I commenced working with Bench way back in 2008 and I recall in that same year a sale representative visited and opened my eyes to the wonder that is Phinda Game Reserve, which is in a lesser known safari destination, Kwa-Zulu Natal province on South Africa’s East coast. The combination of quality of accommodation, wildlife, attention to details and heart for conservation ensured that this game reserve was on my hit list and in finally, in 2017, the opportunity arose to personally experience it.
When the day arrived and I was en route to Phinda and specifically to their property, Mountain Lodge, I was curious how 9 years of not only expectations, but very high expectations, could be met?! Incredibly, my expectation were wildly exceeded.
We were greeted by smiles and welcome drinks by a few of the Mountain Lodge staff who quickly whisked us into the spacious common area of Mountain Lodge, which is perched up high overlooking the reserve, providing a lovely view to enjoy during the check-in formalities. Shortly after we were shown to our suite, and what a suite it was, not only beautifully styled but so spacious and private. Although Mountain Lodge has 24 suites, from your room, you would imagine that you are the only guests. Every little detail has been considered for their guests, from a collection of lovely amenities that anyone could dream of needing, to your own private plunge pool, outdoor shower, fully stocked and inclusive mini bar, snacks and the best part, a bloody mary station!
Although we arrived at the lodge a little after 4pm, which is the usual afternoon safari departure time, we were kindly offered the opportunity to go out a little later, allowing us the opportunity to settle in and enjoy our suite a little before heading out on our first Phinda safari experience. We met Jonty, our guide to be for the next two days, who talked us through the origins of Phinda, its seven distinct ecosystems and some of the flora and fauna we would have the opportunity to witness whilst visiting. We then went out of the vehicle where we met our tracker, John, who had a wealth of experience of tracking within Phinda. We were in incredibly good hands as this first, albeit brief, safari would show. Jonty discussed with us where we had been on safari previously on this trip and asked us what wildlife we had seen and still had on our hit list. We mentioned that we had not seen lion nor leopard, but we were both aware that the latter is always elusive. We almost fell out of our seat when Jonty said we may be in luck with a lion pride, and he was not wrong. We came across a pride consisting of two lioness’ and seven of their cubs of various nearly adult ages. Upon casting our eyes on a few of the young lion we quickly realise that three of them appeared to be stalking and to our surprise a rhino and her calf were walking through the savannah, directly in the lions path. I could not believe what we were about to witness within the same eyeshot. Spectacular! The lion cubs playfully stalked the pair of rhino, but our guide calmly told us not to worry, the rhino were not in harm’s way by any stretch of the imagination. It was merely good practice for the cubs.
The remaining safaris experienced at Phinda continued to amaze. It’s a beautiful reserve where we were lucky enough to witness cheetah, wallowing and mating hippo, giraffe, incredibly abundant birdlife including vultures and eagles, and to always keep us entertained were the warthogs and their little ones dashing about the place. A truly memorable experience was the spotting of a large male leopard on the way back to camp after sunset. The excitement and enthusiasm expressed by both our guide and tracker ensured that we knew how special and how rare and experience this was. He was so calm and almost slowed his pace to ensure the spotlight was never far from being on him for approximately thirty minutes. Talk about pre-dinner entertainment!
The attention to detail that I had anticipated from Phinda was truly memorable to experience. From making a bloody mary in our suite and enjoying it in the perfectly temperate plunge pool, to having the same waiter for each meal who always made us laugh with each meal, enjoying their signature morning safari warm beverage that is the chocka-mocha-rula but mention must be made to two eternally memorable experience we enjoyed whilst at Phinda. The first occurred on the way back to the lodge post-sunset on our first game driver, where our guide started telling us a tale of South African fireflies before we drove towards an incredibly beautiful scene that was the bush dinner for Mountain Lodge guests who were staying for three nights or more, which was lit by hundreds of lanterns. The soft light, campfire and gentle chatter of the guests already settled was truly magical, which was topped off by chilled cocktails and a delicious meal under the stars. The second experience from Phinda that will never be forgotten was on our last morning game drive, around the time your tummy starts rumbling for a snack pre-brunch and a cup of coffee or tea, to ensure you’re wide awake to find that elusive cat, we turned a corner and to our utter surprise we spotted a table fit with sparkling wine and orange juice in an ice bucket and even more impressive was a tray hanging from the tree above with fresh homemade croissants, whipped cream, chocolate sauce and fruit for those who aren’t wanting to indulge.
Wow, they truly outdid themselves and left us on such a high, feeling so incredibly spoilt and indulged just before sadly packing our bags and saying goodbye to the wonder that is Phinda!