Flying Safari South Africa (Part 1) - Phinda Game Reserve

We were so fortunate as part of our Phinda Game Reserve safari to come across a family of cheetahs where mom and cubs were sleeping off their meal as it was still a bit dark. All were stretched in a low ditch in the grass to stay cool and just do what cats do best - sleep.

We parked next to the family and they lifted their heads to glance and look at us in curiosity. When does one get up close and personal with a wild cheetah some 6 feet away?

Light aircraft on South Africa runway

Table of Contents
The Journey
Zulu Culture
Change of Plan
South Africa Safari Reviews

The Journey

Tuesday, March 14th, 2006

We are in CA now with a few days before we fly out of LAX with dear pilot friends as part of the journey to Africa ...

Saturday, March 18th, 2006

We have flown from the very north to south ends of the African continent into Johannesburg. 22+ hours flight time does affect the butt muscles and other ones that I had no idea existed as they had not ever been tested for that length of time....ugh!

Yes… we see the ground of Africa after a long over nighter in the dark watching the GPS flying progress screen TV in the backs of the seat in front you on British Airways. Now, that is way cool to know where one is as one flies from Los Angeles to London and then from London to Jo'burg (as the locals say).

Here we land into Jo'burg airport and are greeted by a welcome committee of one that escorts us to the VIP lounge to wait and meet up with the rest of the African flying safari group. We are excited and a bit pooped. Something real nice is the internet service, drinks and food at the lounge. Also, there is ‘shopping’ just around the corner – so there is plenty to do while waiting.

Looks like we will have 30-60% chance of rain thru the week, including our time at Phinda Game Reserve, from the weather reports. The lady that met us here at the airport said that so far their autumn has been wetter than most...

We are then all gathered to the charter flight to Richards Bay, our starting airport for pilot validations and tests today and tomorrow.

Sunday, March 19th, 2006

Greetings in Zulu and Swazi .... SAUBONA. We are just starting to reawaken our souls as they tell us that Africa does to people...

The charter pilots delight in having ‘Bully’ (our mascot Bull Terrier) up front and personnel to help with the flight. Bully is as bit as excited as the rest of us on this adventure.

At Richards Bay, we are taxied to the Woodpecker Inn, a quaint Dutch influenced older and charming B&B type hotel.

We all end up in the bar to meet up with our African flying safari pilot leaders Nunki and Francois. Our pilots’ packets and maps are handed out to get us acquainted to South African flying. A flight briefing is scheduled for the early evening before dinner, with dinner at a by-the-bay nice restaurant. An excellent dinner - the food is delicious in South Africa.

A rush of events to happen next: flight test for South African licenses, rush of unfamiliarity, African animals, hut villages below, relax a bit (what's that?), flight planning, more government paper work, Amarula, white wine, post cards, Saubona to the Universe for an incredible experience, tangibility vs. real, Zulu Healer, drive with drinks vs. 2 drinks to Phinda Game Reserve same evening, tropical, sweat, humidity, 'breeze', journals, Zulu cook and food, languages and fun and the Grace that fills a Being by Gracious people - we are on our way within Africa!

Monday, March 20th, 2006 - We arrive at Phinda Game Reserve!

Flight tests, windy bumps and steep turns mixed with landings at a remote countryside airport. The countryside is dotted with red dirt roads and round thatched huts gathered into small groups of 3-4 or larger family groups of about a dozen or so, much like a village . With a government holiday and government delayed pilot paperwork the group goes into action with plan B and drives on to Phinda Game Reserve.

This region is just marvelous and we did get to see so much from our check flights, and now from the ground as we venture on to our destinations for animals. We make it in time for the afternoon game drive.

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Wildlife at Phinda Game Reserve

During the afternoon/evening game drive and the next morning's game drive we saw lions, leopards, wildebeest and cape buffalo.

This African experience has been incredible and is overwhelming. If I do nothing else anywhere in the world - it is good and has been more than enough.

The leopard we saw at Phinda game reserve has just been back to a previous day's kill in the evening. Our Phinda game reserve guide found her and said they are most shy. She did not like the light shining in her eyes for almost 10 minutes (who would?) so she moaned and then lunged with a huge throated growl and hiss within 10 feet next to the jeep. She glared with full teeth bared at us for seconds - which seemed to last a lifetime - we were so frozen and mesmerized, we forgot to take a picture. Then at that moment, when one reaches beyond the captivation, it is already too late - she has moved on in the undergrowth.

We then followed through the bush into the night 2 male lions walking... one got a bit twitchy as the jeep inched too close and we heard the "thunder" in his throat ... which darn near freezes blood... this is the real thing! They were not to overly concerned about our presence until one ventured into their space which seemed to be about 20 feet or so.

