This was Shaka Zulu’s kingdom. Then the colonialists came and hunted almost everything to the brink of extinction. Civilisation carved the land up into farms bearing pineapple, sisal, and cattle. Then, in 1991, the hands of time were rewound. This degraded farmland in northern KwaZulu Natal was restored to its former glory and restocked with the beasts that used to roam its undulating hills. Today, Phinda Private Game Reserve is an exemplar of ecotourism underpinned by &Beyond’s unwavering philosophy of giving back.
As its name suggests, Phinda Mountain Lodge – one of six &Beyond lodges on the reserve – falls into the ‘rocky hillside’ region of Phinda’s seven biospheres. Twenty-four suites have been aesthetically integrated into this natural landscape so you can barely see that they’re there. The main lodge has been built around an open central courtyard featuring an enormous, fantastically wonky Zulu basket and a ghostly grouping of fever trees. These trees have a ghoulish green bark, which local sangomas (shamans) use to make muti (medicine) in order to commune with their ancestral world. Local legend has it, if you sprinkle your bath with its mystical dried bark, you can wish for whatever your heart desires. The building has been designed so that, as you mount its red-bricked stairs, your eye travels straight through this courtyard, past the trees, to the sweeping vistas on the other side.
I’m sucked through the lodge out onto the curving wooden deck, drawn by the fading horizons of the Lebombo Mountains topped with clotted-cream clouds. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Lake St Lucia in the neighbouring iSimangaliso Wetland Park from where we’ve just travelled. Phinda, which means “The Return” in Zulu, is the birthplace of &Beyond. Not only was this land returned to its original state and the wildlife returned to the land, but 9 000 hectares was also returned to its ancestral owners who were dispossessed during the Apartheid era. It all began in 1990 with a collaboration of conservationists, a clear vision, and a desire to do things differently. Phinda Mountain Lodge, &Beyond’s flagship retreat, opened its doors a year later and the company started trading.
Today, the 23,000-hectare reserve is an ecotourism success story made possible by the visionary company’s philanthropic approach. &Beyond believes in taking less and giving more and this simple philosophy is consciously applied to every action, big and small. Through its partnership with Africa Foundation, the company positively impacts surrounding communities through an abundance of initiatives from healthcare to childcare. And through creating jobs like the role of our personal butler, Shelby. Baby-faced and bashful, he busies himself getting our drinks: double espresso for Justin and earl grey tea for me. I tear myself away from the view and sink into a brown-and-cream upholstered couch while our hostess graciously divulges the Phinda itinerary. Like most private game reserves, guests receive two game drives a day when animals are at their most active. But we’ve decided to forfeit our afternoon drive so Justin can photograph the lodge instead.
The main lounge area, which flows out onto the wooden deck, is the sort of place that makes you want to kick back and mingle. It’s dominated by an oversized fireplace with a dry stone mantle and filigree grate on one side and a marble bar displaying rows of Méthode Cap Classique (South African champagne) on the other. Above, leather-strip chandeliers hang from wooden beams and, below, polished concrete floors are warmed by Nguni cattle-skin rugs. The room encapsulates the spirit of the bold and fearless warriors who inspired it. Zulu artefacts adorn the walls, while mirrors reflect strategically placed animal horns. But there’s a colonial element here too: worn leather binocular cases hang from an antique hat stand and a chess set that’s seen many checkmates stands ready for a duel. The expansive dining room is more glass window than walls. From our raised position, we can see out over the treetops to the horizon, which reels away to vast tracts of sky.
We lunch on homemade sesame rolls and salads served in little ceramic bowls. When I put my knife and fork together, satisfied, the main course arrives: thick slabs of pork rib with crackling, mini quiches, spicy bean salad and a curried mango atchar. I can’t resist. When I help myself to some more water chilling in a giant silver server, Shelby comes to my assistance. I ask him where he’s from. He smiles shyly and points over the hills, “Mngobokazi.” I have to get him to write it down. Later I learn that it’s the Makhasa and Mngobokazi people that had their ancestral land returned to them. &Beyond signed a 72-year lease with the communities, paying rent on an escalating basis, to continue running its ecotourism lodges. In this way, everyone benefits: the land, the wildlife and the local people.
