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Phinda Game Reserve (South Africa)- April, 2004

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Introduction

Phinda is a private game reserve in the Zululand region of South Africa, situated to the North-east of Durban. It is owned by CCAfrica ( www.ccafrica.com ), whose ethos is the development of ecosensitive reserves throughout the southern part of Africa. We spent what was essentially a long weekend at the reserve, comprising 3 nights stay at Forest Lodge. We flew to Johannesburg direct from the UK, and then the remaining 2 hour flight was made on a 60 year old twin prop plane to the private airstrip of Phinda. Although this seems a very short time in relation to the long journey we made to arrive at Phinda, so much was packed into the time there that it was a very worthwhile exercise. Morning calls were made at 5:30 to ensure that the most was made of early game drives, and evening drives continued until after dark for nocturnal species. Time spent between these was either on more activities organised by the Lodge, or walking and animal / bird watching around the lodge grounds.

The Phinda reserve comprises a 14000 hectare area, with a vast array of biohabitats in a small area, including the rare dry sand forest, in which our accommodation was situated. Of the four accommodation groupings within the reserve, we stayed at Forest Lodge – 16 superb stilted suites spaced out within the forest, containing a luxurious ambience, but with all round windows to soak in the tranquillity of surrounding habitat. The paths interlinking these and the main outbuildings were quite safe to walk through by the light of day, but a security guard had to be hailed after dark, since the lack of fences meant any animal could be present at that time.

Included in the accommodation package for Phinda are morning and evening game drives, when the animal activity is at its peak. These are made in open topped Land Rovers, driven by experienced and highly in-house trained rangers, with an expert Zulu tracker sitting at the front of the vehicle. The skill of both of these people is phenomenal. Since a lot of the reserve is wooded, broken by both small and large open plains, many of the animals need to be tracked down, and it is a pleasure being part of this process. I was also fortunate enough to be in the Land Rover driven by the head ranger, Mike, from the airstrip, since his particular passion is birding. While he paid more attention to the birds knowing that I was in the jeep (the other 5 were non birders), there were still limits to the amount of time devoted to these, since the interests (or boredom thresholds) of all had to be taken into account. This is probably true of all safaris taken by birders were there are mixed groups and full Land Rovers, however, although the reserve does offer specific birding safaris.

In addition to the game drives, other activities that we undertook were:

  • River cruise. This is very relaxing and can be taken for no extra cost in the place of a game drive. It is made on a small covered boat, which can seat around 8-10 people, and is very relaxing as well as productive for animals and birds. Be careful though -  a bar is also included on the slow journey along the river;
  • Flight of the Fish Eagle. For an extra cost, this 45 minute flight takes you over the whole of the reserve and its surroundings, in a small plane which can often be only metres off the ground. Not only are the diverse habitats more obvious and spectacularly seen from the air, but many animals, and even some birds, can be spotted easily;
  • Beach. Another extra, which we combined with the flight above, since there is a grass airstrip a short drive from Maputuland beach. While there is a small selection of birds here, the main excitement is from the swimming – snorkelling at the top of the beach revealed many varied and colourful fish, including a large and sinister looking Moray Eel at close quarters.

Getting around and precautions

All of our transport had been arranged by Phinda. However, this is in addition to the accommodation and meals packages that they do, but it is a lot more convenient being flown in from Johannesburg straight to a private airstrip than hiring a car which would be redundant while at the reserve. The timing of our visit was in the dry season, and the local microclimate is even drier than the surrounds, so the almost constant sunshine wasn’t a surprise, although there was a short burst of rain during one of the nights. However, early morning and late evening on the back of an open-topped vehicle does get cold! Temperatures through the middle of the day were comfortably hot – April is at the end of the southern hemisphere winter – but sun block was advisable. The timing, and possibly the latitude we were at, may have explained the lack of mosquitoes and low risk of malaria. Antimalarials are still recommended, and this means a prescription tablet for this part of the world.

Transfer from Phinda airstrip to Forest Lodge   (Day 1)

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 1½ 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 Water Buffalo at the rear. Birds also evident here 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.

Once we arrived at Forest Lodge, which is collection of 16 individual luxury suites set in the sand forest, we were taken straight to the restaurant area for a meal. This incorporates a viewing deck, and while we chomped on a delicious meal of ostrich and calamari, a group of 10 or so Crested Guineafowl mingled with Vervet Monkeys outside, with Impala constantly plying to and fro in the background. We were subsequently shown to our own private suites, which are all set out peacefully in a dense part of the sand forest. It was just after arriving that the call of the Square-tailed Drongo was picked up and located, right next to our own accommodation. Perhaps even more surprising was a single Red Duiker foraging slowly through the under story just in front of our panoramic window.

