The reimagined andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve indulges guests in stunning surrounds and some pretty unforgettable wildlife encounters, as Samantha Rowntree discovers.
Two male cheetahs glide across the savannah, pausing to sniff the air. They walk fluidly, their spotted coats gleaming in the early-morning sun, eyes flashing. As they slink into the bushes, I finally let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding in. andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve is said to be one of the best places in the world to encounter the elusive cheetah, and it is already living up to its reputation on our first game drive of the journey.
As guests of the newly reopened andBeyond Phinda Homestead, we have our own ranger and tracker accompanying us in an open safari vehicle ideal for exploring the 28,555-hectare reserve. It’s comfortable over bumpy terrain and offers unimpeded views of the incredible wildlife that call this unique part of the world home. Over the course of our stay I can hardly believe it when we spot every single animal on my safari wishlist: hippos, lions, rhinos, elephants, water buffalo, zebras and, my favourite, giraffes.
Located in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, Phinda boasts seven distinctive ecosystems, including 520 hectares of rare sand forest, so it’s the place to come to tick off the Big Five, but also to learn about endemic plant species you never knew existed, along with some of South Africa’s more unusual animals.
The local connection
We don’t need to venture far to see Phinda’s awe-inspiring residents, including a bevy of antelope from the pool of our gracious bush farmhouse. After a fire all but destroyed the original andBeyond Phinda Homestead in 2016, the sole-use property has been rebuilt in even greater African splendour, this time with a more contemporary twist.
Phinda Homestead is one of six andBeyond properties spread over the reserve, and the only one designed for exclusive use by families or groups of friends. The six-suite andBeyond Phinda Vlei Lodge has also recently unveiled a decadent new look, taking design cues from the surrounding wetland (vlei).
The Homestead’s four suites and spacious common areas marry contemporary elegance with traditional Zulu-Natal craftsmanship in an earthy palette of woven textures in baskets, carpets and pottery, hides and reclaimed wood. The odd pineapple motif nods to the reserve’s former life as a pineapple plantation. Floor-to-ceiling glass makes the living spaces feel at one with the surrounding woodland, where kudu and impala roam in the dappled light.
The verandah’s bar and generous lounge area overlooks an infinity pool that seems to drop into the watering hole beyond. The sunken seating area and firepit between the bar and pool is where we linger after game drives and indulge in drinks before the main dining event. Although guests can opt to access the open kitchen to prepare meals themselves, we take full advantage of the talented private chef included in the rate. A highlight is dining under the stars in the open-air boma (cattle enclosure), immersed in the sounds of the bush.
Further away from the lodge, down a winding path, is the gym and massage sala, while little adventurers can participate in andBeyond’s signature WILDchild program.
The beautifully designed suites sit either side of the shared living areas, each one designed to capture the wilderness with king-size beds facing out to the bush. The enormous bathrooms are bathed in natural light, featuring a deep bath fringed with handmade reed tassel curtains.
Underscoring these beautiful lodges, however, is andBeyond’s conservation mission. We’re given an insight into a few of these initiatives, starting with our game drives. andBeyond has imposed strict land-management and off-road driving policies in order to reduce the impact on soil and vegetation. And in 2005, Phinda became one of the first reserves to use an electrified elephant exclusion zone to protect the sand forest.
Phinda is also home to South Africa’s largest population of rhinoceros, an animal that continues to be hunted for its horn. I’m overjoyed to learn that not one rhino has died on the reserve in the last two years, thanks to an intensive dehorning program and the diligence of the anti-poaching team, who are out on patrol 24 hours a day.
My own rhino encounter is dramatic. On one of our game drives, we find ourselves in front-row seats as two male rhinos battle it out over the fairer sex. Our normally talkative guide falls silent as he determines the best method of retreating from the duststorm generated by stomping hooves as they hurl themselves at one another with force. We sit wide-eyed, watching intently to see if the sparring rhinos turn their attention to us as we slowly reverse away from the action.
When I reflect on the encounter later, and what I’ve learned about the plight of rhinos, it feels like a privilege to have been so close to them. andBeyond Phinda Game Reserve has given me a real appreciation of their place in the ecosystem and the challenges that lie ahead for their preservation, and I’m already contemplating how I can be of help once I return home.
The flight from Sydney is 14 hours long and there is a nine-hour time difference, so I overnight at Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa to freshen up before I head out on safari. The former manor house and gardens are tucked away in the neighbourhood of Sandton, Johannesburg. Each of the 12 suites is uniquely decorated with high ceilings and decadent finishes.
Accommodation and safari
If you’re looking for a change of scenery, embark on an ocean safari in nearby Sodwana Bay. Snorkelling at Jesser Point, a protected marine area, is a great way to experience South Africa’s coral reefs.
Qantas flies from Sydney to Johannesburg. Airlink operates daily scheduled flights between Johannesburg (via Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport) and Phinda Private Game Reserve’s airstrip. andBeyond guests have access to a VIP lounge at Kruger Airport.
Speak to an experienced Travel Associates Virtuoso travel advisor to plan your andBeyond luxury safari. travel-associates.com.au/virtuoso