I’ve always wanted to go on an African safari. When the school calendar was released in February 2015 and I noticed spring break was a little bit longer than usual in 2016, I decided it would be the perfect time to go.
Deciding Where To Go
I was a little overwhelmed by where to begin with the planning. First and foremost, what country should we visit? This decision quickly took care of itself based on the time we would need to travel. As we wanted to go during the kids’ spring break in late March/early April, the only real option was South Africa. In the more northern African countries like Tanzania and Kenya, this would be the rainy season and I was advised by several helpful people on TripAdvisor that South Africa was the place to go at that time of year. Truthfully, I was a little relieved to have this decision made for me!
Kruger National Park is probably the best known park in South Africa, and where I immediately assumed we would go. But further research revealed private game reserves, something I didn’t know existed. Sabi Sands is a very popular choice right outside of Kruger and offers lots of lodge options. The downside for me, however, was that I really wanted to spend a few days at the beach and Sabi Sands is not close to the coast. It would take at full day of travel to get from Sabi Sands to the coast, and I really didn’t want to spend a full day of our limited vacation time in transit. Further research revealed a private game reserve called Phinda (pronounced Pinda) that looked promising. Located near the iSimangaliso wetland reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Phinda is a 65,000 acre reserve featuring 7 distinct ecosystems. It is so large that there are actually 6 separate lodges spread out over the reserve! It is part of the &Beyond family of lodges.
As for the beach time, I was surprised at how few options there were for beach resorts nearby. Ultimately, I stumbled upon the website for Thonga Beach Lodge and knew my search was over. Set on the Maputuland coast of KwaZulu-natal, the 12 or so luxury “huts” are set into the mountainside overlooking an absolutely pristine stretch of beach. As far as you can see in either direction, there is not another lodge, hotel, or even house to be seen. The beach is truly deserted except for Thonga guests.
I decided on 3 nights at Thonga and 5 nights at Phinda. At this point, I knew it would be helpful to use an agent who specializes in safaris, and I ultimately connected with Dianne Williams of Africa Direct. Dianne suggested staying at 2 different lodges within Phinda, as each lodge is in a different ecosystem, so the experience would be different. Dianne had actually stayed at Phinda with her own family, so I trusted she knew what she was talking about even though we typically prefer not moving rooms whenever possible.
All of this, of course, was contingent on finding frequent-flyer mile flight availability for 5 people. And I wouldn’t be able to book those flights until about 11 months out. So I booked Thonga and Phinda and crossed my fingers.
When the magic 11-month window finally opened, I began my search. I had a stockpile of United miles, so I started with Star Alliance. Fortunately, there is a direct flight between Dulles and Johannesburg on United’s partner South African Airways. There were no seats available on the flight over, but there were 5 seats on the return so I grabbed them. South African Airways also had a direct flight from JFK to Johannesburg, and there were 5 seats available and I was able to tack on a flight from Washington to Newark the night before for the same amount of miles. The round-trip cost was 80,000 United miles each. I was really shocked to discover that I could not pre-select our seats on the flights, which would prove to be a nail biter for me pretty much up to the time of departure!
With the flights in place, Dianne helped me secure the internal flights and transportation. We would land in Johannesburg at 8:30 am and fly to Durban via a British Airways flight at 10:30 am. From there we would rent a car and drive 2.5 hours to Saint Lucia and the iSimangaliso wetland reserve, where we would spend the night at Lodge Afrique. Dianne arranged transportation for the next day to Thonga, where we would spend 3 nights, then we would be transported to Phinda, where we would spend our last 5 nights. Phinda has its own airstrip, and our flight back to Johannesburg on our final day would be directly from Phinda.
What to Bring?
Because our final flight would be on a 9-seater plane, we were not able to bring hard-sided wheeled luggage. We each brought a duffel bag, which was honestly all we needed. Knowing that Phinda had complimentary laundry service meant we could pack light. We each brought a single pair of lightweight hiking-style pants and a sweatshirt/light jacket, and sneakers/hiking shoes, all of which we wore on the plane, and packed 3 pair of shorts, 4 shirts, swimsuits, flip flops, a hat, and a few pair of socks and underwear. We didn’t buy any special “safari” clothes, but wore the same shorts and t-shirts we would have worn at home. We had read we should dress in layers each day, but it turned out in our late March/early April visit, it was warm every day and we never wore the pants.
