If you do just one safari in South Africa, do it at Phinda Game Reserve.
As many of you have probably realized by now, I have a new favorite country – South Africa. I have already been three times, and there’s a likely fourth coming up sooner than I thought. The last time I’ve been there was November, when I went there for a 3 weeks holiday with my sister. The highlight of our trip was by far the safari we did in Phinda Game Reserve, in KwaZulu Natal.
Run by the luxury and responsible tour operator And Beyond, Phinda Game Reserve was created in 1991 on what previously used to be farmland, and it soon became an award winning safari destination thanks to its efforts in wildlife and environment conservation. It is the site of the black rhino range expansion project, and rhinos are also donated for translocation to other countries (they are regularly dehorned to prevent poaching). At Phinda you’ll find some of the biggest cheetah populations in South Africa – I admit I went there almost exclusively because I wanted to see cheetahs!
Phinda definitely qualifies as one of the unmissable places to visit in South Africa, and one of the best destinations to see wildlife in the continent, especially if you love nature and you care to see wildlife in its natural environment and in a completely responsible way.
Looking for more places to visit in South Africa? Check out this post.
Chances are that if you visit Phinda Game Reserve you will fall in love with it, and like many do, will end up going again. After all, the meaning of Phinda in Zulu means “return.” Sure enough I am hoping to pay it another visit on my next trip to South Africa.
In this post, I will highlight all the reasons why you’ll love Phinda Private Game Reserve.
11 Things That Will Make You Fall In Love With Phinda Game Reserve
It’s very diverse
One of the things I appreciated the most about Phinda, and which I am sure will make you fall in love with it, is how diverse it is. Driving through the reserve and moving from one lodge to the other, I grasped how varied the landscape is, and how it changes entirely from one part of the reserve to the other.
Indeed, Phinda Private Game Reserve is huge – so much so that there are seven different ecosystems there. This means that there are incredibly varied landscapes, going from woodland to grassland, wetland to forest, and even mountain ranges within the reserve. The foothills of the Lebombo Mountains are located on the south of the reserve.
There are two rivers running through the Phinda Game Reserve, which create a fertile marshland.
Phinda is also home to the rare dry sand forest, a gorgeous forest of large trees, cacti, ferns and orchids; and to 3 different types of savannah (in case you ever thought that there’s only one kind!).
Finally, Phinda is close to the beautiful beaches and marine reefs of the Indian Ocean, so that those who visit have the possibility of mix and match bush and marine adventures.
The wildlife is incredible
The varied landscape of Phinda Game Reserve means the best possible thing when speaking of safaris: variety of wildlife! If you stay at different lodges (for example one in the south of the reserve, and one in the north) and move around the reserve, like my sister and I did, you’ll have a different wildlife experience.
I thought I had seen it all when I have visited Botswana, but I have to say that Phinda is one of the best places in Africa to see the Big Five; and there you’ll have a chance to see the black rhino.
Read more about my experience in Botswana in my post “Where To See Wildlife In Botswana.”
There are lions – and if you are lucky enough like I was, you will also see them mating. My sister and I got to see leopards, though it was quite a search to find them and by the time we finally got to admire a female with her cubs at a water hole we had almost lost hope. We got to see hyenas in what was one of the most thrilling moments of our safari: a cub of about 10 months came very close to the jeep, as curious about us, as we were about him.
Phinda is home to various species of antelopes – the are the tiny red duiker, and the suni; as well as kudus, impalas and nyalas. There are elephants, zebras, giraffes and hippos.
Phinda Game Reserve is famous for its large population of cheetahs. We were extremely lucky to see a hunting scene, where 2 seemingly relaxed cheetahs spotted a lone impala in the distance and successfully hunted him. It was an absolutely incredible experience, one that doesn’t happen often!
As Phinda is a private game reserve, the number of cars moving around is monitored and there are strict limitations to the number of jeeps that can be in the same spot at the same time. This means that animals are completely respected and that the game viewing experience is more exclusive than in other places.
Guests at Phinda Game Reserve are usually taken on two game drives per day, one in the early morning starting as soon as the sun rises, and the other in the afternoon, after 4:00 pm, and going on well after sunset for enhanced possibility of spotting nocturnal animals.
