Day 1 (Thursday, 28th April)
The whole journey took 24 hours, from leaving the doorstep to arriving at Phinda airstrip, but didn’t seem as exhausting as would have been expected. The last part of the journey was a bit of an adventure, since the 1˝ hour flight from Johannesburg to Phinda airstrip was made on a 60 year old prop plane. We commandeered the seat to the rear of the plane, which meant unimpeded views out of the window, and saw the landscape change from quite agricultural around the capital for the first half to one hour, to more open and wilder areas towards Phinda. As we descended towards the airstrip, a couple of Giraffe could be made out, as well as what were either Buffalo or Wildebeest, and Warthogs as we landed.
The airstrip is set in the centre of the reserve, and while we alighted from the steps of the plane and watched some local Zulus playing music and dancing, it was also a chance to see a small accipiter flying overhead – either a Shikra or Goshawk – this being the first bird of the trip. The aim of the jeep ride from here was mainly to get us from the airstrip to our accommodation at Forest Lodge, and not particularly to stop on the way to see animals. However, we did have close encounters with 3 Zebra and a variety of antelope. The first birds seen close to were on the airstrip itself, with a pair of Crowned Lapwings not far from our landing point, and a further group of 6 or 7 alongside a family of Warthogs. Small birds flitted to and fro and sang with little possibility of identification, but a stop at one location found 3-4 White-backed Vultures soaring overhead. We did spend a few minutes at an open, large water hole, which contained African Buffalo at the rear. Birds were also evident here and included a couple of Spur-winged Goose, Egyptian Goose, White-faced Duck, African Spoonbill, and some Black-winged Stilts. Just behind this water hole was a small group of what were evidently Lemon-breasted Canaries, identified by Mike, the head ranger who was also a birder, but I couldn’t see the identifying marks needed for my own satisfaction. A Brown-hooded Kingfisher picked out of the branches a little further on was ample compensation. Square-tailed Drongo, which is apparently the more forest dwelling of the 2 drongos found here, screeched overhead – its brief views were overtaken by a much closer bird later on at the lodge.
This was due to leave at 4 o’clock, but was a little late following a first day orientation, so we didn’t actually leave until after 5. This meant that we made speedy headway to look for some of the more nocturnal wildlife, in particular Leopard and Lion. On the way, we made a few short stops, mainly to watch gazelle and antelope, but there were also sightings of a couple of Trumpeter Hornbills flying across a clearing in the forest, and, as the light started to fade, we heard increasing numbers of Fiery-necked Nightjars. Well on the way to one of the first locations for the big cats, it was now becoming quite dark, and we began to see as well as hear the Fiery-necked Nightjars, usually taking off from the track in front of us. Many were also seen in flight, with the odd one on branch perches. In amongst these, a Crested Francolin ran over the track and straight into cover.
The first main stop was through a thick copse, where only a robust 4 wheel drive vehicle could progress, and into a corner of the dense forest, where we eventually found a Leopard in the dense undergrowth. On leaving here, we passed yet more Fiery-necked Nightjars, eventually reaching the more open grasslands to the North of the reserve. Here we were driven right up to a huge male Lion with its pair of concubines, healthily demonstrating how more progeny may be seen in the reserve in the near future, and another pair nearby, which had been feeding on a recently killed Wildebeest. Some Natal Nightjars were also occasionally calling in this more open environment.
On the return, yet more Fiery-necked Nightjars were seen on the track, and perched on branches, and a few Spotted Thick-knees were also provoked into flight as we passed. By now, with the speed we were making, and the cooling air of the night, it had become quite cold in the open jeep, but we had had an excellent introduction to the wildlife of the open plains and mixed forest.