Tuesday, December 21, 2010

& Beyond Phinda Mountain Lodge

Lana and I were looking forward to returning to what has to be the finest private game reserve in Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal for viewing wildlife – the & Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve!

A comfortable 3 hours drive and we arrived at the gates of the Reserve. This reserve is a consolidation of a number of private game reserves and property belonging to the local community. Phinda Private Game Reserve is known for its abundant wildlife, diversity of habitats and wide range of activities. Thanks to its coastal rainfall pattern, Phinda enjoys a lush green environment that contains seven distinct ecosystems - a magnificent tapestry of woodland, grassland, wetland and forest, interspersed with mountain ranges, river courses, marshes and pans. This fascinating variety of landscape and vegetation shelters an abundance of wildlife, including not only the Big Five but many rarer and less easily spotted species, such as the elusive cheetah or the scarce black rhino, all of this contained in an area of 23 000 hectares (56 800 acres). The seven habitats occurring in Phinda are primarily responsible for the rich diversity of species that occur. Always popular are the big cats and Phinda has become renowned for its close viewing of lion, cheetah and less frequently, leopard. It is not only cats that are special here - recently reintroduced black rhino are now regularly seen along with white rhino, elephant, hippo, buffalo, giraffe, zebra and a number of antelope species. We were privileged to see three black rhino during our short stay.

“Phinda” meaning “Return” in Zulu, is an outstanding example of successful, responsible tourism. Initially restoring the misused farmland to its present more pristine state - this started over 16 years ago when initial restocking with the Big Five and other wildlife was undertaken - and developing this game park into an award-winning ecotourism destination. By returning land to its ancestral owners, Phinda’s pioneering land-claim settlement, proves that if the communities surrounding conservation areas enjoy the benefit of ecotourism, they too will support ongoing conservation and biodiversity of game reserves for the benefit of future generations. It’s happening here.

Phinda Mountain Lodge has recently enjoyed a major transformation. A total revamp of the main public areas as well as each of the twenty five chalets having been rebuilt. Each has a private plunge pool and is very comfortable. The open breakfast / lunch terrace has been replaced with a large enclosed dining room. Large glass doors that slide open allow for expansive panoramic views over the bush. One gets the best of choices here – enjoy the views without one of a Lodge’s worst problems, keeping the resident monkey and baboon populations from becoming a dangerous threat to diners.

A bottle of iced water, my camera and we clambered aboard the Land Rover and off into the bush. This is the time of year when so many of the animals have their young. Impala and warthog babies in profusion and all so seemingly vulnerable, lined the road. Giles (our guide) took us to a waterhole where we found a young white rhino calf and mum enjoying the black goo, thankfully the calf staying out of the deeper stickier areas. Another three white rhino were relaxing in the sun hoping the drying mud would assist with the removal of annoying exoparasites. Excitement, a black rhino bull had been found a short distance away! We arrived to find a rather relaxed large bull more interested in settling down for a rest than having to pander to a vehicle load of enthusiastic tourists. A quick photo shoot then enough, and he lay down right close to the vehicle and closed his eyes - so much for its bad tempered reputation.

What next, a pride of lion? Indeed, and as the light began to fade so the two large males and two lioness started to show signs of life. They were more interested in their own relationships and we were ostracized from their attention. A brief attempt at coupling by the dominant male with reciprocal flirting showed that more cubs could soon be on the way. There are two other lioness in the area, each with cubs, one litter very young and only recently being allowed to be visited by the rangers with guests. Our attempts at securing a sighting of them at their den proved fruitless.

One of the highlights of being in Africa is that one may so often, comfortably, dine in the open under the stars and tonight was dinner in the boma. A fire and flaming lamps welcomed us to a lively crowd merrily recounting their experiences of the day over a glass or two. The meals at Phinda Mountain Lodge were particularly good.

Cheetahs were on the menu for the next day and we drove immediately to the area presently preferred by some. Our experienced ranger / tracker team soon has a coalition of two males in sight. They were recovering from having unsuccessfully chased a young waterbuck. Further into this open area and Giles found two younger female cheetahs for us. These too were hungry and on the prowl. We followed them for a while before returning to the first two who had seemingly recovered and were soon up and after a young warthog. Missing the young one warthog in the long grass they retired when mum turned on them with her rather formidable tusks and reputation for fending for her young.

