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Phinda, where the h is silent but the rhino flatulence is not--Trip Report

Phinda, where the h is silent but the rhino flatulence is not--Trip Report

Jul 22nd, 2007, 05:58 PM
Join Date: Apr 2006
Posts: 600
Great photos.... the nyala are certainly cool looking. Kind of a cross between kudu and bushbuck.. the females at least!

Also loving the report. Sounds like Forest Lodge was heavenly, with great sightings. (And smellings!) ;-)
cooncat3 is offline  
Jul 22nd, 2007, 06:52 PM
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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. It was a great sight. 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.

Day 2
En route to rhino tracking was a magnificent nyala bull making his way to a waterhole for a drink. We stopped to watch. He put his head down to drink, paused, then lifted his head and left. I asked Thulani if our presence had disturbed his drink. Thulani replied 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 freezing pole, 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, the CC Africa employee who had joined us, 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 like 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.
atravelynn is offline  
Jul 22nd, 2007, 06:55 PM
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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 Hoopoo. Phinda produced more African Hoopoo sightings than anywhere I’ve been.

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 there originally or were fast learners.

In the marsh in the north we saw a mother white rhino and a baby, estimated to be three months old. Neither Mbali nor I had ever seen such a young rhino. 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, found on foot, were the only traces of black rhino that I encountered.

Day 4
The teenage daughter of the Costa Rica Mother-Son team was as delightful as her family members, but she did not accompany us on the rhino tracking. She was a bit hesitant to go on foot, but she also was reluctant to forego a drive with the possibility of predators and other cool sightings. I understood her dilemma exactly. It’s why I booked a week at Phinda--because I knew at least 3 outings would be rhino tracking and I wanted enough additional days of pure game drives to try to see a specific species, cheetah. It is also why I did not request bush walks at Mala Mala, though I did one lovely 15 minute farewell climb up a kopje--because when great sightings are so plentiful, I don’t want to miss them by being on foot. The daughter made a good decision because she saw a cheetah on an impala kill. Those of us who tracked rhino were thrilled with seeing a rhino that we thought was issuing a pre-charge grunt when it was only a pre-nap fart.

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 gorgeous. We also encountered a single wildebeest. It was the first wildebeest for the mother and son and their enthusiasm for it was infectious. “Spectacular shading of colors, magnificent mane.” After concentrating on this lone beast for 10 minutes with my binocs, I had to agree with them.
atravelynn is offline  
Jul 22nd, 2007, 06:59 PM
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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 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 and photographing it. They were shaky on this one and I could have even ignored this transgression 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 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. 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 them into my trip report in a mocking manner. I do not view my reaction as mean spirited; I see it as “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

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 asked me over two full days together was, “Do you like garlic cheese? It’s my favorite.” In his defense, he knew I am from the Dairy State of Wisconsin.

Into the vehicle and ready to go. Pa Hunter immediately noticed the rifle lodged in front. 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, though. 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 approaching 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.
atravelynn is offline  
Jul 22nd, 2007, 08:26 PM
Join Date: Sep 2003
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I had a feeling this would be you when I read the very creative title Lynn!

Your pictures are wonderful, such a great variety. Was the canoe trip one of your activities to choose from? Did you see any crocs or hippos? Did you have to pre-plan the rhino tracking or could you decide once you got there? Was the blue moon a factor in planning your trip dates? The Forest Phinda looks amazing, what made you choose that lodge over the other 3?

The rhino tracking is appealing but I don't think my knees could handle the "duck walking".

Knowing how diplomatic,well spoken and polite you are and still having difficulties with "the hunters" makes
me wonder how I would ever manage in that same situation. That is a real concern of mine staying at one place for a long time and being "stuck".

Looking forward to reading the grand finale of your fantastic trip. Thanks.

