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Phinda--Where the h is silent, but the rhino flatulence is not


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June 28-July 4, out July 5 for a 1-week stay


Guide: Thulani

TA: Eyes on Africa


It was my third rhino tracking excursion and I was joined by a delightful mother and teenage son from Costa Rica and by Seth, a CC Africa employee who was very enthused to be out of the office and on the trail of white rhino. Ranger Thulani and Tracker SK would lead us on our walk into the broadleaf forest habitat in search of rhino and anything else we might encounter.


We had come upon a midden of rhino dung and the top layer was noticeably warm and visibly steaming in the cold morning air. That meant the rhino was close. It was so close that as we examined our prize--which emitted not only steam, but an unpleasant odor--Thulani motioned for us to remain silent and completely still. He had heard the whine of a baby rhino.


From his vantage point in front of us he could also make out the shape of the mother and she had stopped feeding. That was not a good sign. Had she detected us?


Then we heard another sound—a loud explosive grunt! Was the mother rhino signaling her intention to charge? Should we find a tree? None of these questions could be voiced nor could we start scouting out trees because we had to remain silent, huddled together over the steaming, pungent rhino dung.


Moments passed, then Thulani explained in a low whisper about that menacing grunt. It was only the female rhino passing gas as she heeded the wishes of her whining calf and laid down so the calf could stop and nap. The pair had not detected us and now they were resting peacefully. We were led, one by one, from the midden to a spot where we could glimpse the female rhino’s resting body as she shielded her calf. After we each had gotten a view, we quietly walked off. The rhinos were none the wiser, as it should be.


And that was only one of three exciting morning rhino tracking activities that I did at Phinda.

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Typically the morning hunt for white rhino started by driving around the broadleaf forest to find tracks. Once fresh tracks were found, which took between 30 and 45 minutes, we’d exit the vehicle and begin the tracking on foot. What a fascinating process this was to watch Ranger Thulani and Trackers Dumi (for the first outing) and SK (for the other two) go to work. I not only got to observe their impressive skills, but they included me in all of the key findings so I knew what was happening every step of the way.


The crudest imprint in the sand beneath the vegetation held a clue. When there was no sand, then impressions in the grass were followed. Broken branches indicated the rhino’s horn had become entangled as it walked. We saw evidence of where the rhinos had grazed because shrubs were mowed down in search of scratching posts. We could tell where they had reclined and wallowed in mud by the huge indentations that remained. A dead tick that fed in the ear or nasal cavities of the rhino offered more proof we were on the right track


At times it seemed we were playing a child’s game of follow the leader. Our tracker would lead us on a serpentine course that would double back and circle around, making several loops. Other times the tracks formed an arrow straight path to a pan, indicating the rhinos had been thirsty.


The various antelope we spotted as we advanced would bound away at our presence. That was our cue to remain stationary for a few minutes. If we sent too many animals fleeing, it could be a signal for any nearby rhinos that something was amiss and they too would flee. The whirring chirps of red-billed oxpeckers offered a final sign that rhinos were near. Thulani would take out a sand-filled sock from his pocket and give it a shake to watch the dust fly and confirm we remained downwind.


Sometimes we heard them first, as we did with the calf’s whine, or when we could hear a large unknown animal grazing in the forest. Thulani surmised the beast was grazing and not browsing because no snapping twigs from branches could be heard. Everything pointed to rhino, but we could not see it. Suddenly one, two, three rhinos emerged from the thick brush. It was a mother and a near adult calf, plus a year old calf. After watching them, undetected, for several minutes, we departed by crouching and doing the “duck walk” (Remember that from elementary gym class?) for about 100 meters so they would not see our standing forms. That was a workout. Who needs thigh master when you can duck walk?


Sometimes they just appeared, such as when two males we had been tracking wandered into a clearing, resembling a couple of big gray boulders. Sometimes it took most of the morning to glimpse the rhinos. And sometimes we found them quickly so that we could spend the rest of the morning following other tracks and enjoying the scenery.


One fascinating find while searching for rhino was a pile of bright yellow seeds on the ground. Thulani explained that the nyala antelope eats fruit from the Torchwood tree and spits out the seeds. I looked around for such a tree but saw none. That meant the nyala carried a huge mouthful of these seeds from elsewhere into the safe haven of the forest to eat them.


Each day the experience was different but the amazing skills of the trackers and Thulani remained a constant highlight of every outing.


Two of the days I was accompanied by only Seth and the last day we were a group of four. I asked how often the rhino tracking was done. The answer was maybe every 6-8 weeks by guests, but the rangers and trackers looked for rhino and other animals much more frequently to keep their skills sharp.


Thulani carried a backpack with water for me, in addition to his rifle. I preferred to keep my own water bottle at the ready on a holster around my waist. I took a camera but photography on the walks first required permission from Thulani so the sound of the camera would not alert the rhino or other animals. I ended up not taking any pictures.


Binoculars improved the views of the rhinos hidden in the broadleaf forest. One morning the grass was dry and two mornings it was quite wet, so waterproof footwear is a good idea. I like waterproof socks. None of the hiking was strenuous and it was on flat terrain. Rhino tracking is done instead of a game drive (usually morning) and it does not require an extra charge. It was a highlight of my trip.