And the birdwatching too
I am hardly into birdwatching, to be honest. I just like seeing pretty, colorful birds but I’d lie if I said that I’d travel to places to see a particular species. I know Phinda Private Game Reserve is an excellent place for birdwatching, with 436 species of birds living in the area. There was another guest in my group that went around with a booklet with pictures of birds, and she kept pointing out to the various one she was excited to see. I have to say I had fun too, taking shots of the nicest, smallest species around.
You can get out to see a local village
Apart from the incredible wildlife of Phinda Game Reserve, one of the reasons I truly enjoyed about it is that, for as far as you may feel from civilization, this is right next door. During our time in Phinda, my sister and I had a chance to visit a local community, making stops at a local school created thanks to the effort of an NGO called Africa Foundation.
There, we had the headmaster taking us around, telling us the story of how the school came about, the challenges and the issues she had to overcome, and showing us, with a lot of well deserved pride, all that she and the local community have managed to achieve.
Unlike many other tours of “local communities” I have done, this was a completely spontaneous, un-staged one. Children played around the school yard, running after each other. The headmaster told them off each time she spotted them dropping a piece of paper. Some kids were eager to see us, others appeared more shy. It was a truly genuine experience, and a welcome back-to-reality moment.
As well as the primary school, the local community tour with Africa Foundation also included a visit to the kindergarten, to the local crafts market and to the community health center, all of them running thanks to the help of the NGO. I am sure you can see why, as a former human rights lawyer, I was happy to see that the work and efforts of an NGO to empower local communities are being successful.
And even go to the beach
My sister and I didn’t have time to go to the beach when we visited Phinda Game Reserve. Well, actually we did, but we decided to spend a few hours relaxing in our gorgeous rooms for a change. Anyways, this is to say that one of the things that make Phinda special is that you can easily get to the beach to enjoy the coast of KwaZulu-Natal. If you want, you can even dive in Sodwana Bay!
It’s easy to reach
Phinda Game Reserve can be easily reached from other parts of South Africa. There are flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town that land in Phinda’s private airstrip, and it’s only a 3 hours drive from Durban. My sister and I drove there from Durban, and the drive was actually quite pleasant – especially once we got to the reserve and realized we were immersed in nature and immediately started spotting zebras and giraffes along the way!
Are you visiting Johannesburg or Cape Town before or after your safari in Phinda? You may want to read my post “Three Unmissable Things To Do In Johannesburg – On A 24 Hours Layover.” and “15 Absolutely Unmissable Things To Do In Cape Town.” for more information.
The lodges are fabulous
There are 6 lodges in Phinda, all of them gorgeous and all of them completely immersed in nature. Though they all reflect the style of And Beyond, which runs the reserve, each lodge is different from the other.
Since the lodges are located in different parts of the reserve, the wildlife experience you may get varies depending on which lodges you stay at. That’s why I recommend staying for 4 days or more, and at two different lodges!
My sister and I spent our first two days in Phinda Game Reserve at Forest Lodge. We had a fabulous room completely surrounded by the forest, with a gorgeous porch where we could relax, and the most luxurious bathroom. Each morning, we had to wait for the baboons to move away before we could leave our room to go to the dining area!
We then moved to Mountain Lodge, where the views from the common areas are simply stunning. Once again, we had a marvelous, incredibly large, cozy and comfortable room. At Mountain Lodge we had our own private plunge pool, which inevitably attracted the animals that roam free around the property. We regularly had a family of nyala visiting, and they didn’t mind our presence in the least. Apparently, some guests that were there a few days before us were woken up in the middle of the night by an elephant drinking from their pool!
And so is the food
Food is hardly a concern of mine when I travel, but I was incredibly pleased to realize that it is really good pretty much anywhere in South Africa. Meals at the lodges of Phinda Game Reserve were always delicious, with breakfast being scrumptious to say the least, and lunch and dinner absolutely fabulous.
Each meal was a great combination of South African food – we truly liked the bobotie, a Cape Malay dish; international cuisine – the barbecued pork ribs were mouthwatering; and a feast of vegetables, salads and fruits. At breakfast, guests have a choice of different varieties of coffee, all of them from Africa and ethically produced.
The atmosphere is chilled
Come to think of it, chilled probably isn’t the best way to describe the atmosphere at Phinda Game Reserve. I’d probably use the word “dreamy” to refer to how my sister and I (and by the look of it, all other guests) felt when we visited Phinda.
We could relax completely in our rooms, in the dining areas, at the pool. We breathed in the clean air of the reserve. And we experienced al fresco dining, being served the most delicious meal in the middle of the forest, on candle lit tables. It was absolutely perfect!
