When it comes to what they have to offer to travelers, not many places in the world can compare to South Africa. I have been to more than 60 countries, and I have visited South Africa 3 times (twice in the last six months). This country has it all: beautiful cities; mountains, forests and hiking trails; gorgeous beaches; delicious food and fantastic wines; and an incredible array of wildlife, from the penguins and Southern Right Whales of the Western Cape region to the Big Five of the game reserves and national parks.
If you’re looking for wildlife, one of the nicest places to visit in South Africa is Phinda Private Game Reserve in Kwazulu Natal. Here, visitors get to stay in beautiful luxury lodges where they are completely immersed in nature and totally pampered by the staff.
Yet, it’s the wildlife that makes Prinda unforgettable.
I visited Phinda last November, on what became one of my most memorable trips. I’ve been to Africa before, and while I have great memories of other safaris, the game drives in Phinda were special. What I experienced there cannot be matched.
Wildlife Sighting in Phinda, South Africa
Game drives in Phinda are scheduled to maximize the chances of seeing animals. While elephants, giraffes, and zebras are easy to spot throughout the day, felines are mostly nocturnal creatures who hunt and live at night. They typically hide in the shade and away from the heat during the day.
A typical day in Phinda starts at 5:00 am, when guests of the lodges meet in the lobby for a quick coffee before they jump on the jeep (which never carries more than 7 passengers) with their assigned ranger and the tracker.
While the ranger drives the jeep and communicates with other rangers in the reserve, sharing tips on the latest sightings, the tracker carefully searches around for animals. He follows tracks in the sand; he smells the air; and he browses with his binoculars, which are a mere formality. His eyes are so accustomed to animals that he is able to spot them at a real distance even without the aid of binoculars!
Most game drives involve a lot of searching, and I won’t hide the fact that at times guests end up seeing nothing other than antelopes and a few zebras. Even then, the experience is pleasant. You sit in the open, breathing clean air, admiring the beautiful African sky, chatting to newly made friends and browsing the bush hoping to spot a lion or a leopard. All the while, the ranger shares information about the local wildlife.
Other game drives can be more exhilarating. At Phinda, I got to see lions mating, completely undisturbed by the presence of a few observers. I managed to see a few leopards; the best sighting was a female and her cubs drinking at a water hole.
My group also saw a cheetah and her cub, who put up a show of fun and games for us. We even found a hyena den, with a mom and her cubs who cheerfully played under our eyes. One came so close to the jeep to stare at us, as interested in us as we were in him. I really thought he’d jump on!
My favorite sighting, however, was of two male cheetahs. Things took an unexpected turn for the best that even the ranger was not expecting. He was as excited as the rest of us on the jeep which says a lot about how passionate the people are about the wildlife and the environment.
When Mother Nature Rules
The ranger received word that two male cheetahs had been spotted, resting on a small hill somewhere on the southern side of Phinda Game Reserve. We drove there for a chance to admire them, and sure enough they were there, beautiful and relaxed.
As we asked questions to our ranger, who commented with a few facts about cheetahs. Did you know that they are odd felines, in the sense that they don’t have night vision and so they hunt during the day? Did you know that male brothers spend their life together, even hunting together? As he shared these facts, we noticed that they were staring at something in the distance.
We looked in the same direction, with the help of binoculars, and managed to spot a solitary impala who looked lost and preoccupied. Impalas live and move around in groups. It’s the best way to protect themselves from predators because they can warn one another if they are under attack.
The lonely impala kept wandering in a circle. He looked around, trying to find his group, without much success. The cheetahs observed the impala in the distance, realizing he would make a good meal opportunity.
It didn’t take us long to understand that the cheetahs would have a go at the impala, and hunt it down. The ranger decided, as hard as it was to see the impala in the distance, that we wouldn’t move. This could give an advantage to either the impala or the cheetahs, and he wanted to make sure everything went according to nature. This is in line with the efforts to respect the environment and wildlife at Phinda Private Game Reserve.
We stayed put, quite a distance from the impala, as the two male cheetahs started making their move. They walked slowly, taking their time to get closer to their prey. As they approached, they crouched down to hide in the grass. We lost track of them for a while, and the impala was unaware of their presence.
It was only when they were about 20 meters away from the impala that they sprinted to catch him. Everything happened incredibly fast. The impala tried to run away, but within a few seconds the cheetahs got him by the throat and suffocated him. That’s when the ranger started the engine, and we drove closer to properly admire the scene.
Some of us cried, a wave of emotions washing over us; others were simply thrilled to experience something like this. Regardless of what emotions we felt, we all realized that there was nothing gruesome or cruel in what we’d seen. It was mother nature doing her job, and we were lucky to witness it.
We sat in the jeep near the cheetahs for a while, as they ate their prey. They took turns. One of them held down the impala while the other feasted it. They occasionally stood up, faces covered in blood, to make sure no other predators approached.
It was only as we drove away that we understood how incredible our experience was. As much as I try to write about it, no words will ever do justice to the scene we saw!
5 Tips for a Successful African Safari
A safari is an incredible experience, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to any nature and wildlife lover.
Pick the Right Company
Picking the right company is the key to a fantastic safari experience. Different companies go to the same places, but the experience and the wildlife sightings may vary greatly depending on the ranger, the car, and even the location of the lodges.
When selecting a company, make sure they work in a completely responsible way, respecting the environment, the wildlife, the workers and local communities. A good operator will train its rangers to strike a good balance between animal sighting and respecting their space. A good ranger always knows how close he can safely get to the animals without stressing them.
Listen to What the Ranger Has to Say
A good ranger typically meets his guests before embarking on a game drive and asks them what they are particularly keen on seeing. This is your chance to express your wildlife wishes. He’ll also give you a few simple instructions to follow during game drives.
The ranger will tell you not to move around the car, or to stand up unless he says it’s OK to do so. Too much movement breaks the shape of the car and will make you look like prey to felines. He’ll also tell you to keep your voice down when close to animals so they are not disturbed by noise and voices.
Keep in mind that the ranger is the best source of information about wildlife and the environment you’re visiting,. Ask questions and learn from his expertise!
Take a Good Camera Lens and Binoculars
One of the perks of going on a safari is all the amazing wildlife photo opportunities. Make sure to take a good lens with you; I recommend 70 – 300 mm as a minimum. A pair of good binoculars will help you spot wildlife in the distance.
Never underestimate the importance of being properly dressed for a safari!
- You will site in the jeep for hours, so make sure you wear comfortable clothes.
- Wear neutral colors like khaki, mauve, beige, taupe and light grey. You want to blend in with surroundings and avoid becoming a target for animals and insects alike.
- Layer up. Mornings are cold in the bush, but it quickly warms up throughout the day.
KÜHL has a great selection of clothes that are perfect for safaris. Here are my top picks for layers that work morning to night:
- Start with a pair of pants like the KLIFFSIDE CONVERTIBLE or INSPIRATR
- Pair bottoms with long-sleeve tops like the INVOKE or TRISTA HOODY
- Select a fleece like the AVALON in neutral stone or sage
- Top it off with the REKON JACKET
Last, but definitely not least, make sure to bring a good dose of patience. A safari is a thrilling experience, but there will be times when drive around in circles looking for animals that are nowhere to be found. It just means that the experience is real! Make the most of those slow moments to appreciate the environment. Look at the beautiful African sky, and smell the clean air.
Claudia is a former human rights lawyer who changed careers to follow her true calling. She now travels around the world in search of adventures and unique hiking experiences. Follow her travels at My Adventures Across the World.