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This excellent report looks even better in red!

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Guest nyama

... and it is the most original title of a trip report that I've ever seen.


Atravelynn and Nyamera, you should both begin writing novels!

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Why thank you! Wonder if there is a market for reading about rhino farts, though. I thought I'd try the rhino tracking part in red for a change.

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Guest nyama
Wonder if there is a market for reading about rhino farts, though...

Well, it's close to nature - and I like that. gallery_3403_44_685.gif

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The journey to Phinda started at the Federal Air counter at the airport in Johannesburg, followed by a 15-minute van transfer to a smaller airport. It included a comfortable wait in Federal Air’s lounge that offered Africa documentaries on a couple of big screen TVs, plus a huge variety of complimentary snacks.


If rainbows are good luck, I had two of those positive omens for my arrival: one that was visible for the last 10 minutes of the flight and another that spanned the view from the Phinda Forest Lodge dining veranda—and that one included an elephant! gallery_108_68_39482.jpg


Good thing I paid attention to that elephant and snapped some photos because it would be the only elephant viewed from the front in the daylight. A couple of days before my arrival the elephants were being darted from helicopters for contraception purposes. The herds took defensive measures and stayed in the forest during the day and ventured out at night when they knew the helicopters did not fly. We did have some enchanting full moon viewing of the herd with youngsters playing rambunctiously.


The darting is certainly evidence of the concession being managed. There were other instances of the wildlife being controlled and managed and I’ll mention those as they come up. Human intervention was far more evident here than most other Africa safari destinations I’ve been. But I have to say it did not seem to be a negative force that was intrusive or imposing on the wildlife. Instead, I felt like my presence in Phinda played a role (granted a minuscule one) in promoting the environment for the wildlife, the people, and conservation in general. All these managing measures contribute to a bigger picture and that is returning more areas to their previous wild state so the wildlife can also return. After all Phinda translates to The Return.


That elephant and his buddies would not enjoy the any fruits of the sand forest that surrounded Forest Lodge, where I stayed, because the area was surrounded by an electric fence, designed to deter only the big elephants, but not the other animals. This was an experiment to see if it was the elephants that were depriving the seedlings and saplings of a start and preventing regeneration of the sand forest.


The single-wire fence did not deter the vervets, crested guinea fowl, impala, red duikers, or nyala (which I have decided is my new favorite antelope, especially the bulls) from roaming through the sand forest and providing excellent views right from our glass cottage suites. .gallery_108_68_15860.jpggallery_108_68_31345.jpgI spent most of my pre-lunch downtime roaming the paths and looking at the wildlife. After lunch it got pretty quiet

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On one pre-lunch excursion I watched two male nyalas chasing a couple of females around in hopes of romance. One female eluded her suitor with some quick moves that had the bull racing through the woods until he pivoted around a bend and suddenly encountered me. He skidded to a stop in the soft sand and stared directly at me. I put an immediate halt to any intentions he might have had by explaining, “No you don’t! You want someone with white vertical stripes and much thinner legs.”


That was some of the action out on the paths, but you could have equally good viewing by just staying inside and looking out of your own glass walls or sitting on your balcony. Or at least that’s what I understood. The first few days at Forest Lodge, nobody was browsing over by my house even though I’d seen nyala and impala grouped around the other cottages on my walks. I was feeling a little unwanted, when about the third day as I was inside reading and looked up, I was surrounded by an impala herd! When they are in the forest, where we hardly ever get to see them, they are very relaxed, sitting down, and doing a lot of grooming of themselves and each other. It was a delight to watch them for almost an hour before they moved off.





Then the next day some nyala (my new favorite antelope) were camped out around my cottage. I was so proud of my own personal nyala herd that I was strutting around the suite, pointing and announcing, “Four females to the east! Mother and twins on the south! Big nyala bull making his way to the north side!” I had no idea which direction was which, but it didn’t matter because there was nobody there to hear me anyway. gallery_108_68_63498.jpg



I’ve only alluded to the glass cottage suites, but they are masterpieces where art meets architecture. Mine was #7 and I couldn’t see advantages or disadvantages to any of the suites, except the one right next to reception (not sure what number that was) would have the most foot traffic.



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The Phinda staff was exceptionally gracious and friendly and everybody knew my name. The food was outstanding and made to order. The chocolate chip cookies for breakfast at 6:30 am each day were a tasty touch. I would partake in the cooked breakfast that was accompanied by an extensive buffet, served from about 9:30 to about 11:00. Once or twice I had the delicious several-course lunch, served from 1:00-2:30, but breakfast usually held me until the 3:00 tea and cake.


Dinner was about 8:00, and I’d phone for my escort to the glass lobby with fireplace (more art meets architecture) about 7:15 or 7:30 because appetizers started at 7:30. We enjoyed a variety of gourmet cuisine every night, served inside when it was cold, or in the beautifully candle-lit (I know these devices as luminaria but the Phinda staff descriptively called them candle bags) boma with a bonfire, weather permitting.


Some nights the staff would entertain with song and dance. Those participating really seemed to enjoy themselves and when I asked them about it they explained the songs and dances were from their youth so that everyone knew them well without any practice.