CarlaM is offline  
Jul 22nd, 2007, 09:51 PM
Join Date: Apr 2005
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You probably (hopefully) don't have to be stuck with unpleasant vehicle mates, for long anyway. At Madikwe Hills in May two newly wed/honeymoon couples in my vehicle were driving me batty with dumb questions and inane banter. (Yes, there are dumb safari questions). When I learned I was scheduled to be with them two more days I requested of my ranger for to change vehicles. He did that for me and my new vehicle mates were fine.

regards - tom
ps - I was cursed with honeymooning couples at two of the three camps. Do not go to luxury safari camps in May, or probably June either.
cary999 is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 03:37 AM
Join Date: Sep 2003
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What a wonderful report. It has brought back great memories. You've expressed my feelings about Forest Lodge and Phinda entertainingly and articulately, from the beauty of the glass houses, and the evenings entertainment to the mission of the lodge.

Having Thulani and SK as my first ranger/guide experience at a safari lodge set a high standard for the rest of the trip. I'm glad to see them looking so well.

The nyalas are wonderful to watch. I missed them later in my trip. We didn't do the rhino tracking though we did have a long bush walk one day. Now I have a good reason to go back.

I enjoyed the photos, the cheetah and the giraffe line were tops. The variety of the landscape is indeed a bonus.

Did Thulani have dinner with you and your group at night? Sorry about the "Hunters." Not sure I could handle that well. Looking forward to the rest of the rreport.


cw is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 04:33 AM
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The canoe trip was a free activity in place of a game drive. For lighting reasons, afternoon is the best. I did it on Day 6 and requested it on Day 5.

We saw the splash of a couple of small crocs on the canoe trip. No sign of hippo. The crocs while canoeing were the only ones I saw. I saw one hippo's head in a man-made dam.

I pre-planned the rhino tracking trips. The mother/son team that joined me were talked into it by their ranger, so they did it after they arrived. I think you could do the rhino tracking after you arrived because it was one of the many activities listed on a big flip chart that is part of the orientation with the ranger. Three trips is unusual. You could do just one.

The only difficulty with doing any of these free, game drive replacement activities once you have arrived is that it has to work out with rangers and vehicles. If there were 4 solos in a vehicle and one wanted to canoe, one wanted a bushwalk, one wanted to track rhinos, and one wanted a traditional drive, that could be a problem.

I knew when the full moon was, and actually wanted to avoid it, but that is hard on a two week trip. I only learned about the blue moon once I got to Phinda.

Why Forest Lodge? Forest (north) and Mountain (south) are the lower priced. Vlei (north) and Rock (south) are the higher priced lodges with fewer guests. So I knew it would be a Forest or Mountain tossup. This forum seemed to favor Forest. I also read where the Forest Lodge had won awards for environmental and design reasons. I had never been to a sand forest, where Forest Lodge is located, but I have been to mountains. If you stayed in the south there is a sand forest down there somewhere.

Duck walking was done only once and we probably could have come up with an alternative. I think you could have crawled, but that could be hard on the knees too. Before we left on the first rhino walk, Thulani asked me if there were any medical problems he should know about. You could mention knees at that time.

The Hunters turned out to be a source of humor. Some of their best (or worst) antics are yet to come. As it turned out, the two times they were late did not result in a missed sighting I don't believe. Neither did their improper etiquette in the vehicle. I interpreted their comments and actions as boorish behavior but they were never directly mean to me.

My comments on them are actually meaner.

I recall your bevy of honeymooners. After four outings, the Hunters moved on. I have to give CC Africa credit because I had 8 of my 14 activities alone. The other guests, who were not the Hunters, that I shared a vehicle with enhanced the experience.

My dining companions spanned all combos.
I ate with vehicle-mates without Thulani. I ate with two women who were CC Africa accountants, there to close the books on June 30. Thulani joined the accountants and me one time. Thulani joined the Hunters and me at least once. Thulani joined me for breakfast a time or two. I ate one evening meal with Thulani and his wife-to-be, as he called her. Thulani and Tracker SK joined me one night in the boma for dinner. At breakfast or lunch, depending on when I went and who was there, I'd eat alone, with my vehicle-mates or with other people I had met.

But when Thulani did join me, he was as good of company at mealtime as in the bush.
atravelynn is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 05:08 AM
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I must admit that some of my comments on the Hunters do get a little nasty, 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 English 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 that 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.

