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Trip Report: Cape Town, Phinda, Singita Ebony and Lebombo - Aug. '07

Trip Report: Cape Town, Phinda, Singita Ebony and Lebombo - Aug. '07

Aug 28th, 2007, 07:40 PM
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Trip Report: Cape Town, Phinda, Singita Ebony and Lebombo - Aug. '07

Itinerary:

3 nights Cape Town at Cape Grace
2 nights Paarl at Grande Roche
3 nights Phinda Rock
3 nights Phinda Vlei
2 nights Singita Ebony
2 nights Singita Lebombo
1 night Johannesburg at the Saxon

Since Lynn has already alluded to my Phinda sightings a few times on her trip report, I am going to skip the first five days for now and start with Phinda.

But, before I do, I must say what an phenomenal time I had touring Cape Town and the Winelands with Selwyn. There are no words to describe his exceptional knowledge of and insights into the area’s history, culture, art, politics, religion, flora and fauna (not to mention, his extensive gastronomic expertise!). His widespread and often shocking lifetime experiences made our non-stop conversation thoroughly enjoyable. Selwyn, if you read this, I want a bottle of your next release and an invite to the movie premier. ;-)

(Btw, I just returned this morning and am desperately trying to stay awake until my normal bedtime, so I ask forgiveness in advance for the quality of my writing. In addition, this is my first comprehensive trip report, so please excuse me if I ramble with too many details or commit any newbie mistakes.)

Phinda Rock

Day 1

We flew from Cape Town to Durban on a SAA commercial jet, connecting to a Federal Air flight to Phinda. The connection was a breeze. We collected our luggage in less than five minutes, and our pilots met us right outside baggage claim. In less than five minutes, we were on the 14-seater plane (alone, which felt very luxurious) and taxiing to the runway. A cold front was coming through, so the takeoff was a bit rough, but the FA pilots handled it perfectly.

The flight to Phinda took about an hour. Upon arrival, we were immediately whisked onto a rover so we could make it to our first game drive as quickly as possible. Between the airport and the lodge, we saw three warthogs, three giraffe, a vervet, and numerous impala and nyala. Not bad for an airport transfer.

We checked in quickly and shoved some layers into our backpacks for the evening game drive. Our guide had already left with the other two guest in our rover, so we were driven out to meet up with them. They had just come across lions (the dominant Southern Pride male with two females) with a kill. What a way to start our first game drive! Our ranger (Will) and tracker (Sifiso) met us down the road, and we returned to where the two females were eating. The view wasn’t great, so we decided to move to get a better one. But the male had finished eating and was now lying down in the middle of the road, uphill from our approach, and he was not moving. According to Will, the rangers fear this lion more than any other in the reserve (apparently, he likes to charge rangers for no apparent reason), so we watched him from a safe distance for a while. Eventually, he got up, sauntered over to the side of the road, laid back down, and gave us a look as if to say, “come on, I dare ya.” We took the long way around.

We watched the females finish off the kill, and it was time for sundowners. Sunset was absolutely amazing because of some fires in the area. I don’t know if they were controlled burns or not.

We only had five people in our vehicle for our entire time at Rock – the three of us and a lovely French woman and her 20-something daughter. They were on their third safari and we had a blast with them.

It was pretty cold that night, so we had dinner inside at the large communal table with our ranger, the two French women, a fun British family with their two extremely well-behaved teenage sons, and their ranger. Before dinner, while we were having drinks and hors d'oeuvres in front of the fire, a genet stood on the ledge of the open window and stared at us for about a minute before running off. Very cool.

Day 2 to come…
hills27 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 08:01 PM
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=D> Go Hills! =D> Go Hills!=D>Go Hills!

(Trying to keep you awake to keep writing) Exellent start, you have my full attention.
CarlaM is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 08:13 PM
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A great start, Hills. Can't wait to read more.
Clematis1 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 08:35 PM
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Okay, now I'm getting on a roll...

Accommodations

Before I go onto day 2, I should probably say something about the accommodations. My mom and stepdad had room #1, and I had #2. The only difference between the two was that they had an outdoor shower, but my toilet had a view. Given that it was pretty chilly, I think I got the better deal. I really liked the room layout – long and skinny along the mountainside, with a separate living room area that stepped up into the bedroom and then the adjacent bathroom. Huge picture windows in the living room, bedroom, and over the tub, and a nice deck with a plunge pool and two giant pillow-things with beach towels to lounge on. I liked the room layout a lot better than Vlei’s. It felt much bigger, was more functional, had a lot of convenient outlets, and I didn’t feel like anybody could see into the room. Important because there were no shades in the bathroom. The “lock” was an 18-inch 2x4 stuck through the door handles.