After several nights of entertainment, I had come to expect a bit of a capella during our meals. We had just sat down for our evening meal and started the soup (and I had just started my second glass of wine) when I heard those melodic voices wafting in from the kitchen area. I ate, drank half of wine #2, socialized, all the while enjoying the songs. Then it dawned on me that the performers had not emerged from wherever they were singing. I asked in a commanding voice and to no one in general, “This singing is lovely, but where are they?” The leader of a group of 6 at the next table looked over in a disgusted manner and loudly replied, “It’s a CD.”


Oops, well who knew? Later, when wine #2 was finished and when the first few live performers of the group did emerge to harmonize for us, I looked over his way and stated loudly enough for him to hear but not loudly enough to upstage the show, “I am vindicated! I am vindicated!”


So maybe I didn’t know if it was live or if it was Memorex but at least I did not make a verbal spectacle of myself like one of his clients. This group was at Forest Lodge three nights, and for two evening meals anyone within earshot of their table received way more information than was needed about one woman’s eating disorder (or her proclaimed lack thereof) and special features of her lingerie. Yuk! I’m eating! There’s kids here!

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Each day, and sometimes each outing, there was a major sighting of something I had not seen before, but it was not constant action on the game drives. The distinct habitats were also a major attraction and you did not need a degree in botany to tell them apart. With nyala as my new favorite antelope, I was always rewarded with sightings of that species and sometimes photo ops. Thulani indicated that the nyala were so prolific that some would need to be relocated to other reserves.


In addition to the fauna, Thulani knew his flora in English, Latin, and Zulu. We sampled a couple kinds of monkey fruit. The seeds from the green monkey fruit were especially tasty, a cross between lemon and banana.

You could also put your olfactory lobes to use. The large Matabele Ants produced an acrid smell that served as their protection against predators. At times the unpleasant odor could be traced to one single ant.


There were curry scented plants, bushes with jasmine scented blossoms, the old standard—the potato bush, and after sunset, a winter night-orchid that bloomed in the sand forest and gave off a sweet honey smell. Whether it was pleasant or not was debatable. The first time I smelled it I was being escorted back to my cottage from a night drive and I thought maybe it was the cologne of my escort. Then a new escort from the cottage to the dinner smelled the same way and I thought there must be another explanation beyond that they share a pungent cologne. That’s when I started asking questions and between Thulani and Seth, who joined us tacking rhino, I got the night-orchid explanation.

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Day 1

The first afternoon to evening game drive was with a most agreeable Australian couple who were leaving the next morning. Too bad, I would have enjoyed their company and with one a lawyer and the other medically trained, we would have had any situation covered. They told me that they felt especially privileged to have had Thulani for their ranger. I agree that he inspires those feelings.


They also told me that they had not seen any cheetahs in their 3 nights, though they were still thrilled with their overall Phinda experience and with Forest Lodge. If I add that I did not see a cheetah during daylight hours of my first 4 days (though the first 3 mornings were devoted to rhino tracking), that means one week with no cheetahs for one ranger/vehicle. I mention this not as any criticism of Thulani or either of the trackers’ excellent skills, but to put expectations in perspective.


The weather was a big factor. It had rained a lot the day before I got there, then it turned very cold (this was a day after the first snow in Johannesburg in a quarter century) and it was extremely windy at times. The lack of cheetah sightings, when we were really trying to see them, also emphasizes that Phinda is not a zoo. It may be fenced but the animals are still in control of showing themselves or not. During the 4 days that I did not see any cheetah, other vehicles did, so they were out there, just not where we were or where we could get reasonably get. So if cheetah is the goal, I would stay no fewer than 4 nights at Phinda at any combination of the lodges. Cheetah was one of my goals and that is why I spent a week.


The cold weather prompted a herd of 14 giraffe, which included one baby, to move from the marsh in the north to the more wooded area of the broadleaf forest. We caught their migration as they walked down the dirt road. Later when we examined the giraffe tracks, we could see the baby’s were deeply imprinted from jumping and dirt was kicked up. Thulani explained that the baby was literally hopping with excitement about seeing a new place, as this would likely have been its first trip out of the marsh. Funny how tracks could actually be cute.


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Day 2

En route to rhino tracking was a magnificent nyala bull making his way to a waterhole for a drink. He put his head down to drink, paused, then lifted his head and left without a sip. I asked Thulani if our presence had disturbed him. Thulani replied that the bull was not concerned with us, he just did not like the early morning cold water on his lips. Not as painful as sticking your tongue on a pole in subfreezing temps, but a shock to the system nonetheless.


On the way back from our first rhino tracking, I proudly spotted a red duiker lying down behind a tree in the sand forest. I also observed, “There’s a bird eating ticks and stuff off of it.” Tracker Dumi, Thulani, and Seth, all became very excited. The bird was a yellow-bellied bulbul and it was performing the same function on the duiker as the oxpeckers do on the rhinos and buffalo. But the oxpeckers live in open areas and do not fly into the sand forest. The forest dwelling antelope rely on the yellow-bellied bulbuls for tick removal services. Actually getting to see this symbiotic activity is a rarity. Seth had never seen it in 8 years. The guys mentioned this sighting again over the next few days. So a “bird eating ticks and stuff” turned out to be a very big deal.