Dianne suggested we rent binoculars. I never would have thought to do this, but it ended up being really great to have them. We rented from lenserentals.com, which also rents cameras and lenses. As for a camera, I brought my Nikon 1 J1, and the NIKKOR VR 70-300mm telephoto lens.
And We’re Off!
Days 1 &2 – After a loooong day at work, our flight from Washington to Newark departed at 9:30 pm and was a quick hour to landing. I looked at the cost of Uber or a private car service from Newark to JFK, but at $200+ I decided it made more sense to rent a car and drive ourselves. Although one-way rentals are typically more, we paid a grand total of $36. I used Club Carlson points for 2 rooms at the Radisson JFK. The day of our departure, the hotel called me to say that they had upgraded us to a two-room suite. This hotel was fine for our purposes. The room was spacious and clean, although the hotel in general could probably use a little freshening. Breakfast not included!
Our flight from JFK to JNB departed at 11:30 am, so we didn’t need to be up too early. I was stressing about not having assigned seats, but fortunately we were given 5 seats across at check in. The plane was a 2-4-2 configuration and we had the middle 4 and one across the aisle, which sounded terrible but wasn’t bad at all. We heard many, many travelers going to the desk asking if there was anything that could be done to get their seats together. For a 15 hour flight, it was nice not to be separated.
Other than the lack of ability to preselect seats, I loved South African Airways. There is no “economy plus” seating to be gouged for; instead all of the seats have pretty good legroom. The flight attendants were friendly, every seat had a personal entertainment center that worked, and the food was decent by airline standards.
Day 3 – Our flight landed ahead of schedule and we headed to the customs line, which was loooong. Unbelievably, my husband ran into someone he knew in the line! We grabbed some breakfast and soon it was time for our connecting flight to Durban. It would have been much more convenient to fly to Richards Bay, but the flights don’t operate every day and today was not a flight day. The British Airways flight to Durban was a quick hour and we headed to the Avis rental counter where I had reserved a small SUV. As we wanted some cash for tipping, we stopped by an ATM, but our Capital One bank card would not work! We tried using our Chase Sapphire for a cash advance and that wouldn’t work either. Hmmm. We decided to deal with it later so we exchanged the cash we had for South African Rand and paid the crazy exchange fees.
The kids (ages 16, 13, 11 at time of travel) were surprised by the steering wheel on the “wrong” side as they have never travelled in a country with left side driving. We set out for Saint Lucia, which was about 2 hours and 45 minutes away. Although none of us had slept much on the plane, we were all holding up pretty well. The drive was mostly highway, but we were surprised how many pedestrians were walking along the road and it was not an “easy” drive by any means. But soon we were pulling into our accommodations for the evening in Saint Lucia, Lodge Afrique.
Lodge Afrique was lovely! We had one unit and the kids had another across an elevated walkway.
The rooms were beautiful, including the bathrooms. We were greeted by Johann who gave us some tips on things to do, places to eat. It was about 4:00 pm and we had to decide whether to take a nap (which would have felt soooooo good) or power through, go get some dinner, and turn in early. We decided on the later. Johann suggested St. Lucia Ski Boat Club, which had outdoor seating right on the Saint Lucia river.
The atmosphere was good, and we were able to have our first hippo spotting. The food was ok, nothing to write home about. On the drive back to Lodge Afrique, we had to stop to let a hippo cross the road. We also saw a monkey, and a pretty big snake crossing the road.
Day 4 – Breakfast was included at Lodge Afrique, and we enjoyed it outside while Johann came by and showed the kids the resident turtles and also some dung beetles, which are huge!
Soon we were checking out and on our way to our first activity, a horseback riding safari with Bhangazi Safaris. They offer a traditional safari on horseback, a beach ride, or a combination of the two. We chose the combination, which lasted about 2.5 hours. We got a little lost on the way as there is absolutely no signage, but we finally made it. It turned out to be just the five of us, along with two guides. We really enjoyed this experience. The first hour is through grasslands filled with wildebeest, zebra, impala, warthogs, water bucks, and other animals I cannot remember. Our first sightings! It was fun to be so close to the animals.