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 some brush. At that point 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 this 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 for a cheetah. She was sitting in a clearing and completely visible, in dappled light. We sat with her about an hour as she dozed, washed, looked around in an agitated manner when the wind gusted, yawned, 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 moved out we noticed she was limping, which also explained why she may 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 and so did the ranger in the vehicle next to us. During our hour one or two other vehicles came to see the cheetah and left. Apparently if the wound did not heal, the vet would intervene for cheetah injuries, but not for just any injured animal.

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 and carried on. We came upon a big bull elephant who was walking away from us on the road, 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.

At breakfast the manager gave us the plan for the next day’s visit to the Songoma (village psychic) and another 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 responded, “Only if you plan on having sex with them.”

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 him. Perhaps he was calling for a female. Thulani said 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-—my 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 we saw two genets, but the first one did not go “Sh.” He actually raised the middle little genet claw above his head and shouted, “Shut the he!! 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.
atravelynn is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 05:25 AM
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I just thought of one more reason I chose Forest. For the rhino tracking you have to stay at Forest or Vlei. They are the closest to the broadleaf forest, where the rhino are most likely to be found in the morning.
atravelynn is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 05:51 AM
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Oh, Lynn - you are so funny! "That thing was doing tai chi moves" made me snort out my coffee!

Your experiences with the Hunters reenforces for me why we try to do private guides. Takes the fun right out of things.
cynstalker is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 05:58 AM
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Your tales of the "hunter" family are hilarious. Kudos to you for maintaining your composure throughout your time with them.

What an adventure. Gotta wonder who the real animals were! ;-)

And Thulani sounds like he handled himself with the quiet professionalism I remember him having.

divewop is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 06:04 AM
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Day 6
Just a few meters from my cottage on my way to breakfast I witnessed a kill. And it was by one of the celebrity star birds, the pink throated twinspot. This was an instance of 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 of 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 disrupt the scheduled game activities. One 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 requested. 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.

One other village hint. It is standard to return a little early from the morning game drive before the 3-hour village visit so 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 vehicle 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 so 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.

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 way 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 and the dark room required flash. 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?”

That afternoon was perfect canoeing weather—warm and still. We headed south to the Mzinene River. For the first time I saw the riverine habitat with its red soil and palms. The buffalo herds were partial to this environment. We also 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 but we did not drive into the mountains. 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 during the acclimated 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 to be staying 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. The paddle was what you’d use for a kayak 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 it is off to the side. A large water monitor scooted along the bank next to us for quite a ways. Then a malachite kingfisher did the same, flying from perch to perch. We had a great view of one of the star birds in the area, 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 only knew this from their splashes. 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 water 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.

atravelynn is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 06:11 AM
Join Date: Mar 2007
Posts: 3,528
Jeez, Lynn.....those are the kind of people who get themselves on the Jerry Springer show! I always asked myself, if there really are people like that- from reading your report....apparently there are!
HariS is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 06:43 AM
Join Date: Mar 2007
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Lynn, fantastic report. You've made me so glad we are staying at Phinda for 6 nights. Do you know if Thulani only guides for guests of Forest? We're staying at Rock and Vlei (3 nights each).
hills27 is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 06:50 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Nov 2004
Posts: 14,440

No the Jerry Springer guests are much worse. I met a couple who sat next to me on a plane as they were being flown to Chicago for his show. It was a 2-hour flight and mother and pregnant daughter came on with several footlong hotdogs for only two people and onion rings. They said they didn't want to get hungry. (Eating for two and cravings and all I suppose.)

They were loudly explaining how Jerry was going to devote a special show just to them. (Yeah, right) Arriving separately would be the ex-boyfriend who was the father of the child that the girl was carrying. The mother was going to be the special surprise guest.

We heard all about how rotten this ex-boyfriend was, how he cheated, etc. etc.

Very sad.

So it could have been worse. I could have had footlong hot dogs and onion rings in the vehicle.
atravelynn is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 07:26 AM
Join Date: Feb 2004
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I don't think it matters what lodge you're in as long as it's at Phinda, of course.

I stayed at Vlei when I used Thulani, and if you're splitting between the two lodges I'm sure he'll stay with you throughout.
divewop is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 07:34 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Nov 2004
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Any ranger can guide at any lodge. There was also a recommendation for Walter as a ranger.

Here is the end of the report...