We are led down a snaking path through dense bush – buffalo thorn, red ivory, red bushwillow – to room number 14, positioned at the outer reaches of the camp. An electric blue lizard solar powers itself in the sun, refusing to expend any energy except to tilt its head in our direction as we troop past. Our luggage has been placed in the open-plan entrance/wardrobe area behind an interior wall, which ends at ceiling height. Except there is no ceiling. A towering thatch roof lends the spacious room, flanked by glass doors at the far end, even loftier dimensions. Steps lead down to a snug couch opposite a minibar loaded with every drink imaginable. The bathroom is equally as impressive. Glass doors run its length, bathing it with light and offering both the freestanding bathtub and the glass-enclosed shower spectacular views. We step out onto the wooden deck with ‘aaah’s’ of appreciation. Our balcony, which features its own private plunge pool, sun loungers and an outdoor shower, cantilevers out over the bushveld below. It’s all I can see for miles, except for the prehistoric frame of a white rhino grazing in the distance.
Our arrival at the reserve has coincided with &Beyond Phinda’s announcement that they plan to dehorn all their rhino. Dreadful times mean drastic measures. On our recent visit to nearby Hluhluwe-iMfolozi another rhino had just been poached (totalling an average of 15 rhino per month this year) and neighbouring Mkuze Game Reserve is haunted with the ghosts of empty wallows and untrodden paths. There are no rhino left. Phinda’s history books have only seen a handful of these horrific incidents, making the reserve a relative success story. Along with investing heavily in security, the decision to dehorn is an effective preventative measure. Phinda is also a no-flight zone and any unannounced helicopters or airplanes will snap security (and the governmental anti-poaching unit ZAP-Wing) to attention in a flash. But it’s more than just tightly run security. This is where the company’s vision, over 25 years ago, was as beneficial as looking into a crystal ball. &Beyond knew that the only way to run a successful ecotourism venture was to work with the community. As a result, Phinda is not targeted as much as other game reserves.
Nikki Muller, our game ranger, has the square jaw and shoulders of a fictional action hero. We’ve arranged to meet him in the lounge area before dinner to ask him about Phinda’s dehorning programme but our conversation drifts to a host of other conservation topics too. I’m sitting with a glass of red wine next to the roaring fire, pen poised, when Nikki rattles off the SITES definition of ecotourism word for word: “The responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the wellbeing of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” Not only is he a wealth of conservation knowledge, he’s also the most enthusiastic person I’ve ever met. I ask Nikki if the rhino are affected by having their horns removed. “A good question.” Nikki strokes his cleft jaw with thumb and forefinger. “Firstly, a white rhino uses its horn for offense (fighting other males) and defence (chasing off lion). Phinda doesn’t really have prides of lion that are big enough to take on rhino. But males are very territorial, so we have to dehorn all the rhino in a similar territory at the same time to make sure there’s a level playing field. Dehorning is a complicated process.”
Nikki tells us how he helped teach local children about rhino through a poster competition and took them on educational game drives. “Most of the kids in the area have never seen a rhino,” he explains. “But they needed to earn it first. So each child had to fill a bag of litter to recycle… plastic, glass, cans… and bring it to us in exchange for their drive.” It’s a win-win situation. Teaching children about wildlife and the environment lays the foundation for building a conservation-conscious community. I’m busy doodling three pillars on my page as Nikki talks about &Beyond’s three-pronged ethos: Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife, Care of the People, when something he says makes me sit up and listen: “If there are no guests in the lodges, then none of this happens.” He waves his hand across the pillars on my page. He’s right. These three pillars are &Beyond’s cornerstones, but its guests are the keystone, and without them, the pillars come tumbling down.
As a guest, you’re indirectly contributing to the conservation of this exceptional terrain (and its inhabitants) so you can indulge in a five-star holiday and still feel as smug as if you’d donated the money to charity.
