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atravelynn Jul 21st, 2007 10:03 PM

Phinda, where the h is silent but the rhino flatulence is not--Trip Report
June 28-July 4, out July 5 for a 1-week stay

Photos: 1-51 What’s out there; 52, 53 Forest Lodge Cottage
You may notice many of the photos are labeled to show what I saw right at Forest Lodge, where animals roam freely in the sand forest and savanna.

Guide: Thulani was recommended by Divewop and will also be highly recommended by me in the future.

TA: Eyes on Africa

Let me get right to the flatulence. 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 this prize that was emitting not only steam, but an unpleasant odor, Thulani motioned for us to remain silent and motionless. 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 completely still and quiet, huddled 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 just a meter or two away 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.

GrannyJoan Jul 21st, 2007 10:12 PM

Wow! Such a great trip you have had. Lovely photos. The animals look so peaceful. Hard to pick a favorite photo. Love the giraffes walking down the road. Amazing. Looks like a nice place to stay.

Well, back to work ... headed for Galapagos and MP this week.

Thanks for sharing your trip!
-Granny Joan

granny Jul 21st, 2007 10:20 PM

Wonderful pictures Lynn and so sharp. Looks like you had a good time and your room was beautiful, like being outdoors. Can't wait for more pictures.

ndonna Jul 21st, 2007 10:24 PM

What great pictures. Thanks for sharing. I especially liked the Lions drinking. Great expressions.

MisterAviator Jul 21st, 2007 11:16 PM

Fantastic photos. Especially the giraffes walking single-file down the road!

carolines Jul 21st, 2007 11:21 PM

atravelynn, your photos are just wonderful! The fourth photo, of the trio of gazelles lying in the grass, looks extraordinarily like a fine wildlife portrait. I assume you have this one enlarged and hanging in pride-of-place somewhere!

carolines Jul 21st, 2007 11:25 PM

...did I say portrait? I meant to say, painting!

Gardyloo Jul 21st, 2007 11:26 PM

Thanks for these - will be at Forest Lodge in about 3 weeks and really looking forward to it.

divewop Jul 22nd, 2007 04:28 AM

Another set of wonderful photos.
I like the giraffe one, while they're walking down the road, too.

Thulani looks the same, happy, like I remember. Thanks for posting a pic of him. Our tracker though, was Peter. He must not be there any more.

Looking forward to reading about the rest of your Phinda experience.

atravelynn Jul 22nd, 2007 06:13 AM

Thanks for the comments. The 3 sitting impalas, along with many antelope shots, were the result of just being out and about at Forest Lodge.

The Thulani recommendation helped make the trip, Divewop. He told me that elephants were his favorite, just like you said.

GrannyJoan, Enjoy the Galapagos. I've been there at the same time of year and it was pleasantly cool and of course all the unique species were there. Hope you have a great time sleeping with the tortoises.

mytmoss Jul 22nd, 2007 06:30 AM

Wonderful pictures of Phinda. My guide there was Walter, whom I also would highly recommend. You can never see too many cheetah there. You got some wonderful shots!

moremiles Jul 22nd, 2007 08:43 AM

Wonderful photos and definitely want to add Phinda to my list of must-sees since the rhino tracking sounds fascinating.

cynstalker Jul 22nd, 2007 09:48 AM

Great photos - thanks. I think we should have a contest to caption the Giraffe queue photo. "Is this the line to get our passports"?

Looks like you had fun!


Leely Jul 22nd, 2007 12:12 PM

Lynn, what an excellent start! Love your photos as well, and am looking forward to part 2 (and 3 and 4 and...).

atravelynn Jul 22nd, 2007 01:17 PM

Good one, Cynstalker, about the giraffe line.

Good to know Walter is also recommended.

Typically the morning hunt for white rhino started by driving around the broadleaf forest to find tracks. Once we (I really mean THEY) found fresh tracks, 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 off scratching posts. We could tell where they had reclined and wallowed in mud by the huge indentations. A dead tick that must have 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 an area in 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 along the way were surprised at our presence and would bound away. 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 were 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 nyala eat fruits from the Torchwood tree and spit 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 waste. I took a camera but photography on the walks first required permission from Thulani. 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.

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!

Good thing I paid attention to that elephant and snapped some photos because that 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 under the blue moon. (It was the 2nd full moon in June.)

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 Mala Mala or 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 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.

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. I spent most of my pre-lunch downtime roaming the paths and looking at the wildlife. After lunch it got pretty quiet.

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 pivoted around a bend and suddenly encountered me. He skidded to a stop in the soft sand and stared right 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 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 came over by my house even though I’d seen nyala and impala grouped around the other cottages when I’d walk around. I was feeling a little unwanted when about the third day I was inside reading and looked up to see 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 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.

I’ve only alluded to the glass cottage suites, but they are masterpieces where art meets architecture. I have some photos in the album, but it does not do these accommodations justice. 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.

moremiles Jul 22nd, 2007 01:42 PM

Wow Lynn,
Reading your report is the next best thing to being there! Doesn't every guest at Phinda want to do the rhino tracking?

cynstalker Jul 22nd, 2007 01:50 PM

Lynn, would you explain what you meant by this:
<b> &quot;I took a camera but photography on the walks first required permission from Thulani. I ended up not taking any pictures.&quot;</b>

Why would persmission be withheld? (Sorry to be dense).

atravelynn Jul 22nd, 2007 02:23 PM

I should have clarified. Permission in using the camera during the rhino tracking was needed for safety. The clicking might be too loud or you might need to stay crouched instead of standing up for a better shot. The views of the rhino on foot were not good photo opportunities so I did not even bother to ask about taking photos.

With the average stay of 2-3 days, many people do not want to trade a rhino walk for a drive. In Day 3 of my trip, which is coming up, I mention one person's dilemma with that decision. Also, you have to be able to walk a few hours. And it could be intimidating to some. But I agree, it was a priority for me. You wouldn't have to do 3 of these walks, either. You could do only one, which is the norm.

atravelynn Jul 22nd, 2007 06:12 PM

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 about 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 the devices they used as luminaria but the Phinda staff descriptively called them candle bags) boma with a bonfire, when it was warmer.

Some nights the staff would entertain with song and dance. Those participating really seemed to enjoy themselves and when I asked them about it later they explained how 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!

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, which could be detected every now and then. Once we observed a single ant and the unpleasant odor was quite evident. There were curry scented plants, bushes with jasmine scented blossoms, the old standard—the potato bush, and at 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 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.

LAleslie Jul 22nd, 2007 06:35 PM

Lynn, your photos and report are wonderful. Makes me wish we'd stayed at Forest instead of Mountain Lodge (though it was nice). Also makes me wish we'd done a walk (alas, rain threatened), though not sure about being quite that close to rhinos. Loved your elegant pictures of the cheetah, and the giraffe walking in file. We didn't have a flatulence episode, but did come upon a giraffe who had an itch &quot;back there.&quot; He found a tree that was just the right height, backed into it, and proceeded to rub his behind back and and forth against it. The look on his face--&quot;Ah, that feels soooo good&quot;--said it all. All of us in the vehicle were giggling uncontrollably.

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