Phinda … a hand-up, not a hand-out

The breakfast spread at Phinda Forest Lodge

At first glance this could be any other private game reserve in Africa, with its incredible wildlife experiences, sumptuous cuisine and wonderfully luxurious suites, but pause a moment and you will discover an authentic African experience that has more than just your pleasure at heart. Taking the &Beyond philosophy of ‘care for the land; care for the wildlife; care for the people’ to heart Phinda Private Game Reserve delivers on all accounts and goes way beyond expectation. 

An easy three hour drive from Durban, &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal, is known for its abundant wildlife, diversity of habitats and wide range of activities. Phinda enjoys a variety of landscape and vegetation which is home not only to the Big Five, but also many rarer and less obvious species, such as the elusive cheetah and black rhino. With only a handful of lodges sharing an area in excess of 23 000 hectares and careful trained rangers and trackers guests are assured an exclusive game viewing experience.

Meaning “The Return” in Zulu, Phinda is a wonderful example of successful responsible tourism – firstly restoring misused farmland to its pristine state over 20 years ago, restocking it with the Big Five and other wildlife and developing it into an award-winning ecotourism destination; and then returning the land to its ancestral owners.

It is this commitment to community empowerment and relationship-building with the Phinda community, particularly through the efforts of Africa Foundation (&Beyond’s social development arm, providing education, health care and infra-structural improvements across Africa) that has been crucial to the reserve’s success. This pioneering land-claim settlement proves that when communities surrounding conservation areas truly feel the benefit of responsible tourism, they too will support ongoing conservation and biodiversity of pristine reserves for the benefit of future generations.

The result of a sustainable means of income for Phinda’s surrounding communities has meant that the land is not used for subsistence farming or consumptive hunting, and the income generated for families has lessened the need to relocate to the cities. Not only has there been a dramatic increase in employment but many others have been empowered by the Foundation’s skills development programmes to become successful entrepreneurs e.g.: the Mduku Builders’ Association was formed by one successful group of students who were taught various house building skills and are now equipped to work on projects for Phinda as well as in the surrounding community; and the Dongwelethu Poultry Project, which was established as a cooperative and provides chicken and eggs into the local community, but whose objective is to grow the business to a point where they can be the procurement source for Phinda’s lodges. A new development in the pipeline is a market garden project that will see local farmers being able to provide the lodges with their fresh produce.

Guests are offered the opportunity to visit the local communities, and I had the pleasure of visiting a few of the community success stories. At the local Mdula Primary School Mr. Sangweni, the headmaster, was very proud to show me around the immaculately kept school grounds and introduce me to some of the learners… a group of little ones were delighted to sing a song about traffic lights – ‘green means go, and red means stop’ accompanied by very animated actions!

The building of the 24-hour Mduku Clinic, which attends to the medical needs of approximately 3,500 patients a month, has seen the standards of healthcare in the in the area improve dramatically – the closest clinic was 30 kilometres away, not easy with limited public transport. We also visited the Khulani Specia lSchool, where six educators and 14 volunteers see to the education needs of 115 children with disabilities ranging from paralysis to hearing and visual impairment.

Khulani is the only school within a 300 km radius that looks after children with special needs from neighbouring communities whose families cannot afford to give them adequate care. Thanks to the Africa Foundation, these and many other projects have benefited the local Phinda communities. One thing that was very evident is the ethos of ‘working with, not working for’ the community – Mr. Sangweni’s parting words, ‘the Foundation works with the school governing body and has empowered them,’ summed this up.

Herd of buffalo

Small herd of buffalo

A lioness

A lioness

Most guests to Phinda come for the wildlife, and will without a doubt leave with memorable moments, and sometimes close encounters of the wild kind. Not that wildlife experiences are defined by this, but on our first game drive we had the privilege of seeing the Big Five – which included both white- and black rhino, as well as cheetah (twice)! And as if that wasn’t enough, we had a rare sighting of an aardvark the next night too, thanks to Tom, our amazing tracker.

This is in addition to having Matt, our ranger, share his passion, knowledge and understanding of the bush and its inhabitants with us at every opportunity… he identified birds (and frogs) by their call, inspired us with stories of poison milk (from the Tamboti tree) and cocktail ants as well as Old Man’s Beard and Rhipsalis baccifera (South Africa’s only true cactus). We learnt about biomes and habitats and got to explore the SandForest on the trail of a Narina Trogon and watch a dung beetle roll his prize with much urgency.

And then, if this sounds like too much effort, got to enjoy a G&T watching the sun set over the savannah… just another rough day in Africa!


Words – Tessa Buhrmann / pics – Tessa Buhrmann, &Beyond

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