Evening game drive

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.

Morning game drive   (Day 2)

The early morning call to the room came at 5:20, leaving plenty of time for juice on the restaurant veranda before our morning safari. Of the five groups jumping into the Land Rovers, 3 were destined for a Rhino track on foot, which was the choice I plumped for. Sat at the rear of the jeep, the plan was for the ranger and tracker (perched on the bonnet at the front) to drive and look for fresh Rhino tracks. As we drove around the tracks through the reserve, not only did we not pick up Rhino tracks, which included one false alarm reported by another vehicle, but many of the birds were tantalisingly calling out of view. This included Red-fronted Tinkerbird, with its characteristic repeated bubbly barbet call being heard regularly, but unfortunately not seen. After about ¾ of an hour, the tracker found some fresh tracks that looked promising, which led into the surrounding forest. It was impressive that they could not only tell that they were Rhino tracks, but also that there were two animals, one of which was a sub adult. After receiving thorough instructions concerning how to proceed, we progressed snake like through the forest. We were warned of a possible two hour long trek in front of us, and so were amazed when we stumbled on a Rhino, fortunately with its back to us, and only about 30 metres distant, within the thick bush. This wasn’t at all what I expected, having pictured a long march through open grassland and bushes to spot a Rhino in the distance. This was all the more exciting, yet quite unnerving, when such a large and potentially dangerous creature was only a short charge away from us. We feasted briefly on this apparently smaller sub adult for a short time, before carefully retracing our steps, and then attempting to circle around with the wind in the right direction for better and safer views. While the guides were deciding on the best strategy, a couple of Red-fronted Tinkerbirds started calling and showing well close by. After a nervy 20 minutes or so trying to circle around the Rhino, the guides decided it had become too risky, due to the thickening foliage, so we headed back to the Land Rover. More Rhino, and Lion, tracks were found on the way, as well as a close White-browed Scrub-robin.

After a short break, Mike drove the Land Rover round to a spot further on next to a water hole, leaving us to walk the few hundred metres through the bush to it. There were some excellent birding opportunities here - a much longed for Batis came in the form of male Chinspot, while trying to get a better look at a Fork-tailed Drongo. After watching a dung beetle moving its prized meal, near to the water hole (which was surprisingly quiet), we were served coffee. A short look around and a little patience led to White-throated Robin-chat. The bush was easily located by its constant calling, which included a mimicking of other birds, but finding it took some time, since it was skulking deep in the bush. Returning again to the group next to the water hole, Dusky Flycatcher was found in a tree previously occupied by a Red-eyed Dove and Glossy Starling. To the rear of the water hole, on the muddy margins, a pair of Three-banded Plovers was located on the shoreline.

On the return to the lodge, Mike was very helpful in stopping to look at any interesting birds. Not only were these the obvious, such as White-backed Vultures, and a superb Bateleur straight over our heads, but we also saw small parties of passerines, including Rattling Cisticola, which was mainly identified on call, Southern Black Tit, Green Woodhoopoe, and plenty of Dark-capped Bulbuls.

Around the Forest Lodge

Back at the lodge, a female Collared Sunbird was seen in front of the restaurant deck – this was the only bird seen well from here around breakfast time. However, it did follow a pair of Bearded Scrub-robins which I stalked in the undergrowth on approaching the restaurant. It was fairly quiet by now and almost midday, yet on the short walk from the restaurant to the accommodation suite, a small party of birds was seen, feeding through the trees. These included 2-3 Terrestrial Bulbuls, Puffback Shrike, Yellow-breasted Apalis, and female Blue-mantled Flycatcher. Despite the heat of the day now at its maximum, it certainly showed potential for further birding within the slightly cooler shade of the forest.