There are only six rooms at Phinda Rock (and at Phinda Vlei, too), which I absolutely loved (compared to 12, I think, at Ebony and 16 at Lebombo). I liked the intimate feeling it created between the staff and guests, which I believe stimulated interesting conversation among everybody, especially in front of the fireplace before dinner. Or maybe we just had cool fellow guests. Either way, I thought it was great.

I should also mention that the normal manager (Mark) was out sick while we were there. We met him briefly on our last day. Otherwise, we would not have had any idea that Laurez was only filling in. The fact that everything was so perfect despite his absence for 2.5 weeks before our arrival is a testament to the quality of the staff and training. The only mishap was a water outage on our second night. But that was remedied quickly by the onsite maintenance staff.

The staff was extremely friendly, and the service was fantastic but never obtrusive. Always a cold towel ready in the driveway when we returned from the morning game drive, and a hot towel and hot chocolate at night.

It was sweet watching our chef, Happiness, work on overcoming her shyness to announce the menu each night. It seemed to me that Phinda works very hard to develop from within and pushes its staff to improve themselves (but I’ll expand on that later).

I also had a lot of fun talking about music with Reggie and Kaya, our two butlers. Now I just have to find someone to take over some salsa CDs I promised send them.

Will and Sifiso, our ranger and tracker, respectively, were fantastic, but I will talk more about them later.
hills27 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 08:59 PM
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Hi Hills27

Welcome home and what a prompt start on your report - but no photos yet I see!

Very encouraging Carla as well!

Sometimes, no usually I get really bored with miscellaneous details, as I really only want to know about the animal viewing, but so far I am coping very well. Interested to hear about Ebony, as have been to Boulders a few time, and to me on my last visit - too much money! Though I have a very favourite staff member there and I do miss visiting her!

I do wonder what has happened to that lion in the past, as I never can believe they charge for no reason, too much effort involved. I think he may have had some past experiences that make him the lion he is today, that the rangers are unaware of! Poor thing!

Hope you made it to your bedtime!

Kind regards

Kaye
KayeN is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 09:27 PM
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They did say he was relocated (along with his brother) from another reserve (forget which) where there was a lot of competition from other lions and predators, which they believed made him very aggressive (compared to the dominant Northern Pride (NP) male, who is magnificent with nary a scratch on him, but considered a "pussy" by the Southern rangers).

The Southern Pride (SP) male and his brother actually killed the NP male's brother not that long ago, which they said really upset the balance of power. Subsequently, the SP male's brother died of an infection, so the Northern Pride male has been slowly expanding his territory without much resistance. He dwarfs the SP male.

I don't know if anybody else has mentioned it previously, but there's chaos within the lion population at Singita. I'll elaborate if nobody else has done so previously.
hills27 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 09:34 PM
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Here is an amarula spiked hot chocolate to keep you going ~o)

Are you working on your photos tonight too? I remember being in a fog the first few days home from Africa so you are doing real well with your writing!
CarlaM is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 09:36 PM
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Btw, it's past bedtime and I'm wired. Think I drank too much caffeine trying to stay awake. Oh well, I'll keep writing.
hills27 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 10:24 PM
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hills27 - Does Singita have its own lion pride? What's going on? For the money they charge they should have a petting zoo where you can cuddle little lion and leopard and tiger cubs. And baby orangutans are very precious. Baby eles also.

regards - tom
cary999 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 11:06 PM
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Day 2

The morning started out with a lot of general game sightings while we looked for and tracked some white rhino – impala, nyala (including a funny looking male with one deformed horn), kudu, a herd of zebra that we slowly followed around for a while (great light made for good photos), lots of warthogs, and a small herd of wildebeest. We saw a gorgeous fish eagle and lots of other birds (whose names escape me right now). Finally, we found the female white rhino we had been tracking all morning. She didn’t mind us at all, and we watched her for quite a while. On the way back to the lodge, we saw another herd of zebra, lots of giraffe, and a croc sunning itself.

I won’t go into food now, but this morning’s breakfast was a trip. Breakfast is served outside on the veranda, and the vervets hang out in the adjacent trees waiting for their chance to steal food. So, the tables are cleared pretty quickly. But this morning, our French vehicle mates rushed their breakfast to make their horse riding trip, so both butlers were back in the kitchen when they left. Immediately, a monkey swooped in. We all tried to thwart the sneaky little thief, but he was too quick and made off with a bowl of butter and ran up a tree (where he sat laughing at us and licking the butter from the dish). Of course, as we were distracted by him, another dashed across the deck and grabbed two pieces of melon – one cantaloupe and one honeydew – and escaped to the tree where he sat with a piece in each hand, alternating bites between the two varieties of melon. Our ranger said they have 36 different call. My mother is convinced that the vervets at Phinda have at least 4 others – “look…new stupid tourists….it’s your turn to distract them, I’ll grab the food...”