Slowly we drove and saw a wide variety of game, some wonderful birds, Martial Eagle, Blackbreasted Snake Eagle, European Roller, etc. The migrant birds were here adding to the already numerous resident population. More animals, birds and flora, interesting information, amazing tales and company on the vehicles then retire to the Lodge for gourmet meals and time to relax and reflect.

One of our best experiences we had was when we were called to a black rhino and calf sighting. On approaching we found a rather shy cow and calf some 80 meters in the bush and only barely visible. We could not approach as she was inclined to retreat, so Giles turned off the vehicle engine and we sat and waited. Curiosity got the better of her and we had what has to rate as a world class black rhino sighting. She slowly walked right up to the front of the vehicle, had a myopic good look and smell, her calf in tow. She then slowly turned, seemingly reassuring her calf and then walked calmly off and disappeared into the thickets. I must admire the vast knowledge and experience these rangers have - Giles was particularly good at being able to read an animal’s intended action. Here he was relying on a Black Rhino’s inquisitiveness without allowing us to alarm the animals – “keep still and dead quiet” even “no photos” - the cameras were too noisy in this situation! On another occasion two lionesses approached one another. “Watch this, she is going to leap on her sister” and she sure did!

Zululand, December 2010

I recently accompanied two clients on a 5-day tour, visiting the Hluhluwe uMfolozi Park, Mkuze and St. Lucia. Now there is only one reason that I am posting this blog, and that is that I have some photographs to go with it. (I do not normally take my camera on tour during the summer months – it is too hot to be carting equipment around, and when I am hot I am uncomfortable and I lose my enthusiasm for photography), but on this trip I made an exception. Why? Well, some of the time was to be spent in Mkuze, and I know how productive the hides here can be, plus the fact that they have recently released wild dogs into this park, so who knows, maybe I would get some decent photos of these most endangered of predators… but this was not to be, but more of this later.

We arrive at the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park at about lunch-time and head up to Hilltop Camp to enjoy lunch and then check in. We seat ourselves outside and I hear a faint sound of leather slapping against leather. Upon cautious inspection I see a bull elephant just outside the restaurant perimeter, enjoying a drink from the kitchens’ water run-off. (The slapping of leather was his ears flapping against his body). It was not a good idea to take the clients for a closer look, as there is no barrier between the elephant and us, so I take them inside the restaurant and look down on this animal from above. He is so close that were one so inclined, you could almost leap out the window and onto his very broad back, but we don’t do this! This was certainly a good introduction to the park and the clients were hoping for more.

That evening they went on a night drive, and reported that they had seen one elephant in the distance and quite a few rhino, but nothing more exciting than this. Unfortunately this seems to be par for the course in this park, as many people come back from a night drive without having seen any sign of the big cats, which is what the night drive is mostly about. (As an aside, why is it that the night drives in the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park are so much more expensive than the drives in the Kruger Park? The drives in the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park are 40% more expensive than Kruger, and the quality of drives in the Kruger Park are way better. Kruger has more roads, more comfortable vehicles, generally better sightings, etc. On this presumption, Hluhluwe should be less, not more expensive).

The next morning I took the clients out at 05:00, and the first animal we encountered was an elephant. This was a big bull, in full musth, and walking in the middle of the road towards us. He was not overtly aggressive, but he made it quite plain that he had right of way, and would not get off the road. Every now and then he would feed on the trees and bushes lining the side of the road, and just when I deemed it safe to sneak past him, he asserted his right to the middle of the road. This little game went on for about half an hour, until he eventually found a tree about ten metres from the road and I was able to continue my journey.