That evening we found three male lions, a father and his two nearly grown sons, walking in the full moon’s light. Nearby was a cheetah that we did not observe for more than a second with the spotlight, due to the proximity of the lions. It was obvious the lions were aware of the cheetah too, but there was no confrontation.

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Day 3

After tracking and locating the white rhino, we extended our walk to any area known as Bush Pig Pans. Didn’t encounter any bush pigs, but what a lovely neighborhood. It was good advertising for the walking safaris that spend most of the day on foot in the bush. Thulani’s brother leads those. And his sister works in the meal service area. All three siblings are CC Africa employees.


That afternoon Thulani’s “wife to be” as he called her, Mbali, joined me in the vehicle for the afternoon and evening drive, and we all dined together that night, which was a pleasant evening for me.


I had my first of many sightings of my favorite African bird—the Africa Hoopoe. Phinda produced more African Hoopoe sightings than anywhere I’ve been. No photos, though.


We also had one of only three reedbuck sightings. Thulani indicated they used to have more but the original reedbuck herd that was brought in was not accustomed to predators so the cheetah had many easy meals and thinned out the reedbuck in no time. I don’t know if the remaining reedbuck were in the area originally or if they were fast learners.


In the marsh in the north we saw a mother white rhino and a baby, estimated to be three months old. We had a total of nine white rhino sightings that afternoon. Occasionally black rhino are also seen at Phinda but tracks and a black rhino midden, were the only traces of black rhino that I observed.


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Day 4

On the way back from the rhino walk we spotted one of Phinda’s star birds, which are endemic to the area. It was the pink throated twinspot and the pink and the spots were highly visible. We also encountered a single wildebeest, the first –ever sighting of that species for the mother and son. Their enthusiasm for it was infectious. “Spectacular shading of colors, magnificent mane!” Concentrating on this distant lone beast for 10 minutes with my binocs, I had to agree with them.


After lunch, gale force winds (Phinda staff member’s term, not mind) rolled in. Though I felt safe and secure at all times, I watched the trees of the sand forest arch and bend under the stress of the wind and branches were falling down.


With the wind still whipping, I went to tea and met my new vehicle-mates, a family of four--the Hunters. I don’t know their real last name, I only know that they had done a hunting trip prior to Phinda. Their hunting trip is none of my business, but as my vehicle-mates I did have three expectations of them:


#1 Appreciate quality sightings and don’t ask to leave immediately in search of something else. They passed #1.


#2 Don’t do anything to disrupt the wildlife or our experience viewing or photographing it. They were shaky on this one and I could have even ignored their transgressions, if they had not botched #3 so badly.


#3 Get to the vehicle on time so we can depart on time. For two of our four outings they were 20-25 minutes late. Five more minutes and I was requesting my immediate departure and a transfer vehicle that could track us down and deliver them when they were ready.


Their tardy excuses were “We’re on vacation,” and “We didn’t hear the wake up call,” despite the fact that the staff recorded they had made the call and the phone just rang and rang, unanswered. Hunters, of all people, should know the importance of leaving early and maximizing time in the bush.


If the excuse for being late had been, “Delayed by honey badgers or hyena on the path,” I would have understood completely. If it had been, “I tripped over a stump and ripped open my leg and was applying bandages so I wouldn’t bleed all over the vehicle,” I’d forgive and forget.


Goodness knows, these things could happen to any of us. But “didn’t hear” and “on vacation” are bu11$h*t. Or maybe more appropriately these excuses are a steaming, stinky midden of rhino dung.


If their personalities had been exceptionally sunny and genuine, I might have been ticked with the behavior, but I would not have integrated their antics into my trip report in a mocking manner, which is what will follow. I do not view ridiculing them as mean spirited; I see it as “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

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Despite my best efforts at making conversation—“What brought you to Africa?” “How did you choose Phinda?” “What habitat did you hunt in?” “What grade are you in, Son #1?” “What grade are you in, Son #2?” “Bon Appetit.” “How nice you can relive your trip with shared family memories” etc. etc., I’d get a curt reply and then silence. The only thing Pa Hunter said to me during two full days together was, “Garlic cheese is my favorite,” when he learned I was from the Dairy State of Wisconsin.


For this first outing, everyone arrived on time. Pa Hunter immediately noticed the rifle lodged in front of the vehicle. Discussion began on what all it could kill and then expanded to the more generalized which guns kill which animals.


We set off in the whipping wind that was no longer quite gale force, circumventing downed tree limbs that blocked the road. My game viewing expectations under these conditions were very low. We headed to the marsh and were soon on the trail of the three male lions. What luck.


The light was a little low, but I countered that by turning the dial on my camera to ISO and changing to burst mode so no action would escape me. Feeling like a real photographer now, I was ready to take on the coalition of male lions! I was almost a real photographer--without a subject. When we spotted the lions, Pa Hunter stood up in the vehicle, pointed, and exclaimed, “There they are!” The sound from the wind was our salvation and it muffled his voice so the lions were not startled. Now, I had listened to Thulani thoroughly explain the rules to the family back at the lodge, even using a giant flip chart, so everyone should have known that standing and shouting at lions was not allowed. But a quick review session was in order before we approached the lions.