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. He sped past us and 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. The four of them 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 on her injured foot. 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 the Tonga squirrel or the Sunni antelope, the two rare indigenous mammals at Phinda.

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.

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 like 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.

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 problem cheetahs, and bring them to Phinda. They prefer to do this with coalitions of cheetah so the animals have a buddy as they are acclimating to the new environment.

The new arrivals to Phinda start out in a fenced in 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, then their diverse 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.

Our cheetah veered off the road and we followed, leaving the fence behind. She was very interested in the scents at the base of a fallen tree. This is where other cheetahs had left their marks. She moved into the savanna, where you’d expect cheetahs to reside. 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 any 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 meal time. That meant today I ate lunch. A Scottish couple invited me to join them. 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.

We decided to try to find the cheetah again on the afternoon drive and there she was, two cheetah lengths from where we left her, still relaxing. We spent about an hour and a half with her and a couple of giraffes spent about an hour with both of us. Part of the sky became dramatically dark and a few rain drops fell. The coucal had been right. We left the cheetah and headed back to the lodge, toward blue skies. Thulani stated he was certain the rain would not follow us.

No night drive tonight. Instead Thulani had arranged a combo catered dinner/cultural visit/family reunion at his mother’s homestead, where he spends time when he is not working. Thulani, his sister who works at Phinda, and I departed in Thulani’s personal car. It’s hard to know just how far away his home was because we detoured to pick up a cousin. My contribution to the festivities was a bottle of spirits, which is what Thulani suggested—vodka, from Phinda’s bar.

When we turned off the paved highway and proceeded on the dirt road to the homestead, Thulani remarked, “This is where it all began, when I was a little boy running around in the fields, learning the birds and the trees.” And now, next to me was a knowledgeable and respected ranger, who was trusted with a recent National Geographic crew who did a two week shoot on rivers (the one we canoed). We joked that when Thulani appears in that documentary, he’ll be just like Brad Pitt. He also had guided Reverend Desmond Tutu for several days. Apparently the respected reverend was just as animated and enthusiastic about the wildlife as he is about everything else.

In between his time playing in the fields that were now illuminated by our headlights, and guiding dignitaries such as Reverend Tutu, Thulani had worked as a waiter and in the kitchen at Phinda. He told me he would go out on drives with the rangers and get tears in his eyes, in awe of what he was seeing. After studying on his own with bird books and field guides, he attended the ranger training program and passed. That was six years ago.

We had arrived at our destination and it was obvious because the road was now lined with those beautiful luminaria candle bags. Thulani had driven out midday and arranged them, along with many other arrangements. Talk about tears in your eyes. I felt like I was arriving royalty.

A bonfire was going and provided our only light as there was no electricity. We made our introductions using the special Zulu handshake and “Saw-u-bohn-a” responding with “Yebo.” The gathering consisted of about 30 family members. A special greeting and thank you was in order for Thulani’s mother, the owner of the home. The vodka spirits hostess gift brought applause.

Lovely upholstered furniture from Thulani’s room was positioned around the bonfire along with additional stools and mats. Those raindrops predicted by the coucal had also followed Thulani’s prediction and had not followed us because our evening outside under the stars was rain free.

There was not much conversation since all I could say was hello, thank you, good bye, nyala, and give the Sangoma greeting. Thulani and his sister were of course fluent in English but they were busy grilling steak, chicken, sausages, and preparing salad and sgwamba. Sgwamba is the cornmeal staple similar to sadza or ugali. I offered to help, but they declined and they certainly had everything under control. I spent the first 20 minutes or so avoiding the bonfire smoke that was causing my eyes to water profusely, though no one else seemed to be affected.

Then I sat on the mat, away from the fire and smoke, with the women and babies. I asked, through Thulani, if I could hold a baby. Thulani had not even finished with my translated request when a little guy was plopped into my lap. He was content for a while, then clearly wanted to crawl on to the next child holder. I sat with another baby or two. The babies enjoyed the rotation schedule and sat with other children, dads, sisters, uncles, then back to mom. The babies rarely cried and the older children never required any discipline.