We went along to the Seme area of the park and it was at the Seme turn around point where we saw two lionesses, very well hidden in the long grass and bush. I asked the clients to be patient, as they would move, sooner or later. The sun was up, and the temperature was warming minute by minute. About ten minutes later the one lioness did get up, stretched and sauntered toward the road and the direction of our vehicle, soon to be followed by the other. Luckily for the clients, the lions were on their side of the vehicle so they could get some good photos of them. I on the other hand had to be content with a “grab-shot”, which is not ideal, but then, I was the guide, not the client, it’s not about me! Both lionesses disappeared into the bush near the waterhole and we continued our journey. We duly returned to Hilltop Camp for breakfast and proudly marked our elephant and lion sightings on the sightings map board.

After breakfast we continued on another drive and saw only general game. It was by this time quite warm, with the outside temperature showing 36ยบ C. This drive produced zebra, nyala, impala, and many giraffe. At about 14:00 the weather changed dramatically and became very overcast and windy. When we left on our afternoon drive a light drizzle had started to fall, and a few flashes of lightning were visible. I decided to head south on the main road, as far as time would allow, and then return on that road again. On the way back it was already starting to get quite dark when we saw another lion, again in long grass. This was a youngish male, and he was calling. No great roars, just an almost apologetic call to contact the rest of his pride maybe? We watched for a while, but it was dark and I decided to move on. About 300 metres further down the road we came upon another young male lion, heading in the direction of the first one, and on the road - obviously the call had worked. I took a photo or two of the second lion, with a very high ISO of 3200 and the on-camera pop-up flash – the results speak for themselves, but I had to have evidence of a lion!

The following morning on an early drive on the Gontshi Loop we stopped to look at some buffalo on the side of the road. In the distance on the road up ahead I saw movement and realized that this may be lions, so off I went. It was lions, in fact eight of them, but alas; they were shy and soon disappeared into the long grass without a photo being taken - these were four females with four sub-adult cubs. For the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park, it is quite unusual to have three different lion sightings in two days, all in the Hluhluwe area but in different parts thereof. Had this been the Kruger Park, it would not have excited me as much, as one may sometimes have as many as four different lion sightings in a day, but for the Hluhluwe/Umfolzi Park, very unusual. My client indicated that he would dine out on these lion sightings for quite some time. That same drive we were entertained by a troop of baboons, so quite a busy morning and well worth the early start. The remainder of the day provided nothing more exciting than general game, and that afternoon we headed for the Ghost Mountain Inn in Mkuze. What a lovely hotel, thoroughly good food, offered as a choice of starters, mains and desserts and well received by our clients.

Now the next morning was what I had hoped would be the highlight of the trip, the Mkuze Game Reserve. En route to the Kumasinga Hide we saw plenty of impala with their young and some zebras, but we did not want to waste too much time, hoping to have an abundance of wildlife sightings at the hide. Upon arrival I noted that the water here was plentiful, both at the hide and generally in pools and pans throughout the park. We settled in, cameras at the ready, to commence photographing to our hearts content. One and a half hours later we had photographed a solitary wart hog that had come down for a wallow. Other than this wart hog, there were also common birds, laughing doves, black capped bul-buls, blue waxbills and some striped swallows. That was it – one and a half hours for this! We decided to go on a drive and look for the animals. All other hides, other than Kumasinga, were closed to the public, and this included the two on Nsumo Pan. Was this because of high water levels or plain disrepair, I’ll never know? On the drive we again saw many impala with their young, some zebra and some nyala, and that was that, so we left for St. Lucia, hoping for more on the Eastern Shores.

However, we were again disappointed. The Eastern Shores produced many kudu, some zebra, waterbuck, bush buck, a white rhino and samango monkeys. Wait a minute: “again disappointed”? No, this was actually a good 3-hour drive. My client was certain that he had seen a cat-like animal dart across the road. Unfortunately I was looking behind me at some open spaces, hoping to spot elusive game, whilst driving (…please don’t try this at home) so had not seen it. His description was for me that it was one of two things, either a young or female leopard, or a serval. However, the grass was so long that the animal had disappeared, so I could not confirm anything. Don’t worry, we spent some time here trying to find this animal, which, had it been a serval or leopard, are both supremely successful in hiding themselves.

One the boat cruise on the lake the following morning, many hippo were seen, some crocodiles, varied and many forms of bird life, so in short, another normal day on the lake.