Located within the Kwazulu Natal province, in the North Eastern tip of South Africa, nestled just beneath Kruger, sits an expansive 70,500 acres of private reserve and within it, six accommodation options comprising four luxury lodges and two villas and of that's not enough, Phinda is now celebrated as one of the continent's most successful rewilding projects.
Arriving at tea time, there was a bustle around the main communal area which houses the bar, restaurant, shop and lounge. A small, cosy, intimate affair that is all expansive views, bookshelves full to the brim of Zulu history, perfectly placed curios, designer lamps that late into the night come into their own, casting a warm glow throughout the space and relaxed seating that makes you feel like you are in your very own ‘Out Of Africa’ fantasy with the luxury dial turned up some. It turns out that tea time is a very important part of the day at Phinda but more on that later - greeted by warm smiles from the staff that looked after us during our stay including our guide Holly, our tracker Mpilo and an army of front-of-house and guest services who it seems sole purpose is to make our stay as perfect as possible. It has been a while since I touched down on South African soil but I was instantly reminded how exceptional the level of hospitality is, within minutes of arriving you feel you have made friends for life.
Whilst sipping on our welcome drinks of freshly squeezed watermelon juice and perfectly chilled sparkling wine, our guide (who hosts all your drives for the duration of your stay ensuring you have the most personalised experience and see a wide variety of game) asked if we wanted to jump on an evening game drive or check in to our rooms and relax for the evening after a long overnight flight. I have learnt from experience that every game drive is different and one could result in seeing nothing and the next, everything, so I of course jumped at the chance; there’s not much that can keep me from a real life Lion King experience, not even sleep deprivation. We had thirty minutes to ready ourselves so as not to be out after dark and so I made my way to my private lodge. Opening the door I thought ‘I think I have made a huge mistake opting into the game drive because I never want to leave this room. EVER’.
Walking into the room is walking into your own private oasis, impossible to carry one single stress from the outside world over the threshold. Low lighting, sumptuous textiles, luxurious interior touches, rooms are impeccably curated with nods to the traditional safari lodge - think colour palettes of neutral taupes, soft leather accents, linen and canvas finishings. Rattan blinds that draw the eye up to a huge thatched roof complete with exposed wooden beams making you feel like you are in a safari tent-meet-treehouse situation. Underneath the pitched roof lies a bed so big you had to crawl from one side to the other - this is not an exaggeration, later on into the trip when my wake up call came, I crawled for about half an hour to the other side of the bed in an attempt to silence the ringing phone. At the foot of the bed a sunken plush sofa looking out onto a huge balcony nestled into the bush that wraps around the room and houses a private plunge pool, outdoor shower and two loungers. Adjoining the bedroom, the bathroom (this was when I squealed) features a rainfall shower, his and hers sinks and a huge roll top bath perched in front of sliding doors that open onto the balcony. I didn’t care how tired I was, I was spending my night soaking in this tub with the doors thrown open, listening to the sounds of the bush. The rooms house delicate touches to ensure your trip is pure magic - a decadent mini bar stocked with top shelf spirits, including wine and of course, a bottle of the native Amarula plus essentials such as fresh celery and lemon, an array of tea and homemade biscuits and Nespresso machine (very important for those 5am game drives). Bath salts, bubbles, candles and just about anything else to create one of the most romantic rooms I have ever stayed in.
As much as I wanted to jump in my pool, roll around my bed, soak under my shower, I had a game drive to get to and so, with binoculars at the ready (provided on check in) we climbed upon our towering steed of a vehicle and were off.