Then we headed onto the beach. Wow, our first glimpse of the Indian Ocean!
The beach was gorgeous. It was Easter Sunday and there were people on the beach, including large groups of Zulu children who very aggressively ran after the horses and grabbed at them, which was a little unnerving. But soon it was over and we were on our way to the car rental drop- off location, where we would be picked up and transported to Thonga Beach Lodge. Fortunately there was a burger place there, so we grabbed some quick lunch while waiting for our driver. Tim arrived soon, and was very friendly and outgoing. The drive took about 3 hours, and I was glad we were just passengers as the route involved lots of traffic circles, speed bumps, and pedestrians along the road. The highlight was a giraffe sighting along the way! Soon we were at Coastal Cashew Factory, the appointed spot where staff from Thonga pick you up for the last 45 minutes in an open-air vehicle.
Thonga Beach Lodge
We were a few minutes late and our driver from Thonga was waiting for us. Once again, it was just the five of us. The ride was fun, part of the adventure and you absolutely have to have four wheel drive to get to the resort! Along the way, a dung beetle flew in the vehicle and was crawling on our feet. We spent quite a bit of time getting him back out of the vehicle. Those dung beetles are big!
When we pulled up at Thonga, we were greeted by the managers, Ashley and Yolanda, who were waiting for us. I felt like it was right out of Fantasy Island with Mr. Rourke and Tattoo waiting for us. The Jeep, the Jeep!
We were given a quick tour and shown our rooms. Thonga is a series of thatched cottages built into the side of a mountain overlooking a gorgeous stretch of uninhabited beach. Although each cottage could easily have an ocean view, because they are prohibited from disturbing the vegetation, only the two highest units have ocean views. These two rooms also have private decks with plunge pools. I reserved one of these rooms for my husband and me, and a standard cottage across the way for the kids.
We loved the rooms. We loved everything about the resort. Meals were all served on the deck, and the food was very good.
Drinks (not included in the all-inclusive price) were available before dinner, which started around 8:00 pm. Small children must have dinner earlier and have a special kids menu, but our kids were given the option of eating the regular menu with us. There were generally two main-course options, and both always sounded delicious. I cannot recall all of the options, but we had nyala, ostrich, pork, and several fish dishes during our stay. Breakfast was a combination buffet and ordered egg options, with amazing fresh fruit, and lunch was always a buffet of salads, meats, and cheeses.
Each night before dinner, the activities director would come around and ask what you wanted to do the next day. The options were snorkeling, a kayak outing, a forest walk, a cultural tour of a local school and clinic (not available while we were there because schools were closed for the Easter holiday), a sundowner trip, an ocean experience (additional fee), and a diving excursion (additional fee). There is also a spa on site with very inexpensive rates, two pools, and of course, the ocean!
Day 5 – After breakfast, we headed to the marine center for our 11:00 snorkel excursion, which must be done at low tide. After being fitted with masks and fins, we walked down the beach to a rocky point where we entered the water. It was incredibly warm. It wasn’t exactly teeming with fish, but there was plenty to see near the coral –including a squid- and we spent about an hour in the water with our guide and a few other guests. After walking back to the lodge and having lunch, we were ready for some beach time. I also managed to sneak in a massage at the spa! The kids really enjoyed the beach. The waves are big – too big for small children, but my kids are strong swimmers and they love riding the waves.
Thonga provides lounge chairs on a wooden platform overlooking the beach, which was a great vantage point for watching the kids. There is also water on the deck, and drinks can be delivered.
After dinner, we headed out for our sundowner trip to nearby Lake Sibaya. This was really fun. The five of us and four other guests climbed into the open-air vehicle for the 20 minute drive to the lake. Our driver and guide was the very personable Bheki, and we saw lots and lots of cattle along the way, as well as a school and several houses, most without electricity or indoor plumbing.