All three males were gathered together at a small waterhole and they drank as the wind whipped through their manes. A grand sight indeed.




On the night drive back discussion included the various antelope species that had been eaten at the previous hunting camp and I learned that chicken fried eland is good eating.

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I must admit that some of my comments on the Hunters do get a little snippy, especially my remarks on grammar. I know I ain’t always the bestest and most well spoken person in any crowd and I’d never criticize the grammar of someone whose first language is not English. If the Hunters had gotten the big things right, like being on time, I’d be oblivious to the trivial things, like speech patterns. Still, I feel I must invoke the Larry the Cable Guy quip pre-emptively. “Lord, I apologize for that.”


You know how the plural of many African species does not contain an s? Buffalo for a whole herd. Lion, even when it’s a pride. Then there are some animal names that are exceptions to that such as crocs and vervets. Whether one puts the s on the end or not, in speaking or writing, is not something I care to monitor. I don’t consistently follow those rules myself.


But let me share with you an alternative syntax used by Pa Hunter. For the plural, just stick the article “them” in front of any animal species and an s on the end. For example: “Yesterday I seen them lions.” “Them elands make good chicken fried steaks.” “Them warthogs, them rhinos, etc.” Lord, I apologize for that.


At dinner it was just the family and I sharing a table. We were on the main course of an individually served, delicious gourmet meal in which each guest had several menu choices. Discussion turned to uncertainty about the food on the plate followed by wistful, fond memories of McDonald’s, Country Kitchen, and Denny’s. But the consensus was that Denny’s service was slow. As soon as this fact was uttered, each family member had to mock insult each other member with, “You’re slow.” With four members I believe mathematically that worked out to one dozen insults. I did not participate, choosing to sit that round out.

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Day 5

We had some raindrops as we departed this morning. Pa Hunter inquired of Thulani, “Ya got cheetahs here?” Duh, it’s a conservation area that specializes in them cheetahs! Thulani’s response was polite and accurate.


Not long into our drive Thulani and SK spotted fresh cheetah tracks. We followed them in the vehicle through the brush. Then the guys got out, reminded us to stay put, and started tracking on foot into the broadleaf forest. They were just out of earshot when Ma Hunter remarked, “Do you think they are just doing this for show?” I could not have packed more bitterness into my response of, “This is not a show.”


About 15 minutes later our leaders returned with good news. There was a cheetah in the forest, a strange comment in and of itself. At Phinda, the cheetahs have adapted to spending time in the forests. In fact, I was told there was one in front of our lodge in the sand forest the day before. Their first choice is the acacia-savanna or marsh area when that is not too wet, but they are found in the forests and we had seen their tracks in that habitat while tracking rhino.


Is this adaptation good, bad, neither? There are plans to expand the concession over twice its existing size to include new habitat, much of it acacia-savanna and marsh, along with the other environments. It will be interesting to see what the cheetahs that have adapted to the forest do with new habitat possibilities.


Our vehicle advanced through the forest, which required us to lie flat in the seats to avoid branches--a minor inconvenience in order to see a cheetah. She was sitting in a clearing and completely visible, in dappled light. We stayed with her about an hour as she dozed, washed, looked around in an agitated manner whenever the wind gusted, yawned, and stretched. Speaking of yawning, about half way into our viewing one of the sons let out a big yawn. To Thulani’s credit, he never took the bait and asked, “Should we move out?”






When the cheetah decided to move out we noticed she was limping. She might have taken refuge from the wind and light rain to heal in the warmth and cover of the forest. Thulani mentioned he would inform the vet of her predicament and so did the ranger in the vehicle next to us. Apparently if the wound did not heal, the vet would intervene for cheetah injuries, but not for just any injured animal. During our hour, one or two other vehicles came to see the cheetah and left.


The misting rain turned to a steady drizzle almost the moment the cheetah walked off. How’s that for timing!? So we wore our rain ponchos that were provided in the vehicle, and carried on. We came upon a big bull elephant who was walking away from us, grabbing select branches as he went. With a view from the rear and a light drizzle, we did not have a Kodak moment.


But there was one highly visible feature of this animal that caught all of our attention. It is always fascinating to see the reaction of anyone who first observes an elephant’s fifth leg, and this was a sizeable one. I must say I have never observed such a dexterous and prehensile member on an elephant before. That thing was doing tai chi moves.

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At breakfast the manager gave us the plan for the next day’s visit to the Songoma (village psychic) and a Zulu family. Pa Hunter asked the manager, “Is there something we should know about the village?”


I thought, “Good for him, he’s seeking further information to enhance our encounter.”


But he completed his question by asking, “I heard a lot of people have AIDs there. Should we be worried about that?” Ma Hunter appropriately admonished her husband that our activities there should not pose any risks.


The pm game drive would produce another cheetah but not until sunset, providing my first cheetah-and-sunset photo that would win no contests. This male was located in the south in the Getty area, which was a private part of Phinda that the Getty family allowed CC Africa to traverse. But no off-roading there, even for the cheetah.


Fortunately the cheetah was very accessible. This cheetah was known for his frequent vocalizations and we got to hear some crooning, likely intended to impress any nearby females. Thulani said that cheetahs make a sound like a bird (and this guy was tweeting loudly) as a form of protection so they don’t call attention to themselves with a growl.