I have done my fair share of game drives across Africa, mainly to the East, never in the South, not sure what to expect, perhaps a part of me had the misguided notion that the real game experiences lay in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, wasn’t I shown otherwise. This was hands down the best game experience I have had in Africa. We were blessed with good weather but the denseness of the bush, the lushness of the greenery, the sheer amount of animals - it felt like we were in an HD version of life. Within the first fifteen minutes of the drive we stumbled upon the elusive black rhino, so critically endangered that rangers are not permitted to tell us how many reside there but you can tell it is few when the ranger is completely beside herself to see it. From here we were treated to warthogs and giraffes, zebras and antelope, our guide Holly as equally passionate about the flora and things that fly and crawl as she is about the big stuff. `We had birds, beetles and everything in between pointed out to us before parking up and catching a sleepy cheetah pondering life. When asked if we fancied a drink with a view, nodding eagerly, we drove out to the crest of a hill overlooking a huge watering hole and what was perhaps the best sunset I have ever seen. Whilst we tried (and failed) to take a million photos of the red and gold sky (none of which did it justice), a fully stocked bush bar was being set up for our sundowners complete with homemade snacks, biltong and dried pineapple from nearby trees. Let me tell you, there is nothing, NOTHING that hits like a G&T in the African bush listening to the chorus of a nearby pod of hippos chatting the breeze.
As the sun fully submerged we returned to base for dinner. We enjoyed an a la carte menu of three courses, served in the open-sided restaurant perched high above the trees,with the smell and sounds of the bush creating a multi sensory dining experience. Happily sated on food and red wine I was escorted to my room (escorts mandatory after dark on account of prowling lions and other goodies) and fell into my bubble bath of dreams, complete with glass of Amarula and the cackling of hyenas from deep in the bush.
The following morning our guide woke us at 4.45am (hence the bed crawl) to ensure we were up and at ‘em for the morning drive.
This is how a typical day works at Phinda - early morning wake up call, meet in the central area for a light breakfast before heading out on your first game drive at around 5.30 / 6am stopping half way through for coffee (usually spiked with Amarula) and cake in the bush, three to four hours on the drive and then back for a full continental breakfast with hot a la carte offering and of course, Mimosas and Bloody Marys if you’re that way inclined. Down time whilst the sun is at its hottest can be spent around the huge communal infinity pool that boasts views over the reserve or in your room, wallowing in your private plunge pool. A light lunch is served in the central hub ensuring you are well fed ahead of a couple more hours of lounging. At 4pm afternoon tea is served - guests are greeted back in the central space with tea and cakes and all the fixings before heading out on the afternoon drive. It’s a pretty magical way to spend a day.
Our second day of drives did not disappoint, seeing not only all of the big five including a white rhino with her baby, but also adiversity of beautiful South African landscapes. We moved from lush green plains, to dense forest to mountainous outcrops - it truly is one of the most unique places I have ever been and further cements the whole ‘life begins in Africa’ vibe. And of course, we stopped for what was fast becoming the highlight of my day, sundowners in the bush and this time we were joined by a herd of curious zebra.
Our day culminated in the Boma - a purpose built al fresco area (originally used for herding livestock) complete with braai (South African barbecue) and fire pits for the most perfect meal under the African stars.
There are so many things that make Phinda exceptional - the space, the tranquility, the wildlife, the level of detail at every turn within the central spaces and accommodation but for me, it was the care, passion and knowledge from the staff that made it second to none. To become a ranger in South Africa you have to gain a national diploma or equivalent. To be a ranger at a &beyond reserve you have to do that and then a further eight weeks of specialist training which quite honestly sounds like SAS stuff. This is to ensure guests have a world class experience, the staff are not only some of the most competent and knowledgeable when it comes to the flora and fauna of the reserve but are also leaders in hospitality and service.
Phinda translates as ‘return’, a name chosen as when the land was acquired from farmers the owners made a pledge to return it to its natural state. They have been richly rewarded with the return of wildlife and game that thrived here before heavy farming changed these landscapes. For me, the name seems apt because whatever it takes, I know I will be returning here.
If you fancy a taste of South Africa from the comfort of your own home, try my recipe for Amarula pannacotta.
Suites (pictured) at Phinda Mountain Lodge start from ZAR 14 000 (£683 approx) per person per night sharing.
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