Just Back from Phinda/Singita

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Sep 6th, 2004, 10:23 AM
  #1
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Just Back from Phinda/Singita

Well, we're just back from an incredible trip to Phinda and Singita. It was our first safari, first vist to South Africa and first everything! Here are some impressions, that I'll try to keep helpful for others that are planning trips. Any specific questions, just ask me!

Phinda:

We arrived at Phinda's airstrip and were greated by a warm and lovely woman who escorted to a rover for the 40 minute drive to Forest Lodge, where we were to stay for two nights, before moving onto Rock Lodge, and then finaly over to Sabi Sands and Singita.

Forest Lodge:

Lovely and highly recommended. Very camp like, much more so than the accomodaions we would enjoy later, with a real "bush" feel. Lovely room had every comfort, but was not over the top in any way. Fabulous glass walls surrounded by forrest and Nyala and Red Duiker. Forrest Lodge is really made, though, by its amazingly lovely, warm and charming staff, virtually all local Zulu people. This was not the case elsewhere, where white Africans held most of the managment, ranger and senior positions. Nice pool; to cold to go in, lovely boma and comfy lounge, all well separated and very much in the bush. Food? Well, it was plentiful, and beautifuly served, if not especially memorable.

No doubt about it, of course, the wonderful part of Phinda is the reserve iteself and its fabulous array of wildlife. Our very first drive and very first viewing was of a a coalition of three male cheetas. Wow! We were amazaed, despite all we've read and heard how incredibly close the vehicle got to the cats, and were amazed at their relaxed behavior. Our ranger and tracker were both black South Africans, and their tracking skill was extra-ordinary. Indeed, overtime we found the tracking process to be nearly as exciting as the viewing theselves, and in some cases, even more so. Unlike singita, there were no headsets at Phinda, so the radio calling, team tracking and banter among rangers was clearly audible and added greatly to the excitement, especially during one evening when even but our intrpid ranger Walter gave up on finding a breeding heard of elephant. Just as the first blush of twilight began to settle, the day still bright, Walter and his tracker Mzemamo, found a single elephant track. That lead us to a differnt part of the reserve that the other rangers on the radio joked was to far for the elephants to have gotten. But no wlater. A turn here, a turn there, and suddenly, in complete silence a huge elephnat cow stepped into the road no more than fifty yards ahead of us. Then another and another. As they crossed the road, from thicket to thicket, they glanced at us mournfully, and moved on, about 12 in all, in utter silence. THe last was the largest, who trumpeted at us and then was gone. Amazing!

The other game drives were as extraordinary, and full of fun; we saw lion, rhino, an amzing leopard sighting (she was in a tree with kill in the aerly evening!) and countless warthog, impala, a bushbaby or tow, mongooses, hornbills, fish eagles and more more more!!

THen it was onto Rock Lodge, a total different experience. If Forrest lodge felt like a camp made luxurious, Rock Lodge is like a small in, nesteled into a hillside with spectacualr mountain views. A totally different feel, very luxurious, a little whimcical and a total joy. Fabulous staff! ANd get this -- we were the only guests! We had the whole place to ourselves. It was like staying in a luxurious private home, with a cheff, two servers, lovely hostess, tracker and tanger all to ourselves. That's luxury!

More on Rock Lodge, and the low down on Singita later...
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Sep 10th, 2004, 08:58 AM
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Looking forward to reading more!
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Sep 10th, 2004, 10:25 AM
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Yes, where's the rest? More please.
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Sep 10th, 2004, 11:19 AM
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More, more, more.........
 
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Sep 23rd, 2004, 10:04 AM
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So sorry for the dealy in part two of this post. Got terribbly hectic with busines travel and blah, blah, blah.

ANYWAY...Phinda was simply great and Rock Lodge is a great option for lodging, not least of all becuase of its proximity to newly acquired land that extends the size of the Phinda reserve some 13,000 hectares.

We were their just one week after the fences between the new prperty and the main reserve came down, and the excitement of our ranger and tracker to explore the new area added some real excitement to our game drives, which, since we were the only guests at Rock Lodge remained private.

The beautiful, hilly and rocky landscape we explored had previsouly been a hunting reserve, and was vastly over stoced with male Impalas, who, until recently were hunted as trophies. It was so strange and sad to see these enormous bachelor herds fleeing from our Land Rover, and such as contrast to the beautifuly serene heards on the main reserve.

Overall, game viewing in the new area was not as rewarding as in other parts of the reserve because many of the large animals there are still terribly skitish from the years of hunting.

However, they were still great drives, and we did see a pride of lion who had moved into the new terriroty recently reclining by a large water hole by moonlight -- gorgeous.

The most excpetional exerience of the safari so far happened on our final night, when we took the boat ride that Phinda offers on the Mzene River. Future visitors, don't miss this expereinces, its delightful!

