It was the sight of mellow nyala softly nibbling on leaves drizzled with dew that brought me to the glass wall each morning. Thick bands of sunlight, scattered through strewn branches, illuminated obscure shadows on the forest floor. All life seemed to move with dilatory strides -- a deliberate pace that paralleled the sun's awakening. The granular earth, once tussled about by mighty ocean currents over two million years ago, released a sweet aroma that permeated the air, seeping through the cracks of our room.
This land is what drew me to Phinda Game Reserve in northern KwaZula-Natal, South Africa. I had been on safari for five days in Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, and continued my journey by plane traveling an hour south to stay in the midst of a rare sand forest. Phinda Forest Lodge is nestled within the towering bodies of newtonia, umzithi and pteliopsis trees; its floor-to-ceiling glass walls blending inconspicuously with the surrounding landscape. Indeed, one lives among all the other creatures that lurk day and night, which means walking out of your suite and running into impala, duiker, warthogs, vervet monkeys and the occasional leopard (don't worry the staff will give you a heads-up if one is on the prowl). Adding to the magnificent experience, most animals are accustomed to sharing their habitat with foreign visitors, and will not fret at human presence.
Each morning, on my way to breakfast before embarking on a game drive, I would marvel at the spattering of leaves as swarms of singing birds soared above. It was easy to become engrossed in the surreal tranquility of such an undisturbed environment as time passed gracefully in incremental chunks: dawn; midday rest; dusk; moonlit evenings.
The lodge staff, mainly comprised of Zulu people from local tribes, possessed a genuine interest in all who visited their "home" and would readily engage in lengthy conversations with guests about their upbringing, families, life in the bush and the best tasting game meat to sample at nightly bomas. Many of the local tribes received social and economic support from the &Beyond Foundation, an organization supported by the lodge's parent company, &Beyond, creating a strong bond between mangers and their staff.
Outside the forest, seven distinct habitats sprawled across 56,800 acres of wilderness were ours to respectfully explore. During a three-hour game drive, the landscape would dramatically shift from woodlands, to grassy plains, to rocky hillsides, to seasonal marshes. A spectacle of wild game traversed the various landscapes with no shortage of Big Five prowling their territories. Parts of the private reserve were off limits to the 4x4 vehicles, as several projects sponsored by &Beyond were in the process of nurturing abused farmland back to health. Unlike Kruger Park, we drove for miles without seeing another Land Rover, and most animal sightings were a private affair. This unique safari was what I could only describe as humbling. I had been welcomed into a quiet, unexposed world -- the antithesis of the chaotic place I came from -- and in a strange way, I never felt more at home.