On Safari: Vlei Lodge & The Elephants of Phinda

(written by Jen; approved by Ian)  I wake up grouchy and tired, absolutely unhappy, and I snap when Ian asks if I want more coffee.  It must be the last day of every vacation I've ever been on.  I know, I should seize the moment, and just enjoy my last day.  But I can't; the spots on this leopard, at least as far as this issue goes, are not going to change.  I always want more, particularly when on safari.  What if that cheetah finally catches a meal or the male lion joins the pride or there is pangolin sighting . . . the possibilities are endless.  After our trip to Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa in April 2015, I was particularly restless.  I was not quite ready to leave, even though we had spent five nights there.  Once home, I obsessed over Phinda, and for the first time in our travels to Africa we booked a trip back to the same place, Phinda, we had just been for the second time in the same year.  We've been to reserves and stayed at lodges more than once, but never in the same year.  The bug had bit us hard, and I suspect it will be a safari destination that we go back to over and over again.

Going twice in the same year to Phinda when there are so many other places to travel to may seem a bit boring, maybe even odd.  But it emphasizes what a special place Phinda is.  And though this can be said about many vacation destinations, no two safaris are the same even if you are visiting a safari location you have previously visited.  The seasons change, altering your view.  If you visit in the summer, you will probably see lush green trees, bushes and grasses and an abundance of watering holes filled to the brim.  But return in the winter and you will see leave-barren trees, wheat-yellow grasses, and what was one a water hole is now a mud hole.  As for the animals, no two days are the same (except for lazy, sleeping lions; they look pretty much the same all of the time).

In August/September, we stayed at a different lodge, Vlei Lodge, than our previous visit to Phinda. Vlei was the perfect lodge for us.  There are only six suites, and each suite is secluded (no view of your neighbors) with its own plunge pool.  We enjoy this more intimate safari experience as it allows you to interact more personally with the lodge staff and rangers and the other quests while at the same time giving you the freedom to spend time away from the group. &Beyond's description of the room at Vlei is perfect:  "Each suite boasts not only a private sitting area and ensuite bathroom, but also a dressing room and game viewing deck, so you may not ever want to leave, even for meals. Not that you will have to - private dining in your suite can be arranged, as can more social meals on the dining deck or even on the edge of the vlei." (Vlei means wetland.)  I tried to capture the room in the below photos, but I defer to &Beyond's website for the proper (gorgeous) photos (some photos to scroll through):

The wildlife came right up to our room's plunge pool to drink.  For the most part, we saw nyalas, baboons, and warthogs at our pool.  One afternoon after a long morning game drive, I fell asleep in the warm sun on our deck by the pool.  I was softly woken up by water dripping.  I turned my head slowly to the right to find a baboon sitting on the ledge of the pool, not three feet from me, having an afternoon drink.  In that moment, I recall thinking, darn, I left my my camera inside.  But if I had had my camera, the moment would have been ruined.  I would have reached for it, and the baboon would have been startled and moved off.  Instead, I met the baboon's eyes, and he returned to his drink, burning the moment in my head.

By far one of the best sightings we had on this trip was at our plunge pool.  It was after lunch, and I was sitting by the bed reading.  Ian was taking a nap.  I looked up, and there was a breeding herd of elephant coming right for our plunge pool at a smartish pace.   I woke Ian up with a simple "Ian, elephants."  Groggy with sleep, Ian responded annoyed, "you woke me for an elephant."  To which he received a barked response, "no, many elephants, and they are about six feet from you." Ian was awake.  Some photos to scroll through (taken through the window of room):

Then all at once, the herd turned away and moved back to the middle of the vlei.  I suspect Ian or I made a moment in the room that spooked them.  So, I went out to our deck to watch them.  After a few minutes, the elephants turned back.  Stupidly, I thought to myself: "No need to go back inside.  They've had a drink already.  They will now move on."  I was wrong.  They quickly returned to the pool to drink.  Their proximity to me was startling, and my heart rate increased with nervous excitement.  I tried to think of what our guide, Giles, would tell me to do.  Stay still.  I stayed still.  So still, I was afraid to take a deep breath.  Some photos to scroll through (taken from outside of the room):

Though the closest encounter, the drinking elephants at our room was not the only good elephant sighting that we had.  One morning, we brought breakfast with us and ate by a water hole.  And, while  there, a breeding herd of elephants came for a drink and a swim at the far edge of the watering hole.  Some photos to scroll through:

"Sounds like a herd of elephants" means something different to me having been on safari.  A herd of elephants can sometimes be amazingly quiet; their steps seem to make no noise at all.  So much girth moves with so much grace.  Sometimes the herd moves and acts in such synchrony that you only hear one noise, like the dripping of water from their mouths as they take a drink or the pulling of branches from trees at lunch time.  Other times, you hear the soft rumblings of the matriarch directing the herd or the loud trumpeting of a feisty juvenile bull.  And, sometimes all you hear is their movement through the forest like a wind moving the leaves of the trees.  Regardless of what this strong family unit is doing, a breeding herd sighting, like one in these photos, is always different and special, even joy producing as the young ones always seem to do something that brings a smile to your face--flopping around in the water, trying to use their trunk that they can barely control, hiding under mom, running their short legs after the herd, shaking their heads and flapping their ears at the vehicle to show just how "big" and scary they are.  To see an elephant herd in the wild is impetus enough to take that long flight to South Africa, one of the few places left in the world for such sightings, and Vlei Lodge, if you are particularly lucky, allows for a personal sighting of the herd at your room.

*FYI - This trip was planned by our wonderful travel agent, Jeanie Fundora at www.travelbeyond.com.  My brother, Steve (who should go on a safari with his awesome wife Ashleigh), provided editorial support, i.e., finding my numerous typos.  And, of course, Ian provided invaluable content for this blog and is my favorite travel companion in life!