A tail flick. That’s all it took Clive, our tracker, to spot a lion sitting on a ledge a quarter mile away. “There,” he said, very quietly, pointing to an open valley in the distance. The Land Rover took off, rumbling through dense bush. Minutes later, we were gazing at a pair of beautiful, thick-maned lions, lounging on a rocky rim flanking the open plain. Mere footsteps away.
There were other spectacular animal sightings: a herd of elephants, a dazzle of zebras, a crash of rhinos, a tower of giraffes, a raft of hippos, a cackle of hyenas, and more. We were on safari in the andBeyond Phinda Private Game Preserve in South Africa, where wildlife viewing is intimate, up-close, and revealing.
The now lush and thriving preserve, regenerated from overgrazed farmland, is the flagship property of andBeyond, a pioneer in eco-tourism, well-known for its conservation efforts and local community involvement. Phinda means “the return,” in Zulu, and the name has proved to be more foretelling than anticipated. In December 2016, the beloved Phinda Homestead safari lodge burnt to the ground. Last September, it returned with the rise-from-the-ashes reopening of the luxury lodge, showcasing Zulu art, design, and culture.
While many luxury safari lodges are quiet and intimate, the Phinda Homestead takes it a step further: a completely private lodge (it’s rented as a whole), sleeping up to 12, with your own safari vehicle, ranger, tracker, butler, chef, and other support staff. Everything, including menus and activities, is customized for your group.
There are four spacious bedrooms, with indoor and outdoor showers, soaking tubs, and private decks. An additional room, with two bunks, is available for kids. The roomy shared areas include indoor and outdoor dining spots, a large living room, a deck with an open-air bar and firepit, a library, and fitness and massage rooms. A swimming pool with a lounging deck overlooks a watering hole frequented by birds, warthogs, antelope, and elephants. A boma, where you’ll experience a traditional outdoor barbecue dinner, has walls made of rhino dung, mud, and grass, built by women in the KwaZulu-Natal community.
More than 90 percent of the furnishings and art at Phinda Homestead is from South African designers, artists, and local community members, thoughtfully curated to pay homage to the Zulu culture. The result is sophisticated, with locally-inspired, story-telling design.
In the living room, hand-painted linen curtains feature an Acacia forest. Modern couches are tossed with pillows made of mud cloth or shweshwe fabric, used in customary South African clothing. There’s a modern take on a Zulu throne chair, and an artsy, fun orange cheetah chair, both commissioned from Casamento, a Cape Town design and upholstery company. There are South African Nguni cattle skins, handmade Zulu ceramics, string art, baskets and beadwork, and lights made of reed and wood fishing baskets or calabash gourds, used by local farmers to collect water. The stunning floor-to-ceiling river reed curtains, found in the bedrooms and other places throughout the property, were handmade by local women, and mimic what hang in the doorways of traditional Zulu homes.
No matter how you do it, an African safari is bucket-list expensive. We asked several travel specialists for average safari prices. They say that generally, low-end, bare-bones safari stays can average about $300 per person, per night. Mid-range stays hover around $750 per person, per night. More private, luxury stays average $1,300 per person, per night — or more. If you’re looking in the luxury range, Phinda Homestead, costing about $6,595 a night for the entire property, packs some value, along with lots of luxury perks. It’s a milestone trip, splurge-worthy option. andBeyond Phinda Homestead, 27 11 809 4300, www.andbeyond.com