The sun went down and the night drive began. We had not gone far when an argument broke out amongst the Hunters. Something about who shot what animals and how many shots it had taken. The conflict escalated into a shouting match through the dark as we drove. I was certain that we had scared everything away with that racket, but a moment later we saw our first large spotted genet-—the first of the entire trip including the four nights at Mala Mala. It sat up, staring at us with its beady little eyes, raised its tiny genet index claw to its pointy snout, and hissed, “Shhhh!” Soon there was another large spotted genet.


It was true that we really saw two genets, but the first one did not go “Sh.” He actually raised the middle genet claw above his head and shouted, “Shut the hell up.”


With the hunting argument settled, the boys began to wrestle in their seat. Since the vehicle was moving anyway, the motion was not a problem and they were just letting off steam as teenagers will do. I had no problem with that until one of them was in a headlock and on the losing end of the tussle. I could not believe what I heard. He was crying rape. Not “uncle,” or “ok, that’s enough,” “cut it out,” “I’m tellin’ Mom,” but “rape.” As the advantage shifted from one boy to the other in their wrestling match, this word was used another two times.


A white tailed mongoose, which Tracker SK picked for the highlight of his day, was the final sighting.

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Day 6

Just a few meters from my cottage on my way to breakfast I witnessed a kill. One of the celebrity star birds, the pink throated twinspot, demonstrated how the early bird gets the worm.


We spent almost an hour within a few meters of a mother and baby white rhino in the marsh this morning. The mother had the longest horn of any female at Phinda.




The baby was about five months old and very active, munching grass and checking out our vehicle.



Suddenly all activity ceased and the baby plopped down on his side next to mother for a nap. His legs stuck out straight from where they were connected to his body, like the legs on an overturned chair. This little guy’s inaction was as entertaining as his actions.




The redbilled oxpeckers were really going to work on the baby as well as the mother. Finally, the birds became disruptive to the baby’s nap, so he sprung to his feet and both mother and baby trotted off.


We returned about 9:30 so there was time for breakfast before a 10:00 am village departure. There are two kinds of village visits and both take place midday so as not to interfere with the scheduled game activities. One village visit is a 45-minute to an hour quick overview of the projects that CC Africa sponsors and it is free of charge, though donations are accepted. There is no minimum number of participants. The other visit is 550 Rand and requires a minimum of two participants, or one participant can pay double. It lasts about three hours and typically visits the local psychic and another family and stops at a small craft shop. Part of the price acts as a donation. I wanted to do the longer visit so I had to join others to avoid paying double, which I was not going to do. If no one else went, I would have done the shorter free visit.


Here’s a village hint: It is standard to return a little early from the morning game drive before the 3-hour village visit so that breakfast can be eaten. We had never gotten back as early as 9:30 before. If it was agreeable to all involved, I’d ask to forget the 9:30-10:00 breakfast and just have some extra cookies at the 6:30 breakfast and at your morning coffee stop. Then you could get back just before 10:00, giving yourself almost another half hour in the bush. It’s not like you have to change clothes or prepare for the village visit. You could hop right from the game drive vehicle into the regular car used for the visit and you’re off. Then when you get back around 1:00 pm from the village, have yourself a hearty lunch, which is served until 2:30 pm.


You could even expand your Zulu visit options in the future, if you prepare in advance. After I arrived at Phinda, I asked if anyone every stays overnight at a Zulu homestead, which is the term used to describe the several buildings that each family lives in. They mentioned some guests had asked about it in the past but it had not been done. Of course, I offered to pay for that privilege. It looked like they could arrange such an overnight stay with family members of the Phinda staff. Then some of the Phinda management folks decided that since this activity was not booked from home with my TA, I could not do it. Liability problems, likely. But if you had several nights at Phinda and made arrangements up front, I think it would be an outstanding experience. As it turned out, I did not get to stay overnight, but I did have a wonderful farewell evening with Thulani’s family at his home. That’s described in Day 7.


So I ended up going to visit the Zulu homesteads with the Hunters. We traveled in a regular closed vehicle with our guide, VR. He was charming and very knowledgeable and made the trip highly enjoyable. A few times he casually broke into song as part of his explanation and sometimes he requested us to join him. VR had a beautiful voice and his singing, along with ours, added to our overall experience. This comment is from someone who does not care for sing-alongs and such.


One of VR’s points was that Zulus naturally love visitors so setting up these village visits fit right into their culture and was not seen as an intrusion. He stated that if people do not want to come and visit you then something is wrong.


Pa Hunter dozed during parts of VR’s dialogue and would ask questions when he woke up about what VR had just said. But the questions were thoughtful and reasonable and nothing more was uttered about AIDs.

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Once we left the gate of the park, we drove about 30 minutes on beautifully paved roads. When we encountered goats, VR would jokingly refer to them as Zulu Impala. The cattle were Zulu Buffalo. When the Zulu Buffalo lined the highway, it was known as a yellow light and we slowed down. When they crossed it was a red light. VR told us he controlled the traffic lights and could switch them to a green light at will by tooting the horn. It was quite humorous.