The lake is beautiful! Although we had hoped to see hippos, it was a windy evening and hippos tend to stay in the water in the wind. Nevertheless, the sunset over the lake was gorgeous and we enjoyed drinks on the shore. This was our introduction to Amarula Cream, an alcoholic drink made from the fruit of the marula tree that is absolutely delicious!
Day 6 – Today we decided to just relax on our own. After breakfast, we lounged on our private deck with our feet in the pool and the kids played several rounds of Uno in their room. K and I decided to take a walk on the beach and the kids moved onto our deck while we were gone. It was a pleasant surprise to see them all reading when we returned! Did I mention there is no WiFi in the rooms at Thonga??? We really enjoyed our beach walk. The beach is pristine – no seaweed and no rocks, just a few shells. There are no other resorts along this isolated stretch of beach, and it was amazing to walk and walk without running into anyone else. There were lots of ghost crabs running along the water’s edge, and they were very fun to watch. If we had been there in January/February, we would have been able to see the sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
While we were having lunch, we noticed that there were openings on that evening’s sundowner trip, so we decided to do it again. It was a less windy day, so we were hoping for some hippo and croc sightings. We spent the afternoon at the beach, followed by dinner, then we were off for the sundowner with Bheki again. This time, we saw several hippos and flamingos, another gorgeous sunset, and enjoyed our Amarula again.
Day 7 – Our final day at Thonga! Our vehicle would depart at 11:00 am to take us back to Coastal Cashew Factory, so we signed up for the 7:30 am kayak trip to Lake Sibaya. Again, Bheki was our guide. The kayaks were all doubles, so K and Son1 took one, Son2 and Son3 took one, and I rode with Bheki. Two other guests from Belgium were also along and rounded out the group. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any hippos or crocs, but it was fun to kayak on the lake.
We got back around 9:30 am, had some breakfast, packed up our stuff, and went to check out. My Visa card was rejected, but finally my Discover card went through! Although we were sad to leave Thonga, we were all anxious for our safari adventure to begin! Our Thonga driver took us back to the Coastal Cashew Factory, where our driver was waiting for us to take us to Phinda.
This drive took 2 hours, which was definitely longer than I was expecting. As soon as we entered the gates of Phinda, however, the safari magic began! We spotted zebra, some fighting wildebeest, and even a giraffe on our way to the lodge.
Our stay at Phinda consisted of 3 nights at Mountain Lodge, followed by 2 nights at Forest Lodge. Mountain Lodge is the largest of Phinda’s 6 lodges, and is comprised of 25 units.
We arrived at Mountain Lodge around 2:00 and were immediately greeted in the main lodge and introduced to the staff. We hadn’t eaten, but fortunately lunch was still being served.
Following lunch, we headed to our rooms. We had two separate rooms, but at Mountain Lodge the chalets are doubles, so our rooms conveniently were in the same chalet with a connecting door. Our room had a king-sized bed, and the kids room had 3 beds. Each side had its own luxury bathroom, and private plunge pool on a private deck.
At 3:30, we made our way back to the lodge to meet with our ranger for our stay, Amy. Amy is one of only two female rangers at Phinda, and we were so lucky to have her! She was so fun! She asked each of us what we were hoping to see during our stay, and made a point to make sure all of our expectations were met. She was really great with the kids, and just an all-around pleasure to be with.
In addition to a ranger, you are also assigned to a tracker. Ours was Mlusi, a very experienced tracker who my kids deemed a “wizard” based on his ability to spot even the most elusive animals.
Around 4:00, we headed to our vehicle, an open-air Land Rover with three rows of seating. We were surprised when we learned it would just be our family!
Within minutes, we had spotted warthogs, buffalo, nyala, and impala. Soon we came upon a male elephant, and then some zebra and giraffe, including a very young baby giraffe. Other animals we saw that afternoon included a python, some baboons, a jackal, a jenette, and cheetahs. We had no idea how close we would get to the animals! They are so used to seeing the vehicles that they really just ignore them. So long as you stay in the vehicle, and stay seated, the animals view the vehicles and people as one non-threatening thing, which they pretty much ignore.
Just before sunset, we stopped for a sundowner. Amy and Mlusi pulled out a folding table and set up a full bar with snacks.