The kids laughed or huddled together quietly, watching and listening. Thulani’s cute little dog was present and so were a few neighbor dogs, all well behaved. I was surprised how all this commotion at night did not disturb the chickens that remained asleep on top of their coop next to the hubbub. The goats that were penned up next to the chickens were quiet also.

Thulani directed me to the upholstered love seat to eat the wonderful meal that had been prepared in front of me. I sat next to a young man holding a baby. The men sat on Thulani’s furniture and the women sat on the mats. I was the exception, as a guest.

After dinner, Thulani broke out the vodka. The men were served straight shots and I was given a mixed drink of Coke and vodka. And then another. Thulalni drank very little or nothing as the designated driver.

When the eating was done the singing began and it was obvious everyone knew and loved the songs. Then the dancing. One family member at a time would dance, accompanied by a singing, clapping audience. One element of the dance involved raising a leg very high and slapping it down on the ground. This activity would gain momentum, then die down a bit, then gain momentum again.

I had asked Thulani about taking pictures of everyone and sending them. He thought that would be a good idea since none of them had ever had their picture taken. As the party wound down, I took photos of various individuals, groups, mothers and babies, the entire family, somebody even grabbed Thulani’s dog and held him up for a shot. Thank goodness for an effective flash because there was no other source of light.

Eventually it was time to leave so I said my “See-ya-bohn-ga’s” which is the plural form of thanks and then “Sah-lah-knee Kah-hlay” which is good bye to everyone. We piled back into the vehicle. Mbali, Thulani’s wife to be was also with us for the ride back.

I told Thulani what a wonderful evening it had been and I said that I hoped everyone else who had attended enjoyed themselves. Thulani said he knew they had or they would not have danced at the end.

On the way back we passed a fenced reserve, Bonamanzi. Our headlights shone for just a moment on a cheetah trotting along the fence. I immediately called out the sighting. Then I asked Thulani if that was possible because you don’t often see cheetahs trotting around at night. He replied that there are no major predators, except leopards, in that reserve, so the cheetah are comfortable being mobile at night. Then he added that the cheetah was likely near the fence because leopards would not go near the fence, which is near the road. So the facts fight the sighting. As we pulled into Forest Lodge it was raining. How could I have questioned the coucal?

It was about midnight before I got to bed. I felt very privileged to have attended the event that evening and I checked that the various family photos had come out well. With so many people in so many photos, Thulani would be receiving quite a large package of pictures from me.

Day 8
My bags were mostly packed and I paid my bills this morning so I would be ready for departure after lunch. There was a bit of a delay in returning my credit card documentation and staff members were obviously searching for something. Turns out the stapler was misplaced. They asked if it was ok just to fold the documents together. Here would have been a perfect use Lynda’s mini stapler! Who says you don’t need a stapler in the bush? I could have whipped that thing out and saved the day.

Our last game drive started an hour later than usual at my request, given our previous late night, and we joked about sending out the other rangers to bring us some sightings. That’s exactly what happened and we had our final cheetah, a big male resting along a slightly elevated ridge in the savanna. There are no termite mounds in Phinda, which often serve as lookout spots for cheetah elsewhere. We left the cheetah only for some morning cookies and a pit stop and then returned. It was getting to be about 9:50 am and I knew checkout was 11:00. I reluctantly suggested that whenever they wanted to head back, it was ok with me. Thulani responded, “With my two weeks coming up, we can stay a bit longer. This is my last cheetah too.”

Now there’s a ranger who loves what he does and what’s out there. Though it took the whole trip to get it, that poignant comment became my Quote of the Trip. Together we watched our last cheetah for a few more precious moments.
atravelynn is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 07:58 AM
Join Date: Nov 2005
Posts: 1,669
Once years ago I was scanning with my binocs to see what there was, and found an elephant - Great! then as I was looking over the ele using the binoculars, I saw his 5th leg, up close and very personal!! Holy smokes!! So, it's a good idea sometimes to check out the big picture first...

Thanks for a great report, Lynn.
Momliz is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2007, 08:03 AM
Join Date: Feb 2004
Posts: 1,922
#39;( (sniff, sniff.)
Man, that ending brought a tear to my eye.

I'm so glad you enjoyed your time at Phinda and with Thulani. He's a great guide and a great person.

A fun trip report.
divewop is offline  

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