I wasn’t getting my hopes up for Africa. It was a work trip for Jake and the chance to tag along sounded too good to be true.
And then it happened! And I got to work (on planning the trip that is; technically, my last day at my former job was the day before we left, but technically shpechnically). We’d need to be in Durban Monday-Friday, so we plugged in Cape Town at the beginning of the trip, and a three-night safari at the end. Jake was less than impressed that I based our hotel search on the gloriousness of the bathtubs on offer (both lodgings excelled). I heard there was a chance we’d meet Elton John at the Durban conference so I threw in my cheetah print heels just in case.
Arriving somewhere new at night is always a bit disorienting. Arriving to a place like Cape Town is even more so, where darkness cloaks the famous views you know await at daybreak, and we were grateful for our friend who, in true South African hospitality, insisted she pick us up from the airport. We wound our way first up, then down the mountains to Camps Bay, a beach neighborhood 20 minutes outside of Cape Town center. It was late and quiet when we arrived at the stately Camp’s Bay Retreat, but the lobby fireplace was roaring as promised. We crossed a gully on a wooden suspension bridge, settled into our creek-side room, and slept.
In the morning, I stepped out onto the dewy deck to the overwhelming sight of the Twelve Apostles mountain range towering above. I craned my neck to meet the sun, only just at 10 a.m. cresting the mountain range and spilling its light down the western sea-facing slopes.
With only two-and-a-half days in Cape Town, our time had to be somewhat planned out. I had (brilliantly) scheduled massages for Jake and myself in the property’s spa for our first morning post-26-hour trip. We’d have the spa structure to ourselves – each treatment grants you that perk. Jake was worried he’d get antsy, and asked if he could switch to a shorter experience. It couldn’t be altered last minute so he’d have to commit to the full two-hours of crackling fireside “Face and Body Glow Experience”, after which he was obviously ready for a third hour.
Refreshed and rejuvenated, it was time to hit the Town. We took a cab to the waterfront, and in the ultimate tourist move, sat down at the first seafood restaurant we came to and managed to spend $100 on lunch in cheap, cheap Cape Town. We made up for it, though, with cocktails with a view at the One&Only (plus an hors d'oeuvres spread free for hotel guests...and bar crashers), where we paid mere pennies compared to the States' luxury hotel bars, thanks to a very favorable exchange rate. That night we dined with our Capetonian friend at the eclectic Kitima in Hout Bay: Asian cuisine in an old Dutch Colonial building with a long history, including a heartbroken ghost and her lover for whom the restaurant sets the front table every night, complete with food and wine.
Saturday was wine region day. A good day. Our gracious friend-turned-travel-guide picked us up in the morning, armed with a winery guidebook and top-notch recommendations among a plethora of offerings - she told us you could spend six months on the Cape’s wine route and still not see every vineyard. I imagine this to be true, considering we had an ambitious plan to see 3-4 wineries and barely made it to two before closing time. The experiences were too delightful to be rushed. At Rust en Vrede, a 315-year-old building, an iridescent turquoise bird unlike any I’ve seen greeted us in the gravel driveway. And the Delair Graff Estate presents itself with such graceful aesthetic that you know you’re in for a treat. When the mountains are that grandiose, with vineyards nestled into their folds and slopes changing shades of green with the sun’s passage, simply staring while sipping is an activity in and of itself.
Sunday was our transit to Durban day, but not before one last activity in Cape Town – a cable car to the top of Table Mountain, whose absolute death-defying rock climbers give me the chills months later. I was reluctant to stand in line for 45 minutes (with tickets purchased online in advance; otherwise it would have been much longer) for a view, when the scenery had been so gorgeous throughout. Thankfully, Jake was insistent, because the view from the top was shocking, unforgettable, and worth it to say the least. I stepped off the cable car and stood, stunned, 3,500 feet above sea level, looking straight down to…sea level. Table Mountain’s plateau is interestingly one of six floral kingdoms on the planet, and the smallest by far (the next smallest covers the entire continent of Australia). And though we didn’t have time to include the Cape of Good Hope, I could see it from the top, beckoning 40 miles in the distance for next time.
“There are three nice hotels in Durban. We are not staying in one of them,” Jake’s colleague informed us over drinks upon arrival, concluding at the clink of our glasses with, "Well, we won't die." I had read that Durban was somewhat of a "Boston" to Cape Town’s “New York”; I did not see the comparison. The cab drivers advised us to stick to the beach area only when not at the convention center, an impressive structure among dated buildings. I didn’t have conference credentials, so I toiled between the public areas of the conference and the lobby of the nearby Hilton (thank God for the Hilton). While Jake’s highlight from the week in Durban may have been addressing the world’s leading authorities in HIV/AIDS treatment, or perhaps dining with Elton John and Prince Harry, my highlight was when Father of the Bride Part 2 came on TV on Wednesday at 2 p.m.
