-holed ochre road into a gloopy chocolate milkshake.

Yet in the space of an hour the sky had lifted, birds had begun chirping and I’d been whisked from the lodge to join an afternoon game drive. I’d met Richard, our Zulu tracker Zama, and Andrew and Sarah, a young couple from Johannesburg who’d flown down to Phinda for a weekend safari. Ten minutes later we were watching as a cheetah devoured an impala. Not a bad first sighting for my first ever game drive.

Phinda Private Game Reserve and its six luxurious lodges are owned and managed by &BEYOND (formerly CC Africa), a luxury safari operator with nearly 50 cThe reserve is long and thin, comprising 23,000 hectares of Big Five wilderness and seven distinct habitats – from rare sand forest to wetlands, grasslands and woodlands, interspersed by snaking rivers and green-ridged mountains.

I was staying at Forest Lodge, the original camp on the site, set deep in the heart of the sand forest. Whoever said that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones could well have been thinking of the lodge’s private suites. Break any of the floor-to-ceiling glass walls and you’re practically inviting the wildlife inside. One evening, as I soaked in my free-standing bathtub, I looked up to see a striped nyala saunter slowly past the window. That’s not to say there’s no privacy. Towering torchwood trees and thick foliage give a genuine sense of seclusion. The 16 suites are well spaced throughout the forest, connected by sandy pathways, and it’s essential to have a guard with you if you leave after dark. This is lion country after all.

But lions were the last thing on my mind when the phone rang at five the next morning. “Your wake-up call Mr Mathers.”

“Thank you,” I replied. “I’m awake.” In truth I was still half asleep as I walked to the open-air dining deck that looks out across the plains. Whether I’ve the coffee to thank or the sight of galloping wildebeest I don’t know, but as I climbed aboard an open-top Land Cruiser for game drive number two, I was brimming once again with excitement.

We saw a lot that morning, from zebras and giraffes to a bachelor group of three male buffalo, all scratching and peeing as they struggled to wake up. “Like all males first thing in the morning,” Sarah was quick to point out. My favourites were a troop of chacma baboons. Early morning is a great time to find them. Overjoyed that they’ve made it through the night, they tend to relax before the serious business of finding food begins. One picked his teeth with a twig, another sat examining his feet, pulling his toes apart and peering in between. Youngsters chased each other across the branches of fig trees or played leapfrog on the ground below. In the middle sprawled the dominant male, reclining on a tree stump as subordinates groomed him in return for his protection.

Our journey back to camp was interrupted when news of a rare sighting was shared across the radio. We arrived in time to see a bird’s rear end disappearing down the throat of an African rock python. A spurwing goose? A cormorant? No one could be sure. All we had to go on were its black and white tail feathers and pink webbed feet.

Most guests snooze around the pool after breakfast but I had another objective. As members will know, the Wexas Travel Foundation is raising money to help Africa Foundation build classrooms in schools around Phinda. I’d arranged to meet a woman who could show me how the money will be spent. Nondumiso Sibaya, 26, grew up in Nibela, one of five rural communities around Phinda. At high school she was taught beneath a tree until Africa Foundation helped the school build its first two classrooms. Keen to give something back, she found work as a housekeeper at Forest Lodge. Today, having progressed through switchboard operator and safari shop manager, she runs the DevCentre in Mduku, where rural communities can access technology – another Africa Foundation success story.

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