Richard's Bay, South Africa
As a child watching Tarzan movies and in later years National Geographic, I was always intrigued (along with Cheryl) with the mystique of Africa. The natives, the jungles, the harsh & often unforgiving environment - a visit or safari seemed so far out of reach - do soft, urbanized ordinary people like us really venture out into the untamed wilderness & co-exist with these majestic animals? Folks do it all the time but granted, it's a bit of a challenge. Once there, you feel you're at the mercy of the elements & its habitants, never turning your back - but what an incredible experience!
Like children anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus, we were both out of bed well before dawn, anticipating our long awaited, two-day African Safari. Up so early was totally unnecessary, and for a number of reasons. One, we packed the night before. Two, we were still a few hours from docking. Three, once docked, we had an immigration inspection to go through with African authorities (passport- to- face). Last, we weren’t scheduled to leave the port until 10:30am. But we were READY! Our sail-in to Richard’s Bay was foggy & damp, but also quite unique. The compulsory harbor pilots don’t arrive by boat, but rather by helicopter. Scheduled drop was 6:00am, but due to high winds & low visibility, the helicopter couldn’t execute a safe mission until 6:15. Descent point was to be the bow of the ship, just a few feet from our stateroom. As the picture here shows, we had a ringside seat. While this was interesting to watch, we thought it was dangerous given the poor weather conditions, but these are professionals accustom to all kinds of conditions.
The dampness turned to rain & didn't stop until mid-morning. Cheryl and I had our face-to-face meeting with immigration at 9:30, granted clearance, and met our small tour group of twenty couples at 10:30. We dropped our luggage and boarded our bus, departing at 11:00. We were looking forward to a scenic trip to the outback lodge, but Mother Nature had other plans. All the windows in the bus were completely saturated with condensation – we could barely see a thing! Additionally, the tour guide’s microphone, which she said worked fine during a test earlier in the morning, sounded like she was in an echo chamber. Not a great start! Within 15 minutes, the mic issue was taken care of and after about a half-hour, the windows began to clear as the AC output was increased. We now started to see the countryside of South Africa, passing many interesting Zulu communities along the way. Zulu means heaven…and kwaZulu means people of heaven. Zululand includes most of the central province here. Zulu homes are small & round with thatched roofs - from what we could see from the bus, the villages are much the same as what we saw in Madagascar – a fascinating, enduring culture of an ancient people and land. No time to stop, however. Phinda Mountain was our destination, and on we drove for about 200 miles until the paved roadway turned to dirt.
More Photos Coming Once We Reach Cape Town & Free Internet
It was nearly 3pm as the bus came to a halt, unable to traverse the narrow dirt path ahead. We were then met by five, 4X4 open-air jeeps. Each jeep holds twelve people. A driver & one passenger in the front seat, a ‘spotter’ who sits above the left headlamp (in a special seat) on the hood, and then three tiered levels of seats behind the driver, each tier holding 3 people. The elevated seating arrangement allows all passengers a perfectly unobstructed view from every direction. Within minutes we were off the bus, loaded in jeeps, and heading to the lodge.
When we booked this excursion, we did so based on the recommendation of a gentleman (named Leslie) from the Excursion Office onboard the ship. Leslie’s been with Holland America for several years – we met him on last year’s voyage. We’ve always found Leslie to be VERY knowledgeable and helpful with all our destinations and excursions, so last year we went to him and simply said, “Leslie, we’ve never been to Africa, we want to go on a safari, what do you recommend?” He answered with one word. He said, “Phinda.” “You can’t go wrong with Phinda, it’s an absolute fantastic experience!” So, we took Leslie’s advice and booked this Phinda place, a location we’d never heard of before. We booked it, and for several months, just tucked it away because the safari itself was so far in the future.
I’m not sure what we were expecting at this Phinda endpoint …maybe a hut with bunk beds? A tent with sleeping bags?? How ‘bout a blanket on the ground next to a campfire??? Frankly, we didn’t care – Leslie said it would be a good experience and we left it at that – we did no research – nothing. We packed two days of clothing & some toiletries…we were off!
The trip from the point we loaded the jeeps to our arrival at Phinda Lodge was no more than 10 minutes. No one was prepared for what was waiting for us. Nestled in thick trees & underbrush were 22 Zulu-style cottages with thatch roofs – the lodge itself was largely open-air, a beautiful dining room, a cocktail lounge with several comfortable sofas, a towering fireplace, and a small gift shop. The design of the entire facility carried an African Zulu-style theme - it was impeccably clean and decorated with extraordinary elegance at every turn. All staff members of the lodge were out front to greet us as we arrived. We were directed into the dining room where a buffet lunch was waiting, and as we enjoyed some great food, our itinerary for the next two days was reviewed in detail. Our afternoon/evening game drive was scheduled to leave at 4:00pm, so following late lunch, we only had a short time to get settled in our cottages. First rule, however, was NEVER walk from the lodge to your cottage without an armed guard. Why?? There were no fences protecting the lodge – the animals were free to come and go, and the Lions generally hunt their prey between sunset & sunrise. Looking a little closer out the dining room windows at that point, we could see Nyalas, Impalas, & Wart Hogs…just wandering around the property, apparently part of the greeting committee! Welcome to Africa!
Come to find out, Phinda is one of the world’s leading experimental travel companies, designing personalized luxury safaris in 16 African countries, as well as India, Bhutan, & Sri Lanka. The company owns & operates 32 extraordinary lodges and camps in Africa & India’s wilderness high spots, all rated 5-star.