That afternoon, we headed out to the area near the airport to follow up on some cape buffalo tracks that had been spotted earlier. Hanging out around the airport were lots of zebra, wildebeest, and warthogs (note to first timers, don’t believe your ranger when he tells you the “red warthogs” near the airport are a different species). We quickly found the cape buffalo tracks and followed them right to the herd. We watched them for a while, but had to meet up with our vehicle mates who got back late from their horse riding trip – our first “Ferrari safari.”

On our way back to the cape buffalo, we got word that some fresh cheetah tracks (a mother and two cubs) had been found, so we decided to go help out with the search. En route, we ran into a bull ellie (our first), so we stopped and watched him eat for a while, and a young giraffe laying down in the grass with just her head sticking up (really cool photos as the light was hitting her and the grass beautifully). We got to the cheetah sighting and hung out on the road away from them as the rangers didn’t want to overwhelm the cubs with more than one vehicle. Suddenly, the mother came into view. She was absolutely spectacular. She walked around the back of our rover calling out to her cubs. Suddenly, two tiny cubs (about 6 weeks old) pop out onto the road and follow the mom. They were beyond adorable. Unfortunately, I was in the front row and didn’t get a decent shot, but my mom got a great one. Later that night, we heard the rangers decided to ban tracking them for at least a month because they were so much younger than they had originally thought, so we were very lucky indeed.

With the cheetah hidden deep in a thicket, we decided to search for lions. We quickly found four – two males (brothers) and two females. The two males were posed perfectly in a wide open area while the lionesses started to climb up a nearby hill stalking some impala. Impatient, the boys began calling for their dinner, starting low and building up to full blown roars. Back and forth, one male and then the other…a roar showdown less than 30 feet away from us before they finally got off their lazy butts and walked right past us, only to lay down about 30 feet away on the other side of the rover. Unsuccessful, the lionesses came back down the hill and starting hunting in another direction. We followed them for a while, but it was very late and freaking cold, and it didn’t seem like these two were going to do anything exciting soon. So we left.

On our way back to the lodge, we saw a rover up ahead that seemed to have something in its sights. Will got on the radio and the guy confirmed that he’s found something – “some sort of cat.” Will and Sifiso erupted in hysterical laughter. Apparently, Phinda dropped fences with a small reserve where there are a ½ dozen +/- homes owned by Durban businessman to impress their friends, but they aren’t allowed to drive on Phinda’s land. Will recomposed himself and asked the guy if he wanted help. So we head over, and sure enough, he’s got some cat – two, in fact, a caracal and her cub! The Durban businessman isn’t that interested (after all, he’s there to impress his friends with his machismo in the face of lions and tigers, not some kitty), so we follow them. The mother and cub were not too affected by our presence. In fact, the cub was very brave, seemingly playing a bit of catch me if you can. Whenever we stopped to give them some room (so as to not scare them off), the cub would stop after a bit and look back at us as if to say, “come on, let’s go.” After a while, he brazenly turned around and walked right up to the rover, wandering around it for a while before mom got mad and made him go back to his hunting lesson.

Again, we started back to the lodge but ran into the same two lionesses several kilometers away from where we last saw them. Man, they had moved fast! They were walking towards us down the road, so we stopped and pulled over to the side. One circumvented us widely through the bush, but the other continued walking right towards us. Just as she reached the vehicle, she broke into a trot, passing the length of the vehicle no more than five feet away. A bit unnerving, to tell you the truth, especially when we could no longer see her after she passed. We continued onto the lodge, spotting a few genet and a white-tailed mongoose.

Back at the lodge, we told Will that he needed a real challenge the next day. We wanted to see a polar bear.
hills27 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2007, 11:26 PM
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Photos....lol. That's going to take awhile.

But tomorrow, I will try to pull a few key photos to go along with my trip report and post them online. I shot in RAW + JPEG, so I will use the JPEG versions. Just don't expect any post-processing.
hills27 is offline  
Aug 29th, 2007, 08:41 AM
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hi, hills,

glad you had such a great time- I'm really looking forward to the rest of your trip report, especially the CPT bit, which we also loved.

hope you don't get stuck with your trip report, like I have - trip reporter's block has struck!

regards, ann
annhig is online now  
Aug 29th, 2007, 12:20 PM
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Sounds like you had some great sightings at Phinda (and this is only day 2!), Cheetah cubs - so cute! I remember those vervet monkeys were just as bold at Forest Lodge
Looking forward to the rest of your report and pics when you get chance to sort through them.
mancfi is offline  
Aug 29th, 2007, 01:35 PM
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Great beginning. Can't wait to see the photos. Cheetah cubs ... Wow!

Waiting anxiously for more ....