Once it was dark, we spotted a hyena nursing a cub. Apparently these are pretty elusive, and we were lucky to get to see it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture because of the lighting. Then we moved on to a watering hole where Amy believed we would find some lions, and sure enough, after waiting a little while, a lioness and her cubs walked right past our vehicle and had a drink.
As we headed back to the lodge, Amy told us that we were in for a special treat, an area where some of the largest fireflies we will ever see are active. As we rounded a corner, we couldn’t believe the sight. It was so bright it looked like candles. Then we realized it was candles! Dinner that evening was being served out in the bush, and Amy had played a little trick on us.
We got out of the vehicle and had an opportunity to use the bathroom and wash up before being seated. Amy joined us for dinner and we had a great time getting to know her, including learning all about what it takes to become a ranger. We learned it is a long and grueling process, including “survivor”-like tests and nights spent sleeping in the bush. Once you become a ranger, your schedule is 6 weeks of working every single day, followed by 2 weeks off. Amy had been a ranger for about a year, and was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. She uses her “off” time to travel, including going on safaris in other locations!
Dinner was a very good selection of local foods. We were anxious to get back to the room, though, as we were all exhausted. You are not permitted to walk alone to your room in case of an animal encounter, so we got our escort and made it back just before 9:00. We were in bed and fast asleep in no time.
Day 8 – Our first full day at Phinda Mountain Lodge. Our days began with a 5:30 wake-up call. We quickly headed to the lodge for some coffee/juice and cookies, and then we were off on the morning game drive. Once again, it was just our family with Amy and Mlusi. This morning it was all about rhinos, both black and white. But we also saw cheetah and lionesses, and of course, lots and lots of nyala and impala – or as Amy called them – trash animals! They are everywhere. But so cute.
Just like during the evening drive, we took a drink/snack break during the drive. Mlusi put together a concoction called a Mocachocarula – a combination of coffee, cocoa, and Amarula. Delicious!
Day 9 – Another great day spent in the bush! Today, we were joined by a very nice couple from Holland, Claudia and John. Although we were disappointed at first to have to share our safari vehicle, they were easy going and friendly and we enjoyed their company.
Amy invited Son3 to be her “co-pilot” up front which he thoroughly enjoyed.
We had some exciting finds on today’s drives. First, we came upon a scene where 2 cheetahs had just made a kill but were being chased away by 3 lions, who stole the kill. The lions dined on antelope and a crocodile.
Then later, we came across a lion who had just killed a zebra. We watched, mesmerized, as the lion tore the zebra apart just a few feet from our vehicle, then walked right by us, bloody, to get a drink.
Also on this drive we headed to a large watering hole, as Claudia really wanted to see hippos. We got there just at sunset, which was the perfect time to see the hippos as they started emerging from the water. There were lots of crocodiles at this watering hole, as well.
Today was April 1 – April Fool’s Day. Amy wanted to play a joke about a leopard spotting and brought along a stuffed leopard on the evening drive. She helped Son3 make a sign that said “April Fools” which he brought along. Just before heading back in for dinner, she radioed to the other vehicles that we had spotted a leopard and put the stuffed leopard under a bush. Another vehicle close by decided to come check it out. As they approached, they turned on their spotlight and we all yelled “April Fools.” The other ranger immediately put his vehicle in reverse and drove away. He did not look amused! Amy told us that that ranger was actually her boyfriend!
Day 10 – Our last game drive at Mountain Lodge. Amy surprised us with an amazing location for our morning break already set up when we arrived with croissants, fruit, and champagne! The little touches like this really made our stay memorable.
Following breakfast, Amy was to drive us to Forest Lodge, but at the last minute she was called to a meeting, and asked the other female ranger, Rickie, to take us. The drive took an hour, and Rickie treated it like a game drive, stopping to see interesting things. The animals that are out in the middle of the day are different than what you see in the early morning or later in the day. We saw more interactions between animals, including a few areas where zebra, giraffe, warthog, wildebeest, and lions were all together. It was a great bonus drive!