The afternoon was spent on a leisurely walk around the tracks that cross the grounds of the Forest Lodge, and on larger vehicular tracks just outside of the boundaries. The earlier location of the small party of passerines was now quiet, and I wondered if I had been lucky to stumble on the only party passing through. However, a little further on, in the corner where the Bearded Scrub-robins had been found, a pair of Red-capped Robin-chats had now replaced them, and this turned out to be a regular spot for them throughout the day. It was also at this point that the video camera decided to die – bad timing with not only posing Red-capped Robin-chats, but also equally obliging Blue-mantled Flycatchers and Terrestrial Bulbuls. However, after returning the camera to the room, I ambled around carrying only binoculars and basic digital camera. Just outside of the Forest Lodge boundary were a few Square-tailed Drongos and Puffback Shrikes. On the other side of the road, under the watchful eye of a Vervet Monkey, a stunning little Green-backed Cameroptera was steadily hunting around in a single dense thicket. It came out and showed well at times, behaving a lot like a European Wren, in shape as well as behaviour. On the walk back past reception, I stumbled across a family of Collared Sunbirds feeding fledged young. A couple of bulbuls popped into sight here, which proved to be Yellow-bellied Bulbuls. One was pristine with new growths in the tail feathers, the other a ragged affair, with parts of its tail feathers missing and barely off-cream breast.

River Cruise

The evening was spent on a small motor powered boat cruising along one of the nearby rivers. A one hour jeep ride got us there, and it was on this initial journey that we came across a mother and calf White Rhinoceros in the open grassland, surrounded by the open type of savannah that thoughts of Africa usually provoke. It allowed us to get quite close, and on approach could be seen about half a dozen Red-billed Oxpeckers on the back of one of the animals. A small party of Black Saw-wings flew overhead. A small water hole was passed a little further on, with the expected pair of Egyptian Geese rubbing feathers with a couple of African Pied Wagtails. Another, marsh-fringed, water hole held African Jacana and a small family of Little Grebes.

The boats included a bar along with the beautiful and rewarding views of the river, and we chugged our way slowly along, stopping off whenever something interesting was spotted. Amongst the birdlife was a perched and very confiding Anhinga, joined by African Pied Wagtail. Perched overhead was Pied Kingfisher. Along the edges of the river were birds such as Purple Swamphen, Wattled Plover, and Striated Heron. One of the most impressive sights of the whole stay was towards the apex of the journey, where a large herd of Giraffe, accompanied by Zebra and Impala, suddenly started to run for some reason – their motion is like a dinosaur running through water. Hadeda Ibis were constantly overhead, but pride of place on the river was taken by the mammals, with 3 huge Hippos just sharing their snouts and profiles with us. They are reputed to leave the water to graze just after dusk.

The Flight of the Sea Eagle   (Day 3)

We had an extra 15 minutes sleep in this morning, with a wake up call at 5:45. This was in order to catch “The Flight of the Sea Eagle”, which is small single propeller aeroplane, after being driven again in Land Rovers to the airstrip, followed by a half day at the beach. There was predictably plenty to see on the initial drive before the flight. Particularly impressive was a scattered yet reasonably sized herd of Giraffe, which insisted on taking their time in leaving the track in front of us, one towering over the jeep as we approached it. When they move, Giraffe are a supremely graceful animal. Small groups of Zebra were quite naturally in attendance. One or two new birds were also seen on this short trip, with a couple of Zitting Cisticolas in song flight and calling, and Malachite Kingfisher perched on a lone twig in the centre of the small water hole passed yesterday. The drive along the length of the airstrip was equally as good, with numerous birds flying up as we progressed. The Crowned Lapwings seen on the first day contained smaller numbers of Lesser Black-winged Plovers. Smaller birds included groups of Yellow-eyed Canaries – all that could be seen of these was the yellow rump, until we were about to board the aircraft, when 3-4 were perched on a bush alongside. Plenty of pipits also here, which apparently were Bushveld Pipits – they looked very similar to Meadow Pipits.

The Flight of the Sea Eagle is an excellent experience – certainly much better than expected, being more than just another plane journey. We flew over the whole of the Phinda Reserve and surrounds for just over ¾ of an hour. While observing the varied habitats was interesting, spotting the larger mammals from not too great a height was even better. Probably most stunning, and surprising, were quite a few small groups of Rhinos, some with calves, and also about 12-15 pods of Hippos in the river and lake. The latter are huge animals even from the air, yet apparently very few are seen on the same flight at other times. Also from the air were one or two herds of Giraffe, plenty of Impala, Nyala, and scattered groups of Wildebeest.

Alongside the airstrip at the coast, which is basically just a field of grass where we had to avoid a wheelbarrow and several cattle on landing, were one or two White-necked Ravens. The short drive to the beach found ideal habitat for Fiscal Shrikes, with at least 4-5 birds perched in the open. We spent a few hours on the beach, which is generally fairly devoid of wildlife. The only birds of note were a constant passage of Grey-headed Gulls, most of which were in non-breeding plumage. Sanderling were also in small numbers along the shoreline, with up to 6 White-fronted Plovers, again all in non-breeding plumage.