Outside, ominous clouds gallop across the inky sky and the stars jostle for position. The night guard sweeps his torch from left to right through the dense bush like a lighthouse. Fragmented rocks and giant thorns stare back at us, but nothing more sinister. The super-king-size bed is sumptuously comfortable and ferries me off into that parallel world that always seems just out of grasp. In the early hours, my subconscious mind takes over. Heavy rain drums down on our peaked roof and I lie awake, hoping that it will clear by our wake-up call. At 5.30am, the rain has gone but a heavy cloak of clouds shrouds the sky. We wrap up warmly and make our way up to the main lodge. Nyala stand like mirages in the grainy dawn mist, so docile, I could put my hand out and stroke their striped coats.
Nikki is dressed in shorts and, despite the hour, he’s in a buoyant mood. I don’t think it ever rains in his world. He introduces us to our fellow guests, Erin and Chris, a friendly American/Canadian couple, and our local Zulu tracker, Musa. Over a shot of caffeine, we plan our mission: we’re heading out on the hunt for lion. We climb into the open-topped Land Cruiser and drive off in the direction the lion were last spotted. KwaZulu Natal, along with most of Southern Africa, is currently experiencing a drought, resulting in water restrictions and potentially serious food shortages to come. Here, the brittle earth has sucked up the early morning downpour like a dehydrated marathon runner. Zebra graze in peace, blending in with their black-and-white landscape. Then, the first rays of sun slip over the horizon and change the filter to sepia.
The sun fights a brave battle but the heavy storm clouds are victorious and the heavens open in applause. We stop as Musa passes us ponchos to keep us dry. I pull on my fluffy deerstalker hat and pull the poncho’s hood over it. Musa catches sight of me and laughs uproariously, his humour (or my hat) contagious. At various stages, he jumps off his tracker seat positioned on the bonnet of the vehicle and inspects the spoor. Despite the rain washing most of the tracks away, he manages to find something and Nikki joins him to inspect the faint paper trail of paw prints. “This is so exciting,” says Nikki, like he’s just won the lottery. “The lion spoor are pointing in this direction,” he swings his arm towards a gulley, “which means that the lion have most probably gone into the riverbed to shelter from the rain.” Six pairs of eyeballs scour the almost dried-up river as we cruise slowly past along a parallel track. Nothing.
“So our next strategy,” says Nikki, as if he’s planning a military procedure, “is to head to the top of that hill over there and see if we can spot anything from the summit. But keep your eyes peeled, the lion could be anywhere in this area.” His voice lowers to a barely audible whisper as if he’s narrating a wildlife programme and the lion are within hearing distance. I look around just to be sure, but every creature seems to be taking cover from the rain. For once, the bushveld is a ghost town. Even the birds and insects have stopped their constant bush soundtrack. I begin to feel like we’re driving around all alone in a desolate twilight zone when the eerie call of the fish eagle travels through the mist. On silent wings, we catch her sail over a swelling lake to roost on top of her lookout point as we drive past towards ours.
The hilltop offers dramatic views but no sightings. “We saw more game on our drive to the lodge,” jokes Justin. He puts his arm around me and draws me close. Despite the inclement weather and the lack of game, I’m having fun. And just like that, the sun punctures the clouds, pouring a prism of multi-coloured light from the heavens in triumph. “Maybe the lion are at the end of the rainbow,” I joke. Sadly, time is up and we need to head back to the lodge. On our homeward journey, we bump into another &Beyond vehicle and muted conversation is exchanged. Soon after, we leave the track and bounce into a close thicket, pulling to a halt beneath a sprawling tree. I look up and my eyes instantly lock with the predatory eyes of a leopard. Its proximity to our vehicle gives me an initial shock but I’m placated as soon as I learn that it’s a young female about a year old. She lies completely relaxed, eyeing me with a mixture of curiosity and disdain… but always that predatory look. I know exactly why she has singled me out from the rest of the party: I’m the weakest link. Predators instinctively know which animal in the herd to target and the same applies to groups of humans.