Then the same thundered voice turned and sounded like 20th Century Fox Lion from the movies...WOW ... this is the real thing that reminds one the difference of what one sees and hears on TV is a far roar to wilds. The real thing moves your skin and blood like nothing else ever experienced.

I have to keep re-learning the Zulu words - as it is difficult to make that kind of sound in saying their words. "Please", "thank you" and "hello" is the limit of my expressions. There are similarities in the words as well as a clicking that adds to the difficulty in hearing and verbalizing. I keep trying and leave most of them laughing a good heartedly laugh - seeming to know that this white lady may just be a comedian... I am really trying. It is a good thing that they know English here at Phinda Game Reserve and are a kind and quiet nature people with great sense of humor for a hearty laugh.

Our guide Dumi (do-mee) has been with Phinda Game Reserve since it's inception in 1991. Phinda means 'the return' in Zulu as it became a huge not-for-profit reserve to 'return' the natural game back into this region. People here take this task very seriously and show some passion to this effort in their jobs.

The plains of Africa seem primitive - almost Jurassic feeling with the vegetation, rocks, succulents & blooms and so much more to that ancient feeling.

Since we are close to the coast on the Indian Ocean, the humidity is very wet and so are we.

Tuesday March 21st, 2006

We have had quite the adventure in two days of game drives at Phinda Game Reserve.

The meals are great and fresh and traditionally South African and Bush food. Even ate springbok, kudu and telling what else we have eaten and don't know it. It is all delicious and made from scratch - no preservatives or pre-packaged stuff here at Phinda Game Reserve... DELICIOUS!

We venture out in our open air jeeps and see giraffe, elephant, cape buffalo, cheetah and lion.

A group of lions were feeding off of a wildebeest at the Phinda game reserve airport runway edge... was something to see. They were all full bellied and lolly gagging about - all that was left of the wildebeest was a tail and some fleshy lung looking thing ... and his 7 friends having a funeral gathering at the end of the runway watching.

We then saw a whole family group of elephants which was fascinating...there was a small gathering of 'children elephants' all together with 2 adult females and the guides said that while all the rest of the mothers were off feeding elsewhere in the Phinda game reserve, the nursery was watched by these mothers - much like day care.

We watched the 2 day care mothers teach the little ones to use their trunks to pull long grass from the base, then shake the dirt off the roots and stuff the luscious dirt ridden grass into their mouths...the one little baby had long grass much to long and full for its little mouth... what a treat to see.

We drove a little further along one of the Phinda game reserve roads, and saw the biggest pappa elephant ever... he was huge compared to the mommas we just saw. He was so huge that his trunk was amazing and heavy - he rested his trunk onto his tusk just to give himself a rest. Now that is big for a big guy!

The Phinda Game Reserve guides mentioned that the male elephants at this time are ready for mating females and there was major evidence to that effect - and of course, one can imagine the conversations in the jeep at that point - men boasting and woman laughing and scoffing 'in your dreams' ...

The elephants had been in the water earlier and one jeep of our group was watching them at the water's edge - when all of a sudden something spooked the herd of elephants which came charging out of the water - RIGHT towards the jeep - which was in reverse before anyone knew what was happening. That was quick reflexes! We watched the elephants for a long time as they meandered throughout their area eating.

We got to see cheetah!! There was one mother just watching majestically over one of the Phinda game reserve water holes - Pilot Michael got a fantastic clip of momma cheetah with a giraffe roaming in the background... marvelous witness to an African safari!

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Nights at Phinda Game Reserve

The Phinda game reserve safari drives are 'very' early morning and late afternoon to evening ... so half way thru each 3-4 hour adventure there is a snack time and a later happy hour time ... during the one happy hour time - we were asking about the heavens above us and how does one tell which direction is which.

In the southern hemisphere there is the Southern Cross for a south star much like the north star's Big Dipper. Very clear and prominent just as much as Big Dipper that we are all versed about.

Evening time at the lodge, one has to request security escort to move from place to place as the animals of Phinda Game Reserve are not fenced out and free to roam. There may be non-friendly ones roaming along with the friendly ones.

The cape buffalo is one of the unfriendly ones to watch for we have been told. It is the only animal that does not give warning to an attack and when it does attack, they linger for hours to make sure that what they have torn up with their horns and hooves, they keep tearing up until all is scattered and assured dead. We came across a whole group of Cape Buffalo in a watering hole just catching some cool time.

We now have a morning game drive left at Phinda Game Reserve and then we'll move on to the other 2 game reserves that are planned and when we return to Richards Bay to venture off in our planes to do what we came for: fly over Africa. Also, we have gotten word that the paper work delay is all fixed.