On the return journey in the minibus to Phinda, a Trumpeter Hornbill flew across the road a short distance from the beach, and as we approached the perimeter of the reserve, a Lilac-breasted Roller was perched on a telegraph pole, and flew off as we passed.

Evening Game Drive

Just before the evening game drive, we collected on the viewing deck for cold coffee and the most delicious carrot cake. While sat here, and after a Square-tailed Drongo had appeared in the distance, another flitting bird nearby proved to be a Black-collared Barbet, with stunning red throat showing well even at that distance. While watching it, the bird decided to fly towards us, and landed in a bush in the canopy over the viewing deck. Unfortunately, in the few minutes of its presence, leaves mainly hid it from view.

The evening sortie was mainly to look for some Cheetahs which had been seen earlier, and despite the fact that we didn’t find any, we still had a good time with some of the common species already seen. This included a herd of Wildebeest, very close to us on the open plains, a male Impala with a harem coming to terms with a young pretender trying to muscle its way in, and young Nyala being breast fed by its mother. After dark, and drinks al fresco next to a small water hole, a Bush Baby was picked out using searchlights by the tracker. Few birds were seen during the drive, but the choice were a pair of Trumpeter Hornbills which landed 10-20 metres away from us in the forest, and Short-toed Eagle seen briefly while viewing the Wildebeest.

Morning Game Drive   (Day 4)

Another 5:30 wake up call, and this time when we stepped out of the accommodation, we found that it had been raining through the night. It looked as if this had been a short, heavy burst, and I wondered if this meant that the tracks would be any easier to find. For our comfort, that was to have been the last of the rain, and it became sunny and warm through the morning. This mornings quarry was Elephant, one of the few remaining animals that we hadn’t seen. So we headed out of the camp 15 minutes early to the likely spots. The problem with Elephants is that, despite the size and numbers in the herds, they can be very mobile, and can get lost in the forest easily. This time of the morning, perhaps due to the rain, there was a lot of bird life evident, with numerous Yellow-bellied Bulbuls, Fork-tailed Drongos, and many others which were too briefly seen or distant to be identified. Yesterdays Black-collared Barbet at the lodge was added to with a pair passed in the open at the top of a tree, and a further one in flight a short time after. Another stunning bird seen all too briefly was Pygmy Kingfisher, which zipped across the front of the Land Rover, landed for mere seconds, and then departed. This was the second kingfisher of the morning – a Striped Kingfisher had been much more obliging. First of the mammals seen were a very close group of Giraffe and Zebra – we rounded a corner in the forest to be confronted by a huge male Giraffe feeding right at the centre of the track. It looked down at us totally unconcerned, and ambled slowly away, along with the remainder of the small herd.

Searching for Elephant also took us off track, looking for Leopard which had fresh tracks from separate male and female. This took us deep into the bush, which until recently hadn’t been crossed by vehicles, and the route we took was even then barely marked. Bird parties here were superb, mainly consisting of Southern Black Tits, along with one or two different bulbuls, and I was lucky to pin down a Golden-tailed Woodpecker which landed on a nearby tree trunk. Our main quarry was very elusive, despite the impressive skills of Lucky our tracker and Mike, the ranger. They eluded us so well that we went well over time, and even when we stopped for a coffee with a good chance of them appearing, nothing showed. When we moved off a hundred or so metres down the track, we found that they had crossed our own tracks only a short time before. The frustration of tracker and ranger was obvious, since professional pride dictated that they should find at least one Elephant – the fact that other groups had seen them earlier compounded this. We then sped off, past a hovering Short-toed Eagle overhead, when we came nose to backside with a single bull Elephant, gently grazing the overhead bushes directly in front of us on the main track. Circumstances dictate that this is the way to find it – the last minutes of the drive, with a fantastic bull Elephant, which we were able to circle and watch from the front in the bush. Yet another unforgettable experience.

The last game was seen on the transfer from the lodge to the airstrip, along by now almost familiar tracks. Nyala and the odd Impala were by now becoming almost expected, but we did also see 3 Giraffe. Around the airstrip runway, there was surprisingly little bird life, and certainly not the Cheetah on a termite mound that had seen by one lucky group yesterday. However, there was one last treat before we boarded the plane. A large group of Marabou Storks was circling just over the trees on thermals. A Vulture picked out from these and to the right was an even bigger treat, because the white secondaries identified this bird as White-headed Vulture, which apparently only turns up at the reserve very occasionally – perhaps up to a dozen times a year.

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Introduction

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Day 3

Day 4

Species list

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