Over the past decade, Phinda has teamed up with Panthera, a USA-based wild cat organisation, to conduct the most extensive leopard research project in the world. 75 of these silent hunters were captured and collared and strategic cameras were placed around the reserve to monitor their activity. The statistics confirmed that leopards in southern Africa are under severe threat. As a result, stricter trophy-hunting regulations were enforced countrywide and farmers were given alternative methods to protect their livestock. This saw annual leopard mortality rates plummet from 40% to a more natural 13%. What’s interesting is that it’s religious tradition that is the biggest threat to these cats today. Originally, only Zulu royalty were allowed to wear leopard skin, but the ceremonial attire for Shembe religious gatherings (a church of four million strong) has skyrocketed demand for the spectacularly spotted coats. The studies revealed that the church acquired between 4 500 and 7 000 leopard skins illegally every year. Leopard lover and former Phinda employee, Tristan Dickerson, made it his mission to find a solution. And he did just that with the design and manufacture of a high-quality, affordable fake fur. Today, over 9 000 faux leopard skins drape the shoulders of the Shembe people.
After we take our time watching the languid feline, who’s eyes never leave mine except to poke her head around the other side of the branch supporting her, we need to get back to vacate our rooms. The lodge is expecting a big tour group. We’re speeding homewards when something catches my peripheral vision and I call out to Nikki to stop. Stretched out on top of a raised land bank, as elegant as a muse on a chaise longue, lies Africa’s most endangered cat: a cheetah. But she’s not alone. Two almost-fully-grown adolescents race up the bank, tumble over each other a few times, then flop down next to mom in a heap. There are only around 10,000 cheetah left in the world and over half of this number are in captivity, so to see these elegant animals in the wild is a rare treat. Cheetah are a hybrid between a cat and a dog and the fastest land mammals on earth, reaching 112 kilometres an hour at full throttle. The energetic youngsters give us a dazzling display of this speed, chasing each other around in impressively tight circles, two spinning wheels of spotted fur.
With this incredible speed and agility, cheetah are successful hunters but they often lose their prey to apex predators. Lion, leopard and hyena view these far more dainty cats as competition and even seek out their young to kill them, driving cub mortality rates to an alarming 90%. In the wide-open plains of the Masai Mara, which are crawling with hyena, this number is as high as 95%. Over 50 litters spawning around 150 cubs have been born at Phinda with an impressive 70% of these cubs surviving to adulthood. The reason for the reserve’s success is twofold: Cheetah were among the first animals to be introduced in 1992 so they had time to acclimatise before the threat of lion. And, with its dense foliage, the reserve has enough cover for the cats to escape more easily – and fewer hyena. Today, Phinda is home to the fourth largest cheetah population in the country and is one of the best places to view these rare and beautiful animals.
When I thought we were returning empty handed, I should have known better: the bush never disappoints. On the main route to the lodge, we stumble upon another one of the Big Five. Two white rhino graze alongside the road where the storm water flushing off the tarmac sweetens the roadside grass. Apparently, these massive herbivores and I have something in common: a sweet tooth. Mine is satiated by freshly cut fruit for breakfast followed by oozing eggs benedict with an exceptional Hollandaise. Shelby opens up a little as he offloads my earl grey. He tells me that he was unemployed before he started working at &Beyond, then, after fishing some more, I finally get the answer that I’m looking for: “I love it here,” he says with a high-wattage smile. When we were first introduced to Shelby, I felt slightly uncomfortable with him attending to our every need. But now that I realise how important his job is to him, I’m happy to ask him to fetch me a bottle of water for our onward journey.
As we make our departure through the freshly washed landscape, my head is swimming with all the information I’ve received about &Beyond and Phinda’s community initiatives and conservation programmes. But one thing Nikki said stands out like a shining beacon: “If there are no guests in the lodges, then none of this happens.”
It’s why, for us, promoting responsible, luxury tourism is equally as important as waving the banner for conservation. And it’s why travelling responsibly is akin to planting a seed in Africa’s red soil. This seed will grow and flourish for all to benefit long after your bags are unpacked.