We had far more activity in the village than usual because it was the once-a- month pension day for senior citizens. There were hundreds of people selling everything from clothing to vegetables along the roadside. We were told pension day could slightly alter our schedule because the psychic, or Sangoma, would be making the trek to get her monthly pension too. We had to time our visit around her pension run.


Our timing was perfect as we pulled into the homestead of the Sangoma and saw her Zulu Guinea Fowl (chickens). We removed our shoes, gave the greeting of honor used specifically for a Sangoma that included clapping four times, and entered the room where she received visitors. Incense, drumming, and special fetishes helped induce her into a trance and her body went through what appeared to be an arduous transformation to reach the ancestors’ spirits. We witnessed the Sangoma’s animated dancing and chanting for about 15 minutes. Photos were allowed but I did not feel comfortable taking flash pictures which the dark room necessitated. So no photos resulted, but it’s better to see it for yourself. The ancestors she communicated with were happy we had arrived and wished us a safe journey.


We were allowed to ask questions through VR, our interpreter. I asked if she was tired afterward. If she went through the ordeal we saw almost daily, or even more often for visitors, I would think it could take a toll. She responded that since it was the ancestors who had taken over her body, she was not tired. To back up her claims, she was not winded as she spoke.


Then on to the Zulu family’s homestead. It was a 10 minute drive. The parents were not home, but the children were gracious hosts and invited us into the ancestor shrine, a special structure for ceremonies and family gatherings. Afterwards the children danced in traditional costumes. To her credit, Ma Hunter inquired about tipping the children, so we did and they were extremely pleased. Of course we tipped VR when we returned to Forest Lodge.


Later I asked Thulani if any of the Phinda staff visited that Sangoma. His reply was that they may or may not see that one, but that they would certainly value and seek out the advice of a Sangoma somewhere. His family also has a special place to honor his ancestors, as do most Zulu families.


Finishing up the excursion, we hit the market, which was housed in one large building and offered a variety of crafts. I bought a nice purple and teal basket and was given an explanation on the local plants that were used for its construction and to dye it. Then I watched a group of kids play soccer in the nearby field, and kicked the ball back to them when it came my way.


When we returned to Phinda, the Hunters and I parted. I did encounter them once again when we shared the same transport and I mentioned something about Thulani. Pa Hunter asked, “Now who was that? Our guide?” Though I replied with only a “yes,” I wanted to ask, “All this time have you been thinking that ‘them Thualnis’ were some kind of endemic antelope or something?”

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That afternoon was perfect canoeing weather—warm and still. We headed south to the Mzinene River and passed a large man-made dam with pumped water that supported trees full of cormorants and storks. We spied the lone hippo in the area when he poked his head from the water.


This was the furthest south we had ventured. From here we could see the mountain habitat in the distance. I asked if there were any klipspringer in the mountains. Apparently some were introduced, though it was not conclusive whether or not they had been indigenous to the area. Of those that were introduced, a few did not take to the rocky, mountainous terrain and unfortunately fell off the cliffs during the acclimation process.


To fully experience all of Phinda’s habitats, it is best to split your visit as follows: The north has Vlei (high end) and Forest Lodge (moderate) and the south has Rock (high end) and Mountain (moderate). You have stay at Forest or Vlei for the rhino tracking because these two properties are closest to the broadleaf forest habitat, where the rhinos are commonly found in the morning. I spent one whole week at Forest Lodge.


There is also the walking camp where you either start your walk right from camp or drive somewhere and walk. You return back to the same camp each night. The walking camp is in the north area. We saw the walkers in a vehicle late one afternoon at a cheetah sighting. As to whether north or south is best, they seem to be about equal from what I was told, with the north having the slight edge in winter and the south having the slight edge in the summer.


Back to the river and the canoe: You need shorts and no shoes or socks to canoe. We used a kayak paddle so it got a little drippy in the canoe. Life jackets are provided and I requested to wear mine. The river has barely a current and is quite wide. Afternoon gives the best sun on the fever trees on the far bank, spectacular in fact. There are no elephants on that bank, so the fever trees flourish. The first couple of minutes you canoe directly into the sun, but then the sun is off to the side.


A large water monitor scooted along the bank next to us for 50 meters. Then a malachite kingfisher did the same, flying from perch to perch. We had a great view of one of the star birds sitting on branch, the Southern Banded Snake Eagle, as he sat in a tree. A bull nyala walked through reeds along the bank. Small crocs slid into the water as we passed. We saw darters, cormorants, and a jacana. Near the end of our hour or so of paddling were some grooming vervets high in a tree who were being entertained by us. No hippos. A beautiful outing.





On the night drive back we saw two porcupines, something I’ve always wanted to see. Then we passed the dam and along the bank was a white tailed mongoose. The spotlight brightly illuminated the black and white mongoose and its clear reflection in the pond as it strolled along the water’s edge. It was a stunning! If we could have gotten the mongoose to sing a few lines and do a little dance, we would have had our own private Disney movie.

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Day 7

Our day started without a vehicle because it had developed a puncture that morning. Thulani had a good plan—we’d start out with a sand forest walk and get picked up when the vehicle was ready. So off we went. When we heard SK approach in the distance, we decided to play a trick on him and hide in the forest. As he sped past us, we hopped out with a whistle from Thulani. We kidded SK, “If you were really a tracker, you would have tracked us to our hiding spot!”