Well after dark, as the boat was returning to the dark, we were all quiet, listening to the sounds of the bush at night, when my companion suddenly whispered "There!" and pointed to the river bank, about 15 yards off the side of the boat.

In the bright moonlight, fully in sillhouette, we watched as a gicantic bull elephant emerged from a thicket. In that extraordinary and impossible silence that surrounds elephants, he began daintily picking leaves off of branches, and a second, and then third elephant appeared as if by magic on either side of him.

We watched, memerized, as the elephants continued to feed slowly, there forms fully visible and outlined against the bush and the silver sky beyond. Teh third and smallest of the three raised himself up on his hind legs and ripped down a huge limb, the sound of which echoed as a flock of birds skreetech and flew across the river. Simply stunning!

The next day we left for Singita, with sincere promises to the lovely people of Phinda that we'd be back!

Singita:

Well, after all that has been written about Singita on this board and in so many other places, it hardly seems necessacary to go into too much detail.

We were at Boulders lodge, and the experience was sublime, but not perfect. Here are our impressions:

YES the rooms are absolutely sensational, with every possible luxury and in the best of taste (although the zeebra hide ottomon was questionable. Have it removed if animal skins offend you.)

YES the game viewing was truly exceptional.

YES the service is lovely and thoughtful, and the hotel staff (not management, see below) are an absolute joy.

YES, its worth the money if privacy and exclusivity are important to you. No complaints on cost from us.

However, there are one or two significant outages that they need to fix pronto if they want to continue to attract the kind clientel they need.

One is the hotel management. The hotel manager and assistant manager are not capable of contributing to the relaxed and warm atmosphere. A property like Singita requires top management who know how to act not like hoteliers, but like hosts, and the current team was at sea in this regard. They were formal when they should have been casual, casual when they should have been formal and just not appealing personalities. Which is a problem since they are constantly underfoot at cocktail time and dinner. This impression was shared by several other guests.

Second, our ranger wasn't so hot. You occasionaly wonder if rangers are hired based on looks! He was fine, but at one point we actually had cross words and his judgement was a little questionable.

And finally, those gorgeous plunge pools you see in the brochures and articles? Not heated (despite what is said in this forum) which is just inexcusable.

All in all a sensation trip! Would recommend both Phinda and Singita highly. And we can't wait to get back.
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Sep 23rd, 2004, 10:53 AM
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... and that, Africa lovers, is why we've stayed at Phinda Forest twice in the past three years!!! Excellent report, excellent. And Singita sounds tops, and you were spot on the mention the atmosphere being set by management. I know our next trip will have to include a revisit to Forest - in #3 near the path to the lodge and curio shop. Did you by chance see a staff person named Jabu, and a former ranger who is in management, Benson. And Guy the ranger and Kenny G the tracker?
 
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Sep 23rd, 2004, 11:04 AM
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Thanks Mike14c for the report. Your evening elephant siting sounded magical and I can picture the image clearly from your description.

Skilled trackers truly are amazing to watch in action. They sure know how to use all their senses and put all the pieces together!
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Sep 23rd, 2004, 11:29 AM
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Mike - you might want to send an email to Singita headquarters re your thoughts on the management at Boulders. I believe it is important that likes and dislikes are made known. And I don't believe it's something that would get someone fired, rather that owners have an idea of what appeals and does not appeal to their guests. Depending on which direction such comments indicate, it's possible additional training or better understanding of hospitality traits will be encouraged or dissuaded for their camp management people.

Great trip report. Will you be posting photos? Would love to see these if you can.
 
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Sep 23rd, 2004, 11:47 AM
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Thanks for your report Mike. Would you mind telling us who your ranger at Singita was? ... and perhaps go into a little more detail about his inappropriate judgement? Also, how many other guests were in your vehicle? Thanks.
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Sep 23rd, 2004, 12:11 PM
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Happy Travels: I'm afraid we didn't meet any of the poeple you mention. Our excellent ranger at Forrest was Walter, and the tracker was named Mzambo. As to management, the gentleman's name escapes me, but it was not any you mentioned.

Sandi: We did actually send a note to Singita's home office. I'm sure they'll address the situation overtime as I know we were not the only guests with the same opinion.
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Sep 23rd, 2004, 12:23 PM
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OSC:

The questionable judgement I referred to came up a few times when it seemed that the ranger wasn't being terribly sensititve to the comfort zone of his guests.

On one ocassion, when it was just myself and my companion in the vehicle, a private drive, we were looking for a leopard. Despite the fact that we told him we were not comfortable being left alone in the vehicle, he insisted on going into a thicket with the tracker to see if he could find the animal. We reitterated we did not want to be left alone and asked him to come back quickly if he didn't find the animal right away. Long story short, he was gone for 20 minutes.

Now, I'm sure that we were perfectly safe, but the ranger didn't seem to understand that for some guests (especially urban -dwellers on thier very first visit to the bush) there is a difference between being safe and feeling safe.