Upon arriving at Forest Lodge, we immediately saw how different it was. There are 16 units, it is in a sand forest, and all of the rooms are on stilts. The rooms are all freestanding glass houses, which were beautiful. However, even though they are spacious, only two people are allowed in each room, so our 16 year old had his own room, our 13 and 11 year old boys had their own room, and we had ours. Obviously this wouldn’t work for families with very small children or those whose kids are a little less independent. Our kids loved it. Except at one point when our younger boys called us to tell us monkeys were trying to break into their room!
Monkeys were much more prevalent at Forest Lodge than at Mountain Lodge. In fact, the wait staff at Forest Lodge spends quite a bit of time chasing monkeys away.
As for the food, we preferred the meals at Forest Lodge to Mountain. Although the quality at both was excellent, most meals at Forest were ordered from a menu, while the meals at Mountain were primarily served buffet style.
Our ranger at Forest Lodge was Wayne. He was about as different from Amy as a person could possibly be! As one of the most “senior” rangers, he has been at Phinda for 5 years. Although he didn’t have the same fun personality as Amy, he was very nice and extremely knowledgeable. He had spoken with Amy prior to our first drive, and knew what we had already seen and what we had hoped to see at Forest Lodge. We wanted to see the large herd of elephants at Forest, a male lion, and a leopard. And Wayne was not going to rest until we saw them all!
That first evening Wayne and our tracker, Dan, found a male lion, and we were absolutely amazed by the incredible herds of elephants.
The leopard, however, remained elusive. Following that drive, we enjoyed dinner in the boma with Wayne, and got to know him a little better.
Day 11 – Our full day at Forest. We set out to find a male lion again, this time in the daylight. But it was not to be. Instead, we found a cheetah at a watering hole clearly waiting for a meal to come by. Wayne was so sure this cheetah was ready to hunt that we settled in and spent close to an hour watching and waiting. But nothing ever came by (where were those omnipresent trash animals???), and eventually we decided to move on.
As we approached the lodge at the end of the morning drive, Wayne asked if we wanted to go for a short walk. The walk was great. We saw some of the “smaller” animals such as insects and birds up close, and Wayne truly was a treasure-trove of information.
The afternoon drive, however, turned into a rainy affair. Although Wayne had ponchos for us, we saw very little and were happy to cut it a little short.
Day 12 – Our last day at Phinda! I haven’t been this sad to see a vacation end in a very long time. We were joined on our final drive by Kevin and Carolyn, a couple from London. I’m happy to say our final drive really ended on a high note. We saw a lioness drinking from a watering hole, and then followed her to a grouping of 11 lionesses all resting together.
While we were watching the lionesses in front of Homestead Lodge, an elephant appeared and headed to the swimming pool for a drink! No one was in the pool at the time, I wonder if the elephant would have approached if there were people in the pool?
But the most exciting part of the morning is when we finally spotted the elusive leopard, thanks to Carolyn, who saw it running across a field while we were driving. With the leopard sighting, we could now say we had seen the “Big 5” (lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, and rhino)!
Back at the lodge, we had a delicious breakfast before packing up and getting ready for our 12:30 transport to the airstrip. The trip to the airstrip was about 45 minutes, and again was really a bonus drive with yet another friendly and knowledgeable ranger, Matt. The plane to Johannesburg was a 9 seater, which we shared with a family of 4 returning to Los Angeles.
We had a few hours at the Johannesburg airport, followed by our flight back to DC, where we arrived the following morning at 6:45 am. We weren’t as luck on the way back with our seating, as I got in the row behind the rest of my family, but a nice college student traded seats with me.
I can’t say enough great things about this trip. Although I thought this would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I absolutely think we will be back to South Africa, as we would love to visit Cape Town. And there is definitely another safari in our future, perhaps in another African country, maybe to see the great migration. Wherever we go, however, we will most definitely chose another &Beyond lodge. We had no complaints about anything and felt we were really living the life of luxury while we were there. This trip was not inexpensive, but using miles for all of our flights made it doable. And the all-inclusive nature of everywhere we stayed (including the mini bars and laundry service at Phinda) made it easy to budget and truly relaxing once we were there.
Truly our best vacation ever!