Cara Wagstaff observes the circle of life, as well as the incredible conservation efforts at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve.
A helicopter hovers low over our heads and we’re asked to turn geotagging off on our phones. The vet in the chopper has spotted a male rhinoceros and quickly darts it with a sedative. I watch nervously from the safety of our safari vehicle as the animal sways, before clumsily falling to its knees.
Now allowed to exit, we’re asked to help support the animal so it doesn’t completely fall over. Needless to say, holding up the two-tonne creature is no easy feat. We watch as the vet and conservation team determinedly set to work, tagging the rhino and taking DNA samples. The animal is blindfolded to help reduce his anxiety throughout the process.
Our group is then asked to step back, but Les Carlisle, the conservation manager at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, tasks me with holding two makeshift ear plugs – made of tennis balls in long socks – in the animal’s ears. I hold on tight, trying not to recoil as a chainsaw roars to life and the vet begins the arduous task of removing the horn. The sound cuts through the otherwise quiet desert plain, and soon the beautiful creature’s most identifying trait is gone.
Afterwards, I feel emotional and overwhelmed. Les explains the plight that has led to this moment: rhinos across South Africa, as well as other African countries, are frequently targeted by poachers for their horns, which remain popular in Eastern medicine. This is a last resort, practised only to protect this endangered species. Our group listens to Les in shocked silence, peppered with somber and respectful nods. It makes sense, but is still a heartbreaking scenario.
Conservation is key
andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve is home to one of South Africa’s largest rhinoceros populations. Thanks to the intensive conservation program, including a 24-hour anti-poaching team and the practise of dehorning, not one rhino has been killed for its horn here in the past two years.
The reserve is also the first private company to donate the animal to another country. Working closely with Rhinos Without Borders, they transport the animals to Botswana, which Les tells us is a much safer environment since it is more remote, and therefore, harder for poachers to access. To date, they have successfully relocated 87 rhinos, at a cost of roughly US$50,000 per rhino. Their goal, which they expect to achieve before the end of the year, is to safely and successfully rehome 100.
The action begins
While rhinos are high on my list of animals to spot, they are not all there is to see at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve. The reserve is renowned for being one of the best places in Africa to spot the Big Five – lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards and rhinoceros – as well as other animals like the elusive leopard.
We arrive by charter plane, touching down on the reserve’s private airstrip. Sam, our safari guide and driver, meets us and we begin the 45-minute drive to our accommodation. Sam points out something up ahead. Inching slowly forward, I start to make out a pride of lionesses and their cubs. We drive off-road to get closer; a manoeuvre I later learn is only allowed to see big cats, to help preserve the conservation area. In awe, I automatically reach for my phone to take a photo, but then stop myself. I put the phone away and simply enjoying the being in the moment, watching the cubs play fighting and the lionesses lazily looking on.
Later in the afternoon, on our first official game drive, we spot another pair of lionesses. Sam points out a wounded wildebeest in the distance and before I can turn back to look, the big cats charge past our vehicle. Sam deftly flings us into reverse and speeds down the hill, closely following the chase. The pride barely acknowledge us as they take down their prey, dragging it into a bush to eat in post-kill victory.
Experiencing nature at night
Now that the sun has set, I mistakenly assume the drive is over. Sam informs us this is a key part of our game drive; nocturnal animals are waking, others are preparing to hunt during the cooler temperatures of dusk. Sam shines a spotlight from side to side, up in to trees and back down again, scanning for animals. We spot a herd of buffalo and several genets, a slender cat-like animal. While all wildlife watching is exciting, we desperately keep our eyes peeled for that elusive leopard.
Sam turns the Jeep off and we sit rigid and alert in the darkness, the night still but not silent. We can hear a cacophony of wild noises and try to single each one out: the braying of zebra, the bleating of antelope and the sound of small trees and bushes being trampled by lumbering elephants. I realise this is the highlight of my trip as we drive on in silence, ears perked, hoping to encounter another animal. It’s relaxing and meditative, allowing me to really appreciate where I am.
Exploring Sodwana Bay and beyond
The following day our morning starts slowly. We enjoy a chef-cooked breakfast in our lodge, recounting the thrill of the previous day and relishing in our intimate lion-kill encounter.
I’ve never ridden in a helicopter so am looking forward to this morning’s activity. Our pilot greets us at the lodge and escorts us outside. Our six-seater chariot has plush white-leather seats and Bose headphones, making our ride both comfortable and relaxing. I look out the window and see a tower of giraffes and, as we get even higher, I can just make out the shape of a large cat running at full speed. We head towards the coast, the green and gold landscape slowly making way for towering sand dunes and the turquoise Indian Ocean.
Landing in an open field we are greeted by Sam in our safari vehicle. Jumping aboard once more, we head to iSimangaliso Wetland Park, driving through local communities and smiling at children who run out onto the streets to wave hello.
The sun is just starting to come out as we arrive at Jesser Point beach, where we pull on our wetsuits, head down to the water and set out over the crashing waves. We cruise along the coastline looking for dolphins, but alas, have no luck. Eager to find some sort of wildlife, we take a dip in the surprisingly warm water, following schools of fish as they dart around the coral. Back on land we shower, change and enjoy a beachside picnic before our helicopter ride back to the reserve.
Straight from helicopter to Jeep, we set out on our final game drive. A call comes in over the radio: a cheetah and her cub have made a kill. We speed off in their direction, arriving just in time to see the mother standing over the body of a wildebeest, chest heaving as she tries to catch her breath. Her cub waits anxiously beside, waiting for mum’s signal that it’s time to approach. From our perch, I can hear the sound of his teeth ripping into the skin.
I find myself again completely immersed in the experience and thinking about the irony: spending our first day trying to protect a life and now, watching one coming to a dramatic end I have truly witnessed the circle of life, and I can’t think of anywhere better to do so.
Getting there: Qantas flies direct from Sydney to Johannesburg and South African Airways flies from Perth. In Johannesburg Federal Airlines flies direct to andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve.
Where to stay: andBeyond operate several properties spread over the 28,555-hectare reserve, including andBeyond Phinda Homestead, designed for exclusive use by families or groups of friends. Read our review here.
The writer travelled as a guest of Huawei to test out its latest P30 Pro smartphone. All of the photos and videos included in this story were taken on the device. To read our tips on how to take better photos on your smartphone and our review of the device, click here.
Main image © andBeyond