A couple of day's later, with a full vehicle of six guests, he drove the land rover under the electrified elephant fence, with us all huddled down on the seats while the tracer used a stick to lift the live wire above the rear-most and highest seat. This was in able to obtain a view that was only marginally better, and the people in the last seat were very uncomfortable indeed.

There were a couple of other things like that as well, mostly minor. If you don't mind, I won't post his name publically, as I made these concerns vividly clear to him at the time, and I hope got through.
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Sep 23rd, 2004, 01:12 PM
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I do understand about your discomforture of being left alone in the rover, especially when the guide was out of sight for an extended period.

This will give you a laugh, I hope: two weeks ago, our guide left us while he tracked lions. He departed from the rear of the rover, and was about 100 meters behind us when I scanned ahead and there, 100 meters in front, were at least six lions, including two couples mating. I called back "lions" and you'd have though the guide was running an Olympic race. Out of the rover in the vicintiy of lions, and no rifle. Basically a no-no.

Another time, our guide and the tracker left us on a sand road at Phinda while they walked 1/4 mile behind to track lion. While they were gone we heard a cough behind a small bush next to the rover. After the guide and tracker returned, I mentioned the noise - so we drove around the bush, and voila, 15 lion lying in the grass, probably 20-230 meters away tops, and there the entire time.

I think it's preferable that the guide remain with the rover, and allow the tracker to do his work alone.
 
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Sep 23rd, 2004, 01:14 PM
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whoops, 20-30 meters, CLOSE!
 
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Sep 23rd, 2004, 02:55 PM
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Mike, I was at Singita Boulders last year. Probably a lot of the people I saw there are gone now. We had a wonderful ranger, Carmen, who is gone. The terrific tracker, Phanwell, may still be there. Would you email me at [email protected]? That bit about leaving you alone in the landrover is shocking, as is the live wire story. Thanks.
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Sep 23rd, 2004, 03:54 PM
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Climatis:

I'll send you a note.

All the rangers we were with, at both reserves, explained that there might be times they would leave the vehicle. It only happened that one time at Singita.

It seems to me that rangers should inquire whether or not guests are comfortable being left alone and respond accordingly. Especially on a private game drive. That Singita of all places would get that wrong is terribly disappointing.

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Sep 28th, 2004, 06:21 PM
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Clematis, I was just at Singita Boulders in January. Carmen and Phanwell were still there. The were our guide and tracker and I completely agree, they were excellent. Couldn't have asked for a better experience.
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Sep 29th, 2004, 02:17 PM
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Lisa, thank you so much for this good news! They are a remarkable team, aren't they? Phanwell is the tracker who went out on his break time to find us the 2 month old lion cubs. Carmen was sensitive and smart. Her choices made every game drive a jaw-dropper. She would also ask us, "They just radio'd us they're following a leopard in the north but we could stay here and look for rhino - What do you prefer?" It was cooperation all the way. Never were we told that we'd be left in the vehicle alone, at any camp, and we never experienced this. Also I wanted to say that the management we had at Singita over a year ago was very good at matching up couples for the vehicles. We met some terrific folks and two of them have become good friends. In fact this was part of the fun of these safaris - that you would have dinner at the same table with the people in your car and your guide. I guess it wouldn't work if you didn't like your carmates but then I know the managers would move you to a different vehicle. This is an advantage to Singita unlike a camp where there are only three couples total in camp.
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Sep 29th, 2004, 02:51 PM
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Have to agree with Clematis re management at Singita - in our case, at Ebony. Considering that guests are arriving daily and staying for so brief a time, management is excellent assigning which people in each vehicle, as well as for dinner. The same holds true for the rangers and trackers who have to acclimate to new guests daily, some who have never been on safari and others who have many times over, all with different expectations.

While we got on well with the other two couples in our vehicle, only ourselves and one other couple were together for dinner with our ranger; the other couple at a table of their own. We also noticed single couple tables, but except for the one couple in our vehicle, these tended to be honeymooners who specifically requested to dine alone. On our second day, the couple who joined us for dinner departed after four days, so it was just four of us in the vehicle; our second evening, we had dinner alone with our ranger after having had such a fun day with him during drives and time in-between.

At no time during games drives on safari in any country, over many years have we been left alone in vehicles - not in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa. There have been circumstances when our guide or ranger, tracker might want to check for animals in the bush - we did by vehicle or if we had to walk, everyone (as the case in SA) walked or nobody did. In Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Botswana we had vehicle to ourselves, so this was never much of an issue - walk or not, drive or not - whichever was best we did and never disappointed, but never left alone.
 
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Sep 30th, 2004, 09:29 AM
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I agree reinner and dining companions. Another very nice thing about Singita was that for the most part other quests tended to be very well travelled and sophisticated people who were delightful dinner companions.

Also, there certainly was no confusion or difficulty in terms of dinner arrangements. We ate with our ranger alone one night, car mates another, and an entirely third group of people the next.
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