• Don Heyneke

Privately Guided Safari to Phinda Private Game Reserve

Updated: May 21

In January, Escape Safari Co. hosted our first privately guided safari of the year at Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. This was the perfect escape for two busy businessman and friends who were both in need to get their fix of the African wilderness whilst taking a quick break from the hustle and bustle of the city. I was excited to return to a reserve that has such a wonderful conservation success story, from a pineapple and cattle farmland turned into a well-known reserve for its abundant wildlife, rich diversity of habitats and wide range of safari activities.


Phinda is set within easy reach of the Indian Ocean coastline in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Phinda and the surrounding area contains seven distinct ecosystems and it is often referred to as ‘Seven Worlds of Wonder.’ Thanks to the coastal rainfall pattern, we were able to enjoy a lush green environment, with a variety of landscapes and vegetation, as well as an abundance of wildlife, including many of the lesser spotted species, such as the elusive cheetah and black rhino.


This 5-night, privately guided safari was a combination of 2 nights at Vlei Lodge in the north of Phinda and 3 nights at Rock Lodge in the south of the reserve. There were very important reasons for planning the trip this way. We wanted to explore both the northern and southern regions of the reserve, which is an enormous 40 000 hectares, in as much detail as possible, without having to travel large distances each day to explore the 7 different biomes found on Phinda. Phinda has 6 very unique lodges and so we wanted to enjoy the different experiences offered at two of the lodges. Our main focus for the safari was cheetah viewing, for which Phinda has a great reputation due to the open grasslands in the Northern part of the reserve and the vast grasslands in the far South of the reserve. The weather plays a role on every safari and on this occasion we were met with a few rain showers throughout our stay which often presented us with fresh tracks to follow up on.


Lion Track formed perfectly after the rain

These fresh tracks led us to our first big cat sighting, our local guide and good friend, Matt Durrell and his tracker, used the conditions to perfection and we were led to our first of many lion sightings. Even with the downpour of rain, Matt always made the best of the situation providing us with unforgettable experiences. It was a great start and we knew we had the perfect partner for a 5 night photographic safari.


Even though we were focused on photographing big cats, our guests, Erik and Tom, have always shown their natural interest and appreciation for all the elements of the wilderness. Their patience and understanding allowed us the ability to seek the best photographic opportunities, it also allowed us to take in the great diversity and beautiful vistas come rain or shine. The North of the reserve produced wonderful sightings of lions, including a mating pair of lions, buffalo, white rhino, elephants and a spectacular sighting of a coalition of two male cheetah positioned beneath a rainbow.


Vlei Lodge gave us the sense of a peaceful sanctuary which was well received after our first few drives out in the rain. Whilst overlooking the reserve’s unique vlei (wetland) system on the edge of the rare sand forest, our breakfasts were spent discussing the mornings sightings we had shared together. After spending two nights at Vlei Lodge, we made our way down into the South of the reserve to Rock Lodge which is an architectural delight. It is dramatically set into a cliff face overlooking the spectacular, Leopard Rock. The common area of the lodge and guest rooms offer the perfect vantage points for viewing the reserve’s abundant birdlife in the surrounding trees, and the wildlife roaming the bush below. In our first hour we were met with multiple elephant sightings.


Moving into the South of the reserve we were all secretly hoping to find a leopard. We all knew that the South would give us the best chance of seeing the most elusive creature in the area, the leopard, which has been prosecuted by farmers surrounding Phinda for many years, making them difficult to find due to their shy nature. Some of the best Leopard viewing on Phinda is currently in the South. We had our plan in place and had given ourselves the best opportunity to explore the area and experience all that it had to offer, including the wildlife, habitats and different lodge settings. This gave us a renewed sense of adventure.


Over the 3 nights spent in the South, we had enjoyed amazing sightings of elephants, a cheetah with her cub and two very special leopard sightings. Whilst driving around the reserve, we made sure that we also spent time taking in and appreciating the breathtaking panoramic views all around us.



In and amongst all the exciting sightings we tried tracking a black rhino on foot for 3 hours and spent a night sleeping in the bush. It might sound crazy to sleep out in the bush but I trusted Tom and Erik when we sailed across the rough seas of Baltic ocean together and this time, they trusted me just as much. Erik and Tom will always explore their natural curiosity and the sleep out had to be one of the highlights of the trip! Throughout the night, we heard hyenas, nightjars and lions roaring, all whilst sleeping below towering trees and the stars. This really does awaken our innate connection to the wilderness, it is something you long for once you have felt it.

In essence, the sleep-out and rhino walk captivated what the safari was about, it was about being away from what disconnects us from the natural world and allowing us to feel more connected and we happened to take a couple photographs along the way. More importantly, the experience brought us closer together as friends.


Erik, Don and Tom





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