-Granny Joan
GrannyJoan is offline  
Aug 29th, 2007, 07:13 PM
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What a wonderful report on Phinda. You have described your amazing sightings in excellent detail, making us all the more jealous. That hot chocolate and amarula looked pretty good. Take your time with the photos.
atravelynn is offline  
Aug 29th, 2007, 07:15 PM
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Day 3

First thing in the morning, we heard that more cheetah tracks were spotted to the north, so we headed in that direction. On the way, we came across a small herd of bachelor impala mock fighting, a few giraffe, and another bull ellie. We watched him for a while and then headed to where the cheetah had been found – another female and her four cubs (11-12 weeks old). They were deep in a thicket, but we were able to get a glimpse of mom’s head and a pretty good view of two of the cubs through the trees. All five were very relaxed in the shade of the thicket. We watched them watch us for a while, but eventually left so another rover could have a turn.

Turned out to be Thulani, so I got to meet him briefly and told him I had a package for him from Lynn. I had requested him as our ranger, but another family had rented out Zuka lodge for their daughter’s 21st birthday and had already requested him specifically. A disappointment at first, but Will was fantastic, and I’m so happy we ended up with him.

From there, we drove through the sand forest and saw a red duiker (love them!), more nyala, and our first baboons since the lone suicidal female on the cape earlier in the week. On the way back to the lodge, we stopped at one of the dams and saw a variety of birds and a monitor lizard walking alone the bank.

After breakfast, Will took our French buddies, my stepdad, and me for a walk along a drain line. The focus was plant life and birds, and we had a rare sighting of an african broadbill. I’m not a birder, but Will was thrilled, and his excitement was contagious. Recently, a birder who has seen more than 800 of the 900 or so bird species in South Africa came to Phinda specifically to see this bird. He and Will walked this drainage line every day for 4 days in a row and never saw one. I hope he’s not a Fodorite!

In the afternoon, we headed out to see the white-breasted cormorant nesting area (man, those chicks are frickin noisy and smelly), spotting a beautiful fish eagle on the way. Then we went looking for the cape buffalo herd since our French buddies had not seen them yet. But that was quickly abandoned in exchange for our third cheetah sighting. A single female (a mom without her cubs) was laying in the grass right off the airstrip. We were only a few feet away, but the tall grass impacted our view of her. Well, she must have read our minds because she got up, stretched, lazily sauntered over to a red termite mound not too far away, and laid down on it like Heidi Klum posing for the cover of Sports Illustrated. You could not have asked for a better location or pose. We moved the vehicle slightly and got fantastic photos of her in the perfect late afternoon light. With an obviously full belly, she wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and we desperately wanted to see the newborn hippo, so we moved on.

We headed to an area, formerly a canned hunting ranch, that very recently dropped fences with Phinda (still a lot of impact remaining on the land). On the way to the hippo pool, we saw more general game and a male ostrich. The baby hippo (about 10 days old) was adorable as it kept trying to climb onto mom. And the dominant male put on a big show and yawned for us. Eventually we moved on to sundowners in a nearby clearing, but our break was unexpectantly cut short by the sound of lions roaring nearby. Needless to say, made a mad dash for the vehicle. We spent some time looking but never found them.
hills27 is offline  
Aug 29th, 2007, 07:23 PM
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Thanks, Lynn.

Being trigger happy is definitely making it easier to write this trip report!

But by the time I get to Singita, I will be a lot more succint...a lot less to write about.
hills27 is offline  
Aug 29th, 2007, 09:41 PM
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Hills, you really had great sightings at Phinda... I'm a little mixed up as to which ones were at Vlei and which at Rock.. But it looks like you had 6 nts total at Phinda and 4 total at the two Singitas so there was more time for game at the former (our viewing was better at Singita than Phinda, spent 3 nts at each). Love your descriptions - oh, the cubs you got to see!! Were you in good health for the whole trip? I know you were not feeling well the week before.
Clematis1 is offline  
Aug 29th, 2007, 09:49 PM
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Everything I've written so far has been while I stayed at Rock. My next installment will be split - morning at Rock and afternoon at Vlei. I'll try to make that clear.

Just wait...there's more cubs to come!

I felt great the entire trip, thanks! Not sleeping much the night before I left actually helped me adjust to the time zone since I was able to go to sleep very early on the flight out.

I think our sightings were a combination of (a) luck and (b) hard work by the ranger and tracker.
hills27 is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2007, 03:56 PM
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Okay, so I finally havesome photos to share. I shot in RAW + JPEG, but I have not even started to think about processing the RAW photos yet, so these are just a few JPEGs without much editing at all. They still need a lot of work, but I wanted to get something up.

Here's the link to the photos taken while at Rock:
http://www.pbase.com/hills27/phinda_rock

I'll post the others as I get them up and running (and then get back to writing my trip report!).
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