The staff goes above & beyond
Everyone at Phinda Game Reserve is welcoming and professional. From the director of the reserve, whom we had the pleasure to meet and have a nice chat to about conservation and nature in general; to the excellent rangers that take guests on game drives and ensure that they have the best wildlife experience; from the chef who kindly shared the bobotie recipe so that we can try to cook it at home; to the guest relations officer who sorted our flights back to Cape Town when the airline seemed to have lost our reservations, everyone is always incredibly kind and pleasant to talk to.
It’s run responsibly
Phinda Game Reserve is run in a completely responsible way, with an eye to the local wildlife and the environment, as well as the local communities.
Rangers always put the safety and wellbeing of the wildlife at the reserve first, no matter how much a guest wants to get close to an animal. A great effort is done to ensure that the delicate ecosystem of Phinda is preserved, both in terms of flora and fauna.
The lodges are eco-friendly, with little to no waste of water and food. Members of the local community are employed to work in the reserve, as staff at the lodges or as rangers and trackers.
Last, but not least, thanks to Africa Foundation, the area around Phinda Game Reserve receives international support and financial aid for responsible community projects.
Check out my post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
5 Tips To Make The Most Of Your Safari At Phinda Game Reserve
A safari in Phinda is an incredible experience and if you plan to visit South Africa, it’ll be the cherry on the cake of your trip. Here are a few tips to make the most of your experience there.
Give yourself enough time
Most guests stay in Phinda for 3 or 4 nights. I have met some that only spent 2 nights, but they are people who live in Durban and regularly go when they need a quick getaway in the bush.
4 days is just about the right amount of time you will need to make the most of Phinda Game Reserve, see all the incredible wildlife and relax and unwind completely. You will also have time to visit the local communities. If you have an extra day to spare, you can even plan a day trip to the beach.
My sister and I spent 4 days in Phinda Game Reserve, we got to see pretty much all the wildlife that lives in the area, but we could have honestly gone for more!
Learn the art of patience
A safari in Phinda Game Reserve is a thrilling experience, but there will be occasions during which your ranger will drive around for hours and the most you’ll see will be a few impalas. It can be frustrating, but it’s all part of the experience. Learn to make the most of it, and take this opportunity to admire the beautiful African sky, or even to chat with the other guests!
Talk to the rangers, and listen to what they say
Different people have different interests when it comes to wildlife. Some dream of seeing rhinos and elephants, others want to see lions. I went to Phinda to see cheetahs and was keen on seeing hyenas, and my sister dreamt of seeing leopards. Rangers at Phinda Game Reserve meet newly arrived guests and ask them what they are hoping to see: this is your chance to express your wishes!
Also make sure to listen to the rangers instructions regarding game drives: don’t move around the car, don’t stand and don’t get off, unless he says it’s ok to do so. Don’t make noises to the animals and don’t try to call them, as they may be bothered by it.
By all means, remember that rangers are the best source of information about the animals and the flora at Phinda Game Reserve, so ask them any question that pops to your mind!
Dress for success
Being appropriately dressed for a safari is important. You need to wear clothes that make you blend in with the colors of the bush, and you have to make sure that they are comfortable, because you will be sitting in them all day.
Make sure to wear neutral colors, and to layer up with a long sleeves t-shirt, a sweater and a jacket: mornings are cold in the bush, but it gets warm during the day.
Check out my post “What To Wear On Safari – The Ultimate Packing List For Africa” for more ideas on what you should pack for your trip to Phinda.
Pack the right camera gear
One of things I enjoy the most about a safari is that it’s an incredible photographic experience. In Phinda, you’ll have plenty of chances to take incredible photos of wildlife, so make sure to take (and learn how to use) a good DSLR or full frame camera with a good lens. I recommend a 70 – 300 mm as a minimum. A mirrorless camera won’t give you enough lens length to catch the animals in the distance, or their detailed patterns.
Make sure to also pack a pair of good binoculars, especially if you are into bird watching.
When To Visit Phinda
Any time is good to visit Phinda Game Reserve. My sister and I visited Phinda in mid November, at the beginning of the summer, and we enjoyed sunny, dry and warm days and chilly nights. Summer months are great for spotting young animals; whereas the winter months are great as with the lower temperatures more animals come out of the bush.
Have you ever been to Phinda Game Reserve? What did you enjoy the most about it?