We were escorted to our cottage and given a brief tour – it was surprisingly large for the two of us. Again, a Zulu-style structure with a thatch roof. A large foyer led to a beautiful bedroom with vault ceilings. Just adjacent, a sunken living room leading to a patio with a private plunge pool! There was a completely stocked mini-bar and again to our surprise, absolutely free. The bathroom was extraordinary – a freestanding bathtub perched on a slight ledge with one-way floor to ceiling glass enabling you to watch the animals as you bathed. We were stunned with this facility – such comfort & views - it was amazing – but we needed to get unpacked and prepared for our afternoon trip. Comically, the guard told us to be sure to latch the sliding doors by the patio because the Monkeys knew the cottages always stocked fudge & pineapples – he said, “Trust me, you don’t want these monkeys running around your room or going through your luggage!” Definitely not advice you get after arriving at a Hampton Inn back home!
The rain stopped around 3:30 but it was very windy & cold – we didn’t mind. We loaded the jeeps and headed in separate directions. The ‘spotters’ were in constant radio communication – if one jeep found a certain group of animals, the other jeeps were notified and off we’d go…chasing them through the outback. The narrow roads were bumpy with potholes & rocks - the brush was very thick. In total, we saw 14 different species. I’ll list them here individually but before doing so, I’ll share with you that the most spectacular for us were the Lions, Elephants, & Giraffes. The Giraffes were unlike any we’ve seen in a zoo – they were huge – towering over the tall trees. The Elephants had extremely long ivory tusks, were absolutely mammoth at several tons, and one of them actually stood on his back legs as he attempted to pull down a large tree to feast on the fruit growing toward the top – amazing! By far, the most astounding experience was watching a Lion take down a Wildebeest and feed his family. Within just a few feet of our jeep, we sat in silence for about 30 minutes and watched several Lions eat the large animal – in some of the photos, you can actually see one Lion eating the ribcage as the cubs wrestle with the head. While I felt so sorry for the Wildebeest because of my love for animals, I had to remind myself that this was all part of natural survival here. The only time during the safari I felt uneasy or threatened was when the large male Lion approached our jeep and walked within perhaps 6 feet of my seat. The guide told me to stay down as he raised his rifle. The Lion paused momentarily, growled, licked his lips, & continued on his way. Cheryl did a great job capturing photos as I was about to become the Lions dessert – notice the expression on my face! Yikes!!
Our sightings included: White Rhinos, Nyalas, Lions, Cheetahs, Jackals, Elephants, Hippos, Wart Hogs, Bush Pigs, Giraffes, Buffalos, Wildebeests, Impalas, Zebras, Monkeys, Birds, and several other 4-legged animals we couldn’t readily identify.
It started raining again shortly before sunset, but we were all given ponchos and just kept going. It was miserably cold, but the animals seemed to enjoy the break from the heat and they were out everywhere. We were back at the lodge by 7:30pm and while the finishing touches were being put on dinner, all 40 of us sat around the huge fireplace drinking cocktails and sharing stories about what everyone had seen. Amazing experience for our group – there were some people on the safari who hadn’t cracked a smile since we left Ft. Lauderdale in January – but they were smiling on this night!
Following a wonderful dinner, we were finished by 9:00 and escorted to our room. Each cottage was situated to the extent that you had total privacy – you felt as though it was just you & the animals. The wind was still howling and the rain continued. We were exhausted, but couldn’t help but reflect for quite a while on the many special moments during our first game drive.
Wake up call was 5:00am – our guard knocked on the door at 5:30 and escorted us to the lodge for coffee. By 5:45 we were back in our jeeps and off on our final game drive. It was still dark when we left and quite chilly, but we didn’t mind. I won’t bore you with additional commentary here, but suffice it to say we had another extraordinary experience, returning to the lodge for breakfast at 9:00, packing, and departing the lodge at 10:30 to meet our bus at the beginning of the paved road. As we were packing, we looked up and noticed a beautiful Nyala outside our room. I had some graham crackers in my bag brought from the ship in case I needed a snack – would a Nyala eat crackers? We went outside and the large animal jumped a few steps away initially. I opened the package and threw one of the crackers his way. Retrieving it meant he had to take a couple steps closer to us - ever so slowly & stretching his neck, he finally got it with his reaching tongue. His ears perked immediately and really seemed to be enjoying it! Next thing we knew, he came closer, obviously wanting more. I had plenty, and within 5 minutes, Cheryl was hand-feeding this beautiful ‘wild’ animal – it was awesome!
As you view the photos below, please keep in mind we had 2 cameras going so the quality & size varies from one to the next, & weather conditions changed frequently.
If I had to summarize this experience in a few words, I would simply share with you that travel is more than having a destination in mind. It is discovering a place in your heart you’ve never been before…and I did. We both did.
During our safari, the ship left Richard’s Bay and journeyed south to Durbin where we were to reunite with our home-away-from home late afternoon. The bus trip to Durbin was very nice – actually remarkable. The landscape is very similar to north Florida, Oregon, & South Carolina – very green, lush, & scenic. There’s a lot of sugarcane, eucalyptus trees, & pineapple fields…who would have thought?! Our route to the pier took us past the stadium where the World Cup was held in 2010 along with many other significant landmarks. Durbin itself has many nice areas along the coast and downtown area, but the farther inland you go, they have many challenges with poverty & modernization. We were back on the ship by 4:00 and totally exhausted. There was an outdoor BBQ scheduled at 5:30 – we decided to attend this informal event because we didn’t have to change from our safari cloths. Coincidentally, the menu consisted of many of the animals we shared the past two days with – no thank you – we just couldn’t do it – we had fish instead.