There can be nothing more enchanting than the South African veld, as Hetty Lintell finds out while rediscovering the wonders of safari.
Deep in the South African bush, the vast orange sun is setting, yet sleep is the furthest thing from our minds as the engine of our open-air vehicle dies and we fall silent. Five metres from the wheels, lit up by the tracker’s infrared light, two magnificent lions – brothers – begin to stretch.
They’re priming themselves for a busy evening. A roar rattles our bones and we can’t distinguish our own excitement from mild fear – we are at one with Nature at its most intoxicating.
Thankfully, we are in safe hands – &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve’s guides have lived outside for days on end with these animals, as part of their intensive training. Like the born and bred trackers, they can predict an animal’s mood before the animal acts.
&Beyond safaris are about more than ticking off the Big Five: they are a 360-degree journey. The company shares its focus equally between its six five-star, award-winning lodges (across three continents) and projects that benefit the community and environment.
Phinda Reserve was taken over by &Beyond in 1999, when it wasn’t such a happy place. The wildlife had endured almost a century of intensive farming, with pineapple, cattle and sisal farms the main culprits. Recovery – replanting vast areas of vegetation and transporting and rehoming wildlife (I heard a terrifying story involving a lion waking up in transit, none too happy about the situation) – has taken a while.
The company’s joint initiative with Great Plains Conservation, Rhinos Without Borders, aims to tackle poaching. Huge efforts have gone into protecting pangolins: one African pangolin is taken from the wild every five minutes; in 2018, 91,200 of the creatures were illegally trafficked.
That grumpy lion will be happy to hear that &Beyond has also partnered with the Lion Recovery Fund to tackle the animal’s declining population (it’s halved in the past quarter century). Indeed, since &Beyond’s journey began, more than 25 years ago, the company has managed to create an enduring model for land conservation.
Forest Lodge is perfect for families – a swimming pool looks out across the bush and is the favoured watering hole of local elephants. Rock Lodge is more private – it’s adults only and has fewer rooms. Elegant African objèts adorn the drawing room and butlers can fix the perfect gin & tonic.
The red-streaked savannah views draw you out to the terrace, where a wooden deck blends seamlessly into its surroundings. Each suite has a plunge pool and giraffes can often be spotted going about their business below. It was hard to leave at each 5am wake-up call – the perfect honeymoon option, perhaps.
Echoing Phinda’s rebirth, we were brought to life by eye-opening game drives. When the animals didn’t play ball, our guide taught us about orange fruit, gelatinous frogspawn, curious track marks and animals’ relationships. One evening, we were guided towards the ‘Champagne tree’, where named glass flutes hung from the branches. It was the ultimate sundowner – a reminder that, although the atmosphere at &Beyond is one of casual relaxation, we were lucky enough to be on one of the best bespoke safaris on the market.
As Nelson Mandela said: ‘Ultimately, conservation is about people. If you don’t have sustainable development around wildlife parks, then the people will have no interest in them, and the parks will not survive.’ &Beyond is at the forefront of reconnecting communities with the land, through schooling, charity work and employment, and that helps keep enraptured visitors coming back for more.
&Beyond Phinda Rock Lodge, South Africa, from ZAR10,855 (about £550). &Beyond Phinda Forest Lodge, from ZAR8,565 (about £436), both per person per night and all-inclusive, including game drives www.andbeyond.com
Hetty Chidwick paid a visit to Chablé Resort & Spa.
Geoff Heath-Taylor samples the delights of Nederburg Wines.