Monday, August 17, 2009


Apart from flying helicopters, Grant’s other passion is model aircraft aerobatics. The Mpumalanga Provincial Championship was being held in Piet Retief and he decided to fly to Piet Retief with a fellow competitor to avoid the bad roads (a 5hr pot holed road trip from Johannesburg). Good negotiating meant the wives and model planes followed slowly by road! A great weekend was had by all and highlighted the true country friendliness of many residents of SA’s smaller towns.

As payback I had organised the return trip via Phinda Game Reserve on the KwaZulu Natal north coast. A bit of a round trip but there was no way that I was driving back to Johannesburg. The flight leaving Piet Retief is quite an interesting journey regarding the type of terrain. We skirted past the southwestern tip of Swaziland and continued south of Pongola and south of Mkuze game reserve. The topography was very hilly and we weaved through the valleys as we made our way in the general direction of Phinda. The day we travelled in June was disappointingly smoggy, but we were told this was probably due to sugar cane burning in the surrounding areas, a common practice at that time of the year. We had a 20-knot tail wind and within an hour we were in the vicinity of Phinda, eagerly looking for a tarred runway. (Isn’t it an odd coincidence that landing strips are always on the OTHER side of a hill?). The grass landing strip, which appeared first, is that of Mziki, an adjacent reserve.

Phinda Airwing was expecting us. You have to fax an indemnity form to them a day or two before arriving and make a radio call 15 minutes before landing. They have their own frequency of 122.25. As we came in to land we saw some warthogs on the grass adjacent to the tarred runway. We have read about startled animals running into the tail rotor of a helicopter so Grant felt that it was prudent to hover a little higher than normal, just in case they wanted to run underneath us.

A real bush welcome is always a pleasure. Staff were standing by with the Land Rover for the short trip to the Lodge. There are in fact four Lodges run by CC Africa (now &Beyond) in this one reserve as well as 2 private lodges called Zuku and Phinda Getty. Our advice is to shop around, as there are many seasonal and short notice specials. We were booked at Phinda Mountain Lodge, which fortuitously was the closest to the airfield! This was still a 20-minute drive, including some game viewing, via a pretty dam, where we were astounded by the wide variety of birds>

During the two-day visit we were able to record 65 different bird species of which 8 were new for our life list. We were really pleased to have the help of Steve, the ranger, for a number of these. As a winter list this was very satisfying, the numbers in summer would be expected to be much higher. Phinda always participates in Birding Big Day held in November (see where they can count over 200 species in a day!

We arrived at the lodge and were taken to the large outdoor deck to sign our papers and have a cool drink. It really is magnificent with a big public lounge / bar area for relaxation as well as the deck with numerous umbrellas. The bush is quite thick and I think it is unlikely one would spot any game, but there is a view of the rolling green hills in the distance.
The individual suites are spaced well apart and having stone and thatch construction, are remarkably camouflaged against the hill. When walking between the suites and the central area, we did see Nyala (male and female) and Vervet monkeys. At night, guest security must accompany one between the room and the main hotel, as there is no fence around the lodge, and this is a Big Five reserve.

Our thatched suite was very large – king size bed, sunken lounge area, bathroom with double basins, separate shower and bath as well as a private deck and a plunge pool. It was extremely peaceful on the deck, but there was very little time to be spent there. Being winter, the days were quite short and what with breakfast, morning game drives, lunch, the obligatory afternoon nap, afternoon game drives and dinner we were kept very busy indeed.

That first evening we saw the tiniest baby white rhino ever; Steve said it was only a few days old. Its mother was understandably very protective and moved it off into the bush very quickly. Later, with the use of spotlights we also saw 2 lionesses lying very relaxed at the edge of a pan. They were partly sleeping, but did look up now and again. The sun had set and we had not seen many animals. Just as we started to feel hungry Steve pointed to an amazing firefly display just a short way from the vehicle. Desperate for some action, any action, we were easy prey for his tricks and were astonished to find our dinner all set up outdoors in the bush, under the Tamboti trees, candle ‘fireflies’ and all. It was a lovely surprise and amazingly warm for June month. This was a typical African bush dinner, boerewors and all. The best part, in my book, was the chocolate pancakes for dessert!

Other treats adding to the overall experience were as follows:

  • The morning coffee stops with Amarula added to the coffee/ chocolate drink and the homemade crunchies for those who became peckish (a welcome change from rusks)
  • Evening river cruise on the Mzinene River with drinks and snacks and the crocodile and bird sightings to match.
  • A hot bush breakfast knowing that someone else would clean the skottel braais!
  • Magnificent flowering tree aloes
  • A very knowledgeable game ranger, Steve. He made the bush come alive and answered all the questions (and helped refuel the helicopter). The only thing he couldn’t do was to find the cheetah!

Overall a great outing, just sorry we never got further north within the reserve to the sand forests. We were watching the rain move up through Natal. It was time to make a speedy departure, as the weather was not going to improve. We did pass through a few light showers and clouds were around, as opposed to the clear skies on the day of our arrival. In order for the R44 to reach Grand Central, Midrand, a fuel stop at Newcastle was necessary on the return flight.

Phinda is quite a busy airfield, receiving daily scheduled flights as well as lots of charters. They are hoping to expand the runway to receive even bigger planes to cater for the conference and incentive markets. It is also a short hop from Durban for weekend trips and so draws visitors from a large area.

Website references: general information about accommodation discount rates for short notice bookings (&beyond amongst others) also special offers from various lodges latest sightings from all CC Africa reserves
Reservations for accommodation : Various websites above or & Beyond Tel 011-809-4447
Telephone for permission to land : Phinda Airwing 035-562-0271 / 082-652-1626
Runway co-ordinates: Phinda ( FADQ) S27º 51' 21.6" * E 32º 18' 47.4"

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