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10 October 2019

Where to go for a Big Five safari in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

If you’re thinking of going to KwaZulu-Natal to visit the Battlefields in Zululand, why not consider also enjoying a safari in Phinda Game Reserve? YZ’s Will has returned from a trip to this quieter corner of South Africa:

I have wanted to visit Phinda Game Reserve ever since I first heard the name as a wet-behind-the-ears student guide. My fellow students always spoke of Phinda with great reverence, as a near-mythical Garden of Eden where one could see the Big Five (lion, leopard, white rhino, elephant, buffalo) and more than 430 bird species in seven different distinct habitats.

In March this year, almost ten years later, I finally had my chance to visit the fabled reserve – and I was not disappointed!

Initial impressions of Phinda

Stepping off the plane at Richard’s Bay, a town located along the coast of Central KwaZulu-Natal, I was confronted by a barrage of humidity. Zululand receives most of its rainfall in January and February, and after recent rains the bush was thick and the air even thicker. The drive from the airport took me through miles of plantations until orderly rows of eucalyptus and sprawling pineapple fields finally gave way to lush savanna.

sunset lake phinda vlei lodge south africa
Guest area views at Phinda Rock Lodge (3)

Phinda Game Reserve, a private reserve covering 170 square kilometres, borders the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park and encompasses a variety of distinct habitats. Nestled among the foothills of the Lebombo mountain range, the southern section of the reserve is a patchwork of mixed woodland and open grassland interrupted with rocky outcrops, while the northern part of the reserve is characterised by wetlands, pans, and rare dry sand forest ecosystems.

Phinda's wildlife

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marco franchini wildlife phinda
elephant game drive, phinda game reserve, south africa

All of this biodiversity, in turn, breeds biodiversity, and the reserve is home to not just the Big Five. The grasslands and savannas support a healthy population of cheetahs, and dense tamboti thickets provide ample fodder and concealment for black rhinos. When you factor in the 436 recorded bird species, a strong argument begins to form for never going on safari anywhere else again! Of course, at Yellow Zebra we don’t condone that kind of radical thinking – variety is the spice of life, after all – but having said this, if it’s variety you’re after then Phinda may well be the place for you.

Having worked in the safari industry in Southern Africa for nearly ten years in areas known for unique and unconventional safaris, I found my short time on safari in KwaZulu-Natal to be a wholly new and exciting experience. I was able to tick off several new bird species – including the majestic long-crested eagle – and even two new mammal species (greater galago and large-spotted genet). Perhaps the highlight for me, besides the amazing sightings of cheetah, rhino, elephant, lion, and leopard, was stopping at a termite mound to inspect some fresh mushrooms that had grown after the recent rains. I recognised them from my time in Namibia as a kind of edible wild mushroom, cultivated by the termites themselves, that the Hereros call omajovas. My guide, Kim, and our incredible tracker, Malosi, were only too happy to oblige in picking a few, and later they were presented to us at dinner, perfectly prepared by the chefs.

An alternative to Phinda

phinda cheetah
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To the west of Phinda is the Manyoni Private Game Reserve, which is home to Rhino Sands, a relatively new 5-star luxury tented camp that opened in 2017. The Manyoni reserve is, in some ways, quite similar to the southern section of Phinda – reclaimed farmland that has been painstakingly returned to wild savanna. In other ways, Rhino Sands has been careful to differentiate itself from its better-established neighbours, providing a luxurious tented camp experience that in recent years has become something of a rarity in South Africa.

Rhino Sands has also cleverly positioned itself in a price bracket slightly below Phinda, and when you consider that the Manyoni reserve is home to a resident population of African wild dogs as well as black rhino, cheetah, and the Big Five, it starts to look like a very worthy contender!

If the sound of Phinda or Manyoni Game Reserve interests you, check out my top lodges below – alternatively, why not contact us here to start planning your trip to South Africa?

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