Skip to text

Game plan

On safari at Phinda Private Game Reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa

An edited version appeared in mX (Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney) on 21st December 2010

‘I’m mad about birds,’ gushes our guide, Devon, as yet another well endowed specimen comes into view.  His eyes glaze over and a dreamy grin spreads across his face. ‘Phoar! What a beauty!’ For a moment, I think we’ve lost him. But this man has the energy of Steve Irwin on steroids, and it’ll take more than a dose of ornithological excitement to get him off track.

Orni-what? Birds. Not womenfolk, but the two-winged, bundle of feathers kind, and here, at the Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Kwazulu Natal, we’re spoilt for choice.

Luckily, Devon has the self-discipline to keep his bird-fetish in check, and with the expert tracking of his Zulu sidekick, Jabulani (Jabsy), we see nearly all the safari ‘big five:’ lion, leopard, black rhino, elephant and cape buffalo.

Safari drives are best done at dawn and dusk – this is when animals are at their most active, moving about, catching and killing prey, and feeding. So on day one we’re up early: out of our Egyptian cotton sheets and ready for a fortifying cup of tea at 5am, in the vehicle and rolling out into the slow creeping dawn to explore some of Phinda’s 23,000 hectares [56,800 acres] just half an hour later.

It’s not long before the first sighting of the day: a male and female giraffe who stop tearing at leaves and wander elegantly towards us. ‘They’re very curious,’ explains Devon excitedly. ‘They could watch us all day.’ And he’s right; they’re eyeing us with unabashed interest and eventually it’s us, not them, who break contact.

A radio tipoff from another guide means Devon knows exactly where to head next, and in fifteen minutes or so we are parked what feels like no more than five metres from a trio of lion cubs – two males and a female – feeding on a nyala carcass, while their mother keeps a one-eyed watch from. Jabsy takes one look and predicts its leftover kill from the night before. The cubs have clearly had plenty to eat, as they constantly interrupt their grazing with boisterous play. They stalk and pounce, rolling and biting in the grass, before turning back to rip another mouthful from the carcass.

Two of the big five – the black rhino and the leopard – are notoriously hard to spot: the rhino through poaching-induced rarity, the leopard through shyness. Both have been sighted at Phinda in the past few weeks, but the closest we come to either is an adrenalin-inducing pile of fresh leopard poo.

‘He’s in there,’ says Devon in a stage whisper, indicating an impenetrable looking thicket of trees. ‘But he will have smelled us and seen us way before we saw him.’ We circle around in the truck, straining for a glimpse of spotted pelt through the undergrowth. But the leopard outsmarts us, and after twenty minutes we give up and move on to our next sighting.

It’s completely unexpected. We’ve given up on yet another pile of leopard poo and are weaving our way back to base and one of Phinda’s legendary breakfasts when Devon screeches to a halt. We’ve driven around a corner and straight into the path of a lone bull elephant whose ears start flapping as he takes us in. He is young, but looms large against the setting sun. His flapping ears signal alarm, so Devon hastily slams the truck into reverse.

‘This is his territory, not ours,’ Devon explains. ‘We’ll go another way.’ Just when we think we’re safe, a bird flits into our path. ‘A pink-throated twinspot! Over there! Did you see her?’ We follow his pointed finger, and there she is balancing on a branch, small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. Not the big five, but beautiful nonetheless. On safari at Phinda, everything’s worth taking in.