Monday through Saturday in Durban had passed, and the time had come to head back to Durban airport...but not to board a plane. Instead, we picked up a rental car and drove three hours north, past sugar cane fields that gave way to rows and rows of seemingly endless commercial tree plantations, and into safari territory. Before long we were providing our names to the guard at the entrance to Phinda Private Game Reserve, an 80,000-acre property from the spectacular safari outfitter &Beyond. It didn’t take long for Phinda to reveal its treasures - just two miles in, slowly navigating our little VW over the bumpy dirt road to Mountain Lodge (one of the six &Beyond lodges on the reserve), and we had already spotted impala, zebra, rhinoceros, boar, and wildebeest on the hillsides.
As we pulled up to the Mountain Lodge’s entrance, four staff members were waiting to welcome us, with hand towels almost as warm as their smiles. Our vehicle and luggage was swiftly escorted away (but not before I shamefully tried to stash the McDonald’s trash from a desperate pit stop - an affront to such a sanctuary). We were led up the loose brick walkway, ascending through natural vegetation to the main lodge - an open thatched-roof structure with a fireplace and sweeping views, from bush mountains to the 100-foot coastal sand dunes. We would come to learn that this panoramic view spanned the seven distinct habitats found within Phinda: woodland, grassland, wetland, rare dry sand forest, mountain ranges, river courses, and marshes.
Our very first activity on arrival was lunch in the glass-lined dining room; one panel was left ajar and a monkey, swift as an Olympian athlete, hurdled through the opening, landed with expert precision onto the buffet table, tucked a muffin under one arm, and disappeared out the other side of the room before we could blink twice.
After lunch we were led through the lodge grounds (read: mountainside), passing unbothered deer-like nyala en route to our abode – one of the dozen thatched-roof bungalows that house two suites each. During our stroll, we were informed us that there were neither fences nor barriers of any kind between the lodge and the rest of the reserve, so you’d need a guard to escort you to your room after dinner lest you happen upon a predator. There was just enough time to familiarize ourselves with our good fortune—deep soaking tub, bottle of champagne, outdoor shower (while banishing the thought of "But what if a leopard jumps on me…?"), plunge pool, I could go on—before reconvening for our first game drive that afternoon.
We were introduced to our ranger Nic and tracker Menzi, with whom we’d spend the next six game drives (and whose knowledge of flora and fauna would prove seemingly endless). After a brief background on the lay of the land and discussion about our safari hopes and dreams, we climbed onto our open-air safari truck. I was surprised to see that the guests on the truck included only Jake and myself. This would remain true for all but one of our drives; the Mountain Lodge is well suited to families and as such, larger groups, and the current guest breakdown worked in our favor! [Side note: This wasn’t the last time the family-style nature of the lodge behooved us: Upon our return, the staff politely inquired if we wouldn’t mind moving to a stand-alone suite, as another group was checking in and would prefer adjoining rooms. I, all to eager to check out the new digs, happily wheeled/dragged my suitcase in search of #14 (much to the distress of the staff who prefer you need not lift a finger). The larger, more private room was certainly an upgrade (there are no room categories on their site), but frankly it’s impossible to go wrong at Phinda. Unless of course you venture out of your room at night and are eaten by a lion.]
But back to the game drive, where we came upon our first showstopper - a group of six giraffes, even more graceful and elegant in person than I had surmised, with necks even more agile. The same was true for the elephant (swapping neck for trunk, of course) we admired as he unhurriedly consumed a lunch of a bush made of three-inch thorns and not much else. I marveled at the dexterity of these extremities for the better part of two hours before taking a gin-and-tonic break. “Winning at life,” Nic would say in his adorable South African accent that I would often and unsuccessfully try to imitate.
At the end of Phinda Day 1, I drew a bath in the standalone tub overlooking the ridge line from the generous bathroom’s floor-to-ceiling windows, and poured a glass of Pinotage, a divine South African discovery. (Did I mention that all food and beverages are included in the rate? Our minibar came complete with local wines, liquor, mixers, plus all sorts of drink accouterments including lemons, limes, spices, juicers, a cutting board...). I perused the lodge's well-designed reading material – several paper booklets, from a comprehensive bird watchers guide to an outline of &Beyond’s admirable conversation policies, plus one amusing warning: Clothes may be laundered daily at no charge, but the lodge is not responsible for lost or damaged garments should a troop of monkeys or hyenas raid the lines, as they are occasionally wont to do.
Within minutes of our 6 a.m. wakeup call, we were assembled back at the main lodge where coffee, tea, pastries and a line-up of rangers awaited. It was Saturday, July 24, and we still had five 3-hour game drives between now and our July 26th departure (three nights is the recommended—though not mandated—minimum stay to get the most out of the experience). We climbed into our rugged, beloved chariot, our trusted ranger/tracker duo at the helm, and hot thermoses wrapped in fleece fabric on our seats to keep warm during the brisk mid-winter morning.
