Rupert Parker’s special interest is food and travel but he writes about everything from wilderness adventures to luxury spas. Despite having tasted over 80 countries he’s still hungry for travel.
South Africa has long been a favorite safari destination, and now it’s also focusing on responsible and sustainable tourism. It’s the first destination in the world to offer “Fair Trade for Tourism.”
In this article, guest contributor Rupert Parker recounts his recent South African adventure.
It’s a long flight to Durban but, after a change in Johannesburg, I finally get my first glimpse of the sun and sea. My hotel is right on the front and I can’t resist the urge to take a dip in the Indian Ocean. Far from some of the images we’ve seen of South Africa, the newly developed esplanade is home to joggers, surfers and a rainbow of families enjoying ice cream.
Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve
I travel three hours North, and eventually the fields of sugarcane and forests of eucalyptus give way to native bush. Hluhluwe is the oldest game reserve in Africa, and after a quick lunch at Hluhluwe River Lodge I’m soon at the gates. In the distance is a huge herd of elephants going at quite a pace along the river bed. They’re moving too fast to get any closer but they’ve blown away my scepticism that I may come all the way here and see nothing. Soon there’s an even better treat – two white rhino are in the grass and gradually move on to the road to block my path. Now I’m worrying they’re too close, but the ranger tells me not to worry. Still, one of them does rear its head and give our vehicle a long stare, before ambling back into the bush. As the sun begins to set, a few zebra pass on their way to a water hole.
The next day I’m taken to Phumlani primary school, which is supported by donations from the lodge. It’s break time and the kids are running around the playground. The vice principal tells me that when it rains the earth turns to mud and what they need most are more toilets. I’m happy to know that a portion of my hotel bill will be used to help alleviate some of the poverty in this area.
Phinda Private Game Reserve
Next stop is the Phinda Game Reserve, about an hour away from Hluhluwe. Until 1992 this area was a wasteland of derelict cattle, pineapple and cotton farms. After the fall of apartheid the land was redistributed to the local community who, in turn, decided to lease it to the &Beyond organization. Leopard and hyena were already here, but the rest of the game including cheetahs, lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and white and black rhinos were reintroduced.
It’s around 45 minutes from the gate to the Phinda Mountain Lodge, and on the way I spot warthogs, kudu and a couple of giraffe. The rooms are the ultimate in luxury and all have their own outdoor plunge pool where you can enjoy a soak, keeping an eye out for oncoming wildlife. In fact there are no keys, just in case you have to quickly get out of the way of hungry lion, and at night you have to be escorted to and from the main lodge, for fear of meeting the unexpected.
Game drives here are a two-person operation. There’s the usual ranger driver, but sitting on a seat, exposed out front, is a tracker who’s there to look for traces of the animals. As we pick up the trail of a lion and her two cubs, I’m told the animals here are used to vehicles, so we make our way noisily, blundering through the bush, with a dazzling display of serious off-roading by Brett, our ranger. He gets as close as he can, but the lions are resting under a tree at the edge of a precipice and, although I can see them, it’s too dangerous to take the vehicle any farther.
Back at the waterhole, there are a number of hippos soaking in the water, grunting loudly as we approach. A feature of Phinda game drives is an obligatory refreshment stop, and I enjoy a couple of gin and tonics, watching these marvelous animals.
Rhinos in Danger
Rhino poaching is a serious problem in South Africa, fuelled by demand in Asia for their precious horn. More than 440 were killed last year, and the year’s tally when I arrive was over 200. So far in Phinda they’ve been lucky, but neighboring reserves, including Hluhluwe, have all had their casualties. There are a number of anti-poaching initiatives in KwaZulu-Natal including a dedicated aircraft, but with the price of a horn running at $80,000 on the black market it seems they are fighting a losing battle. Indeed, the black rhino faces a serious threat of extinction if the rate of killing continues to increase. Ironically I never see these animals during the day at Phinda, but have to content myself with night sightings – it seems they are taking their own precautions to avoid the poachers.
Makhasa Zulu Village
As well as offering wildlife safaris, Phinda is keen to show its involvement in the local community. Of course the rent money for the reserve goes to the villagers, but they’ve also built classrooms for one of the village schools and contributed to the cost of the clinic. I take a cultural tour with one of the Zulu workers from Phinda, and see what they’ve been doing for myself. The villagers are keen to show visitors around and even Prince Charles, when he was last here, decided to donate money.
As well as the schools, clinic and local market, I get to visit a Sangoma, a traditional healer and diviner. My guide translates and I get to watch a ceremony, but I feel slightly more comfortable when I visit a Zulu grandmother who tells me all about her culture. About 13,000 people live in the area, and it’s good to know that some of the revenue from tourism is going back into the community. In addition, Phinda regularly brings children and adults into the reserve and puts them in empty rooms so they can understand why conservation of wildlife is so important.
The Big 5
My big worry in coming all the way to Africa was that I would see very little – “You should have been here yesterday” would be all I heard. During my time in Phinda, however, I got to see lion, elephant, buffalo and rhino, four of the “Big 5.” I’m only missing the leopard, which is notoriously difficult to spot, although I’m told the population is on the increase.
It’s easy to get blasé when there is such an abundance of wildlife in front of you. After a while, you begin to regard giraffe, zebra, impala, nyala, kudu, and warthog as commonplace as you track their traditional predators. But this is an extraordinary experience, and the trailing and tracking and occasional disappointments make an essential part of the adventure. There are plans to link up the various reserves in the area, both public and private, to create one huge reserve, and so long as the local community is involved and benefits this can only be a good thing. As one of the rangers observed, “Our job is to track and observe and leave without the animal knowing you are there.” I would add that our job as tourists is to ensure that our travels are sustainable and responsible at every point.
Keep up with Rupert and his travels, planetappetite.com.
Fly.com Expert Tips
How To Get There: King Shaka International Airport (DUR) is one of three international airports in South Africa. It opened back in 2010 just before the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and is located approximately 20 miles north of Durban. It is served by 6 airlines, including British Airways, Emirates, and South African Airways. While you can buy a roundtrip ticket between the U.S. and Durban, we suggest flying to Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB), and then buying a separate ticket between Johannesburg and Durban. This way you can spend a few days in Johannesburg before moving on to Durban, as well as saving yourself some money. On average, a roundtrip ticket between the U.S. and Durban is approximately $350 more than a ticket between the U.S. and Johannesburg. And a roundtrip ticket between Johannesburg and Durban can be bought for under $200.
Best Time To Visit: Durban’s weather is more subtropical, and has over 300 days of sunny weather a year. Even though Durban has winters (May to August), its winters are mild, with the average temperature during the day falling in the high-60s to low-70s range. The peak season for South Africans to travel is mid-December to late-January, as well as during the school holidays in April and July. Weather wise, the best time to go on a safari is between May and November, during the dry season.
Sample Fares: Fares displayed are the lowest roundtrip fares found in the last 48 hours to Johannesburg from:
Chicago — $1,002 Travel Feb. 17-23
Houston — $969 Travel Feb. 6-16
Los Angeles — $1,016 Travel Jan. 27-Feb. 5
New York City — $918 Travel Feb 12-24
Washington, D.C. — $897 Travel Jan. 21-27
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