The flight over to Phinda was excruciatingly torturous – a two passenger plane that could barely fit me, my husband, and the overly plump pilot and his scrawny co-pilot sidekick. Not being able to hide the horror on my face, I continuously attracted the attention of the pilot as he seemed to think that by turning around –- diverting his attention from the airy abyss that was swallowing us whole — and cracking some “look no hands” joke would make me feel all better inside. I also came to the conclusion that our brawny pilot must have been using his powerful legs to jump jet streams Flintstone-style as the icy air and turbulence caused a perturbing stiffening throughout my entire anxiety ridden body.
Finally we began to descend and I did the only thing I knew that would keep me from focusing on crashing planes — I closed my eyes and sang repetitively — “Everything’s gonna be alright” from the lyrics of Bob Marley’s No Woman Cry. Touchdown was so smooth that I barely knew we landed and I felt like a jerk for hating the talented pilots who so effortlessly traversed the sky in such a diminutive concoction. Like a knight in shining armor, the pilot offered his hand as I jumped out and into a warm subtropical sanctuary. We thanked him for delivering us to a new paradise and headed off to find our guide.
Although we were still in South Africa, the landscape was dramatically different and pleasurably clement. Once again, we were greeted by one of the andBeyond staff members named Richard. He informed us that he would be our ranger over the next six days during our stay at the Phinda Forest lodge. Charismatic and witty, Richard began telling us about the phenomenal sand forest we would be living in, along with its intrusive vervet monkeys that were notorious for stealing the meals of guest and providing a soothing lullaby of drumbeats on rooftops all throughout the night.
As we drove to the lodge, I was astounded by the variety of ecosystems we traveled through in only 45 minutes. Vast floodplains set against a back drop of rocky hillsides cloaked in an abundance of plant life. A massive crater hid a secret garden of somnolent waters, enchanting fauna, and imperiled creatures. Subtropical woodlands of lala palm, marula, bushwillow, and terminalia trees leading into a mythical sand forest whose floor was that of the oceans’ millions of years ago, all interspersed within the magnificent reserve. It was quintessential, glorifying, and so Out of Africa.
Upon arrival we were greeted with a traditional welcome drink, but this time it was a refreshing glass of mango juice to cool down from the Sun’s intense rays. A woman named Eunice walked us through narrow windy paths confined by tall lichen- ridden trees that led to an open-air lobby. We were introduced to a petite, spunky young woman named Seranne who identified herself as the camp manager. A brief overview of the lodge was given and then we were escorted to our room. As we followed Eunice, a sequestered world unfolded right before our eyes. Tiny deer-like creatures called duiker scampered inches from our feet, stoic Nyala grazed at every turn, playful monkeys swung from treetops overhead, and brilliantly colored birds sang boisterously from the swaying canopy. There was something about the warmth meshing with the gentle breeze and the fragrance of the forest that was so invigorating. I felt as though I was on another universe — one that was perfectly molded — its beauty untouched and life unscathed.
Eunice brought us to our villa which was elevated on stilts for privacy and optimal game viewing. We entered, and once again were completely taken back by the tasteful minimalist glass wall bedroom and exquisite eggshell soaking tub, dual sinks, and carved stone rain-shower in the bathroom. The room was almost enticing enough for us to lie down for an afternoon nap but we could not resist the urge to explore the forest and prepare for the game drive. And so we wandered and discussed our plans to visit the local Zulu tribe, searched for a variety of animals endemic to the forest, pondered over whom we would meet throughout our stay, and continued to obliviously meander until daylight began to fade and dust slowly set in.