After the prior day’s elephants, rhinos, and giraffes (and zebra, wildebeest, water buffalo, impala, etc. etc.), Nic was eager to find us a big cat - a leopard was at the top of my list. And because all of Phinda’s rangers across the six lodges communicate on radio, your territory is well covered. We soon came upon a pregnant female ferociously guarding her unborn young against three invasive juvenile males. Our tracker, who normally sat in a seat affixed to the front of the hood, climbed into the truck on the approach; the animals are used to the trucks, but only as one solid object. Any break in the profile, including a tracker perched on the edge, or a foot stepped onto the ground, and it’s game over. The juveniles headed the expectant mother’s warning and found a wart hog den to dig up instead, all the while a black rhino with its full glorious horn in tact* stood in the road 50 feet ahead, like no big deal.
*In order to stay ahead of poachers, who find their way through the electric fences and slaughter rhinos for their horns (catering mostly to Chinese demand for the ground-up powder that is basically finger nails but somehow equates to a status symbol for the wealthy), &Beyond’s veterinarian team responsibly darts and painlessly files down many of their rhinos horns to just above the nerve. “We’d rather have a thriving population of hornless rhinos than no rhinos,” Nic explained. It’s an unfortunate reality, and also the reason Phinda hasn’t yet dropped its fences and combined their land with surrounding reserves, a goal they’d like to see come to fruition if the poaching market were curbed.
As Nic repositioned the vehicle to a better lion vantage point, Menzi heard the faint whistle of a flat tire in progress. “Where do we change it,” I asked? “Away from the lions,” Nic matter-of-factly responded. They hopped out, set us up a coffee break, and completed a seamless tire change in minutes.
When a ranger in the northern part of the reserve radioed in to say he’d spotted a herd of elephants, Nic asked whether he had said “15” or “50”. Fifty! He said fifty! We raced off on a thrilling all-terrain drive to reach the site, where we parked the truck on the side of the dirt road and waited. Just over the hill, a dust cloud formed, followed by the foreheads, ears, and eyes of several elephant bulls, running toward us. “Reverse. Now,” Menzi said in a low but stern tone, and Nic tucked our truck deeper into the protection of the trees. And so it was, fifty elephants passing in front of us at various speeds - agitated bulls, curious calfs, and unhurried cows. And as suddenly as they had appeared, into the dense brush they vanished. We tried for twenty minutes to follow any sort of drivable path that would led us back to them, but it was on this day I learned that fifty elephants could completely disappear. We did, however, come upon a troop of baboons, and Menzi tracked down a mother cheetah with two adolescent male cubs, so all was not lost.
While we’re on the subject of tracker – holy crap do they track. Menzi could spot an animal’s seemingly indistinguishable paw/hoof print in the dust on the side of the road, and know precisely what animal moved through, roughly when it passed, and the direction it was headed. Eagle eyes and knowledge to boot. And it speaks to their familiarity with animal behavior and tracking knowledge that staff regularly mountain bike through the reserve on their time off.
The elusive leopard proved true to its reputation however, and remained out of sight, though not out of earshot. While Jake was off photographing the grounds during the lazy interlude between a.m. and p.m. drives, I was enjoying the afternoon sun on our deck and heard what could best be described as a raspy cough. It pierced through the quiet mountainside once every couple of minutes, becoming louder and louder with each disturbance. I collected my belongings and moved inside. Upon my description, Nic identified the call as a leopard’s, and that night, one killed an nyala on the lodge grounds, depositing the carcass beneath a guests’ deck.
With so many animal sightings under our belts, our journey was still not over. Day Three’s drives saw birds of all feathers – eagles, herons, ibis, stork; crocodiles; and the sleeper hit of the trip: hippopotamuses. Watching a pod of two-dozen hippos sink below the surface and bubble up with guttural gurgles was an endless source of entertainment, especially when an ibis’ call set off a cacophony of hippo grunts like some sort of waterhole happy hour.
&Beyond left us wanting for nothing, except to stay longer and be greeted by just one more breakfast bloody mary bar and champagne buckets after returning from morning safari. Our last game drive of the trip was rained out 10 minutes en route, which left a couple of precious extra hours to soak in the ambiance of our suite (and bath tub), while the staff thoughtfully tumble dried our dampened clothes for our journey home. By the time Jake and I hit the road, the rain had let up. In one last ditch effort to spend every second possible in this special place, we bought ourselves a bonus ½ hour of game viewing by taking the long way through the reserve (there is one public road that cuts through Phinda) instead of the more direct route we had traveled in on. Sullen and with the wise lyrics of John Mayer’s “Wheel” rolling through my head (“You can’t love too much one part of it”), we bid adieu to the reserve limits at the farthest gate we could map. More accustomed to the adventurous bounce of bench seating and rugged terrain, the sudden gliding sensation of a paved road was startling. And as Phinda faded into the distance, I looked at the surrounding farmland for the first time not with an appreciation of nature, but rather with slight skepticism, knowing Phinda’s land was previously cleared for farming before being restored to its natural state. Yes, there are far less scenic drives than the cane fields and gum tree plantations we passed on the way to the airport, but there’s magic in Phinda and God willing I’ll be back to spot that leopard. Until then, can someone tell me where to find Pinotage in the States?