Wednesday March 22, 2006 - our last day at Phinda Game Reserve

Cheetahs everywhere!

The day was promising to be a bit warm, so the animals were enjoying the cool. Makes your heart flutter to be so close to nature!

Still inside Phinda Game Reserve, we witnessed a big gathering of two cheetah families; one mother with 2 cubs and another mother with 4 cubs. Watched the length of almost an hour or so as this was fascinating...

One momma was making hiss, low growls and chirping noises as she was disturbed that the other family was right there in her space. The four cubs (about 6 months old) of one sat and watched the two other cubs (about 7 months old) and 2 of them moved over to go and play - 'hey, new playmates' was on their faces. They got within a few feet of the two others cubs and 2 cub momma chirped (cheetahs chirp instead of meow) and all cubs lied down low - then looking up as if to say - 'all I wanted to do was play!!'

The mommas never got into a to scuffle or anything...just made posturing moves and lots of noise! The cubs were just resigned to waiting it out to see what mommas were going to do - and clearly they all wanted to play together. Then the four cubs meandered over to their mom and started to play with her - she indulged some play while her eyes were still on the other momma. We were all captivated to watch and take some great shots!!

So off we leave Phinda game reserve and take the drive back to Richards Bay in very gusty winds leaving us pilots thinking that this may not be our lucky day to fly - again!

We are ready to fly and Mother Nature is not. Not to worry for things to do and interest to make the most of our journey.

Top of Phinda Game Reserve

Zulu Culture

We go on to Shaka Zulu land which depicts Zulu living, traditions and culture!

The Zulu Land that we went to is a reproduced Zulu village. We were guided on how to come into the village. As our presence was announced at the entrance of the village, our entrance was then transformed into a tradition that is very much alive today. The culture was an enjoyable snap shot experience - many traditional crafts and skills were demonstrated.

Zulu make a beer from 3 day-old fermented hops and corn - like a mash. This mixture is put into a weaved funnel basket and liquid wrung out into a bowl for drinking. The solids of corn and mash are then fed to the chickens, which seemed to some of us to strut a bit weavy.

We watched a woman weave mats in the traditional way ... there were none of these mats that a person could purchase and I wish there had been!

We were invited by the chief (an actual village chief) to share in tasting the beer ... it tasted as it was: milky day-old fermented liquid. Not good and not bad - a sort of yuck.

We went to dinner with a Zulu ceremony dance afterwards. The dancing ceremony was exhilarating with drums, drums, drums, singing and clapping. Sure got the ole hearts pounding - the music and dancing was magnificent!

Quite the African traditional culture adventure!

Thursday March 23, 2006

YES....!!! We are in the air flying on to Madikwe Game Reserve. We leave southeastern coastal region and plan to fly about 3 hours to the region north west of Johannesburg, with a fuel stop in between at Pilanesberg.

It is great to be up in the air. We are the 'caboose' with Francois, our African pilot guide, for the flying formation with Nunki in the lead pilot guide plane. The weather starts to threaten us again about 45 minutes into the flight. So we climb up over the low level clouds to about 4000 to 5000 feet. In doing so, the caboose (us) became about 20 minutes behind the rest of the group. Communications were still maintained, just that we were beyond visual sighting.

Nature Orchestrates A Change of Plan

Well.. the flights continue and half way to the Madikwe, rain clouds start to move in again and all have to land at a lovely town and airport, Parys (pronounced paa-rees). Since we are behind, we find the nearest runway available and start a descent to a nice looking runway called Heilbron.

Before I can land this craft - a low -- very low -- buzz just above the runway is required to chase the cattle off the pavement and then turn downwind for a nice kissing smooth landing.

Upon taxing back to the parking - it is apparent now that this is very nice and 'deserted' airport. We sit here for about 2.5 hours eating our packed lunch and laughing and chatting to let the rain clouds move through the area and upon some clearing. We then take off and fly to Parys to join Mother guide (Nunki) - so all her chicks will be together.

Before take-off, I do get a nice picture of the Zulu herdsmen walking the center of the runway with the tail end of the herd rounding off a runway horizon. The Zulu herdsmen were in traditional native garb with modern bright yellow rain slickers over their dress ... it was truly an-only-in-Africa sight.

Cattle on the runway

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Read part 2 of Candy's South Africa Flying Safari adventure...

Safari Location: Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa
Safari Company Used: African Flying Safaris, NV, USA
Accommodation: Woodpecker Inn (Richards Bay) and Phinda Game Reserve
Duration: 14 to 23 March
Traveller Details: Candy Johnnie, USA
Rates & Availability: Make a Phinda game reserve enquiry

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