Safari in South Africa
The phone next to the bedside table rings precisely at 4:30am.
I sit up in bed and look out onto the grasslands dotted with faint shadows of unidentifiable animals. Antelope? Impala? It’s hard to tell in the early morning light.
It’s is our first day on safari and I know the early riser gets the zebra, lions and whatever else is out on the prowl. We dress in the half dark and thump down the back steps on our way to the main lodge, dodging piles of semi-fresh elephant poo.
Welcome to Africa. Leave your good shoes at home.
Morning on Phinda Safari
Happiness, the chef, and the Phinda Vlei Lodge crew soften the blow of an early wake-up by baking homemade treats and serving them up with steaming cups of coffee.
Our guide, Warrick, is waiting when we arrive.
“What would you like to see today?”
I laugh. Can you order animal sightings from an a la carte menu? “I’ll take 2 lion sightings, 4 giraffe and a white rhino, followed by a bush baby and cheetah chaser all my noon.”
To be honest, I don’t have a list. I chose Phinda Private Game Reserve for its multiple ecosystems, its incredible wildlife diversity and dedication to wildlife conservation. Phinda’s size (4 small lodges spread over 23000 hectares) had the potential for an intimate and unique big 5 safari experience.
I stalked this group until I got a photo. Don’t they look thrilled?
We join our tracker and jeep just down the dirt road from the lodge. Phinda’s jeeps are definitely more lux than I expected. Everyone has a window seat and an unobstructed view since the jeeps are open. Great for taking photos!
It was spring in South Africa and cold as we rolled out into the half-dark. I wrapped myself in the wool blankets tucked into our seats as we bounced down the soft sand roads.
Warrick tells us about Phinda’s different ecosystems (bushveld, sand forest, palmveld, forest…) and their conservation work as we roll by a small group of zebra standing on a grassy hill. Two giraffe nosh on the tops of nearby trees.
I promptly fill my memory card with 100 zebra photos. Mostly of their backsides. I’ve only been on safari for 15 minutes.
Wild animals don’t come when they’re called, so the tracker and guide work together to coordinate sightings. Our tracker, perched precariously on a seat overhanging the front of the jeep is a local and has a lifetime of experience tracking the big 5.
He silently holds up his hand, signaling Warrick to stop the jeep.
Any guesses? Lions, tigers, elephant, honey badger?
He spotted something. Rhino tracks, paw prints, a trail left by a honey badger dragging its kill? Both Warrick and Josiah jump out for a closer look and decide which way to track.
The radio crackles with updates from other guides and trackers.
A lioness and her cubs are spotted near a kill and we’re off to find them.
The landscape changes rapidly, from bush to open plain. We spook a warthog back into the bush and stop to watch an elephant cross the road. I feel like part of a live action Wild Kingdom episode.
As we roll onto the grass plains, we slow the jeep long enough for the tracker to jump in. The animals are used to seeing the Phinda safari vehicles but not humans outside the vehicles. Keep your hands and feet inside the jeep at all times, kids.
We spot the lioness and her 3 cubs half hidden in the in the grass.
We stop within viewing distance, shut the engine off and settle in to watch. They’ve eaten from the nearby kill recently and the cubs’ bellies are round and full.
They roughhouse back and forth over momma while she dozes and periodically scans the horizon for either dessert or danger.
Eventually, the lioness heads down the road to the waterhole and the cubs follow. Most of the time.
We have our own waterhole break with homemade cereal bar and a boozy coffee. And some hippos.
Momma hippo with her calves
The sun is out and we trade blankets for hats and sunscreen. We decide how to spend the remaining few hours on morning safari…more big cats if possible, and elephants if not.
Baby elephant walk…
The remaining few hours of morning game drive flew by, a perfect mix of tracking and observing. Warrick and Josiah’s answer our questions about animal behavior, habitats, plants and conservation.
I learned a cheetah isn’t the dominant predator I imagined. The big cat has to work incredibly hard to defend its kills from thieving lions, leopards, hyenas and other predators. Cheetahs are solitary animals, and females raise and defend their cubs alone. Very few cubs survive into adulthood.
Did you know the high mineral and calcium content in the bones hyena’s consume make hyena droppings white. Me neither. I also learned that my husband is willing to pick up dried hyena poo. As is our guide.
I also found out that 4 hours on morning safari makes you hungry.
We reluctantly head back to the lodge for breakfast. Happiness and her staff lay out an epic spread for us as we talk about morning sightings with other guests. We stuff our faces with fresh fruit and eggs benedict as we watch impala parade across the savannah.
We waddle off to our “hut” for an afternoon of napping, reading and relaxing before our next game drive at 4:30 ( or lunch at 2:30 or tea at 4:00).
We spend the afternoon watching the animals from our lounge chairs. Nyala and impala come to drink from our pool. Who needs sleep?
Phinda vlei hut #6 pool gets the occasional visit from the reserve elephants.
Stay tuned for fun on night safari.
Have you been on safari? Where did you go and what was your experience like? If you haven’t gone, is it on your bucket list?