It was not long before fresh cheetah tracks were spotted. Thulani and SK hopped out and another ranger and tracker from a separate vehicle joined them and all four went off in search of a cheetah. They came back smiling. The female with the limp had been racing through open areas of the broadleaf woodland after a duiker. She gave up the chase and was resting in a dried pan just up the road, two minutes by vehicle. Good news for her that she was comfortable running. Good news for us that we would see her again. But we didn’t. She had disappeared by the time we got to the dried pan. A second thorough search on foot by all four experts produced nothing.


So we continued on, looking for whatever else was out there. Not too much. That’s when Thulani employed a good strategy. We just stopped, turned off the motor and sat, looked, and listened. It wasn’t long before one of the two rare indigenous mammals appeared—the Red Tonga Squirrel. It ran quickly ran down an exposed tree branch and into thick leaves. Then its mate followed the same route and I was treated to a rerun. Very cool. I had hoped to see either the Tonga squirrel or the Sunni antelope, the two rare indigenous mammals at Phinda. It was the Tonga squirrel that obliged.


A radio call came in that a cheetah had been spotted south of Forest Lodge. We headed in that direction. A Burchell’s Coucal was dusting itself in the road and singing a song that meant it would rain. Looking up at the skies, the bird was clearly in error.



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We were about 10 minutes from reaching the cheetah when I could hear on the radio that the “station,” as they call it, that was with the cheetah was moving out. The ranger radioed Thulani that the cheetah had a full belly and was resting under a tree in the shade and would likely remain. Directions to that spot in the shade were given.


This is the first time I’ve mentioned the radio. Headsets were not used so chatter could be heard at times. Thulani often turned the radio off and even when it was on, it was not at all intrusive in my opinion. That’s probably why I haven’t mentioned it.


My thought was, “Who wouldn’t want to sit and watch a cheetah for only 10 more minutes until we arrived?” That would have made locating it much easier for us. We arrived at the designated spot and searched the area where the cheetah had last been seen resting. No cheetah. So we expanded the search area and eventually found her not resting under a tree, but alert and on the move. A good look at her stomach showed it was enlarged, but loose and hanging, indicating she was likely pregnant and not just well fed.







We followed her as she started trotting down the road—-the road next to the concession’s boundary, delineated by a fence. I had a view of both cheetah and fence. Except for one warthog and a herd of nyala at a great distance, this was the only time that animal and fence were in the same line of sight. I didn’t care for it.


Almost once a day we would drive along the fence and that was ok. I suppose the road could have been moved over, and additional vegetation destroyed, so that guests would not have to view the fence as they drove. But that would not seem to fit with the philosophy at Phinda.


The grand plan for fences is to acquire the adjacent national parkland that represents an area twice the current size of Phinda, and to also acquire a parcel of private land next door. Then the fences would surround such a huge habitat that guests would be unlikely to encounter them. That habitat could support many more animals and, in Thulani’s estimate, about 50 cheetah.

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Currently when the cheetah population rises, the animals are relocated to other CC Africa reserves, keeping the gene pool diverse. Births are not the only source of new cheetahs at Phinda. Any farmer with problem cheetahs only needs to contact CC Africa and staff members will come out to the farm, trap the cheetahs, and bring them to Phinda. They prefer to do this with coalitions of cheetahs so the animals have a buddy as they are acclimating to the new environment.


The new arrivals to Phinda start out in a fenced boma with food provided. Then the boma is enlarged. Rangers try to drive around the boma whenever possible during their outings to habituate the cheetah to vehicles.


Thulani recounted how five cheetah brothers had been brought in from Namibia. Four had died after relocation due to some kind of ailment, but it wasn’t a genetic ailment. On the plus side, if any of them had mated before their deaths, then their genes were brought into the pool. One male remained and chose to live in the south, but was seldom seen. I was glad to learn that animals could escape detection. There should be places in Phinda that the animals can go if they choose not to strut for the cameras

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Our cheetah veered off the road and we followed, leaving the fence behind. She was very interested in the scent marking at the base of a fallen tree, indicating other cheetahs had been there. She moved into the savanna, where you’d expect to find cheetahs. Then she covered ground quickly and disappeared into the acacia trees of this savanna-acacia habitat. We drove around the trees to try to locate her point of exit. The good eyes of SK found her and we watched her settle down, with unobstructed views in the mid-morning sun.


I was privileged to stay with her until about noon. That was two and a half hours. Thulani and SK had spent almost double the amount of time that would normally be devoted to a morning game drive. I was impressed with the beautiful cheetah and I was impressed with them. Let me also mention that Thulani had been scheduled to go on his leave (that comes up every six weeks) two days earlier, but he extended his work period an extra two days so that our week together would be uninterrupted. Here’s a guy who technically should be on holiday and he was working overtime for one guest in the vehicle.



Thulani had radioed the lodge and told them not to hold any breakfast items since we had missed that whole mealtime, which meant that day I ate lunch. A Scottish couple invited me to join them at their table. They were on their second Phinda visit and recounted a mother and cub leopard sighting as the highlight of their previous visit. Even though there was no mention of anyone seeing a leopard during my weeklong stay, it reinforces you could one at any moment. And we had seen tracks.

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