I stood overlooking the vlei, where a lone giraffe ambled along, pausing occasionally to sample the tender shoots of a Senegalia (previously known as Acacia). Steam rose from my safari coffee and the early morning sun warmed my skin.  ‘Another glorious day in Africa’, I thought, ‘at least it is… now’.

Behind me lay evidence of what this camp once was. The giraffe skulls, a section of vertebra, and an antelope skull all evidence of the hunting camp that once existed under this canopy of trees.

We stop on what was once called the ‘boundary road’, and walk along what was once the fence-line. We hear a tractor coming… Musa Mbuyazi, our tracker, tells us that it is collecting the roles of fencing and poles to be used by local community members to fence off their crops and livestock.

Musa speaks from the heart when he tells of how the community benefit from &Beyond Phinda’s role in conservation and community development – he grew up in the local community and has experienced the positive benefits of this involvement.

We were visiting &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve to find out more about the recent addition of another section of community owned land to their traversing rights. Being no stranger to the concept of working with &Beyond, the Makhasa Community were more than happy to continue their close relationship with &Beyond by leasing the land they had recently acquired through a successful land claim that saw the land returned to its ancestral owners.

It is &Beyond Phinda’s commitment to community empowerment – particularly through the efforts of the Africa Foundation (&Beyond’s social development arm, providing education, health care and infra-structural improvements across Africa) that has resulted in successful relationship-building with the Phinda community. It is these relationships that have been crucial to the reserve’s success and 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.

Musa tells us that the sustainable means of income for his community has meant that the land is no longer used for subsistence farming or consumptive hunting, and that the income generated has lessened the need for many families to relocate to the cities.

He tells that schools have been built and that the youth in his community can now be educated. That they have a place where one meal a day is provided, where libraries offer an escape through reading and where disadvantaged children are given uniforms. He tells that bursaries are offered for studies, and that there is a college offering computer skills and HIV awareness…

He proudly tells us that in 2013 he started working at Phinda as a barman. And in line with &Beyond’s philosophy of promotion from within, he was soon promoted to a butler position. And a short two years later he found his passion in the bush as a tracker… and hopefully in the not too distant future as a ranger – with training provided by &Beyond’s Nkwazi ranger training centre.

Other benefits include an increase in employment opportunities, both within Phinda and in the community. Many 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.

Musa spots leopard tracks in the soft red soil along the fence-line… ‘a Mom and her cubs’ he tells us, ‘probably the leopard we heard calling the night before’. I recall that distinctive call that sounds like someone sawing wood, so close, but yet so far! Perhaps tonight, I muse. But now we have to hurry, Musa has an appointment with guests from the USA, to take them on a tour of his community.

I fondly recall a previous visit to Phinda where I was shown around the immaculately kept school grounds of Mdudla Primary School by a very proud Mr. Sangweni, the headmaster. I smile remembering how a group of little ones sang with delight about traffic lights – ‘green means go, and red means stop’ all accompanied by very animated actions!

Another community success story is the 24-hour Mduku Clinic, which attends to the medical needs of thousands of patients a month, and 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. And the Khulani Special School, where the education needs of children with disabilities ranging from paralysis to hearing and visual impairment. It is the only school within a 300 km radius that looks after children with special needs, and is an absolute blessing for families from neighbouring communities who cannot afford to give their children adequate care.

Thanks to the Africa Foundation, these and many other projects have benefited the local Phinda communities by ‘working with, not working for’ the community.

As much as we enjoyed hearing about all the success stories, no visit to Phinda is complete without a bucket load of memorable experiences and wildlife sightings. These started with a seamless check-in, accompanied by cappuccino and homemade cookies – had the hour been a little later it would have been bubbly or a G&T.

After a breather in our luxurious suite and a light lunch, we set of on our first afternoon game drive – glass water bottle in hand. I love the fact that &Beyond are bottling their own water… as much as potable water is of drinking quality in South Africa, many international guests still prefer water bottles.

With Phinda’s slice of Africa boasting seven distinct habitats – woodland, grassland, wetland and forest, interspersed with mountain ranges, river courses, marshes and pans, there’s a wealth of diversity to be found… from the large African elephant and the tiny secretive Suni antelope that inhabits the sand forest, to the spectacular Crowned eagle and the seemingly insignificant blue waxbill.

Numerous hours were spent in the presence of Lyle, our experienced ranger, and our wonderful tracker Musa as they divulged the secrets of the bush… told tales from the almost invisible tracks in the sand, identified birds and frogs by their call and trees and shrubs by their leaves, bark, fruit and flowers. Each one perfectly created to fulfill its part in this diverse ecosystem.

We followed elephants, watched a white rhino graze peacefully, and laughed at warthogs as they ran off, their tails in the air like little aerials… admired the long lashes of a beautiful giraffe and the flash of colour from a malachite kingfisher.  We watched a dung beetle laboriously roll a ball of dung, careful to protect the eggs it laid within… and watched zebra, wildebeest, impala, nyala and more.

We walked an ancient sea and marveled the perfection of  an ammonite – a fossilised extinct group of marine molluscs.

We sipped G&T’s while watching the sun set over the savannah, heard the call of a fish eagle as it soared overhead and watched the staff dance and sing in celebration of a birthday while dining under the stars. We swam, we napped, we wined and we dined… and we laughed, loved and experienced – all in the space of a couple of days.

It was our last evening and we were beginning to think that the big cats were eluding us this time… that was until Lyle hears on the radio that a young leopard had been spotted, and we were next in line to view her. &Beyond has a strict policy of limiting the number of vehicles at a sighting – this adds to the guest experience and ensures that the animal is not disturbed.

There she lay, seemingly unaware, and glowing under the gentle red light. Lyle tells us that she mated recently… the surrounding hills with their rocky outcrops offering an ideal place for her to have her cubs. Leopards are beautiful cats, sought after for their skin and as hunting trophies.

Thankfully with the addition of the new section of community land, her offspring will be able to find territories of their own, safe from the threat of a hunter’s bullet and in the care of a company and a community that have her best interests, and those of future generations at heart.

This is certainly a place where both wildlife and humans get to Lala Kahle… which means sleep well in Zulu.