Safari Sarah: A Family Vacation at Phinda Mountain Lodge

June 13, 2013 8:38 am


Meet Amaan Khan. With a name like that he’s destined to be a future Bollywood star; these days, resuscitation he goes by Ranger Amaan.rangeramaanfinal

All of four years old (what a BIG BOY), he is the great love of my life. The other thing you need to know about my nephew is that he LOVES creatures. Any kind of creatures, really. Sea animals are a big hit — he can name the most obscure sharks with a glance at a picture. He also likes insects: he immediately identified a praying mantis that infiltrated my house and named it Pufferine. And as you might expect, he loves lions and giraffes and zebras, too. So let’s just say that when my family flew down to visit, he was more excited about animals than he was about me.

On his drive to my house from Cape Town Airport, he was confused by the wide highways and soaring palm trees and beautiful neighborhoods that were a little too reminiscent of his San Diego home. “Where are all the ANIMALS?” he protested. What was he supposed to tell all the kids on Sharing Day when he went back? Well, we all know how important it is to save face in preschool, so I carted my parents, siblings, and nephew off to Phinda Mountain Lodge, in Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal, a scenic three-hour drive from Durban.

Some families are weary of taking young kids on safari, because it’s an expensive proposition to haul them on a 24-hour flight to show them amazing, once-in-a-lifetime things that they will likely forget. And most lodges won’t even allow children under the age of six on game drives, so make sure you check with yours about any age restrictions.

But trust me: if you can, take your kids on safari. It’s an experience that all generations can enjoy and appreciate — and nothing says “family bonding” quite like being stuck in the middle of nowhere together surrounded by wild animals.

fam in truck

Many lodges have special activities for kids — the fabulous &Beyond company, which operates the lodges in Phinda, has the WildChild program. Children can make their own Zulu bows and arrows in arts and crafts, go on nature walks with a ranger, and even play mini-chef in the kitchen. While we didn’t have time to take advantage of any of the activities for Amaan, he did meet the wonderful child-minder Thuba, and he loved his WildChild backpack and adorable stuffed rhino.

The setting at Phinda is stunning. Standalone thatched-roof suites have sunken living areas, cloud-like beds, and huge bathtubs with floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking a deck with a pool and the bush. I wasn’t a big fan of showering fully exposed though — it would have been nice if they had shades come down at night, because the animals definitely got an eyeful.

Room Exterior

Room Interior

The food is also excellent — meals are served at the main lodge, on a deck overlooking the reserve, or in the boma, and range from venison to peri-peri chicken to spins on breakfast classics like frittatas and coconut-encrusted French toast. Amaan loved the pizzas and chicken fingers on the kids’ menu.


Even the pool has an otherworldly view.

swimming pool

But the main reason anyone — and Amaan in particular — goes on safari is for the wildlife, and the sightings here are spectacular. Over and over again veteran safarigoers and seasoned experts commended my choice of Phinda for my family trip, saying the animal viewing there is out of this world. They weren’t exaggerating. It’s a fairly small reserve, so the chances of spotting the Big Five and all the other favorites are very high. My family finally got to see what I’ve been raving about, and at one point my brother turned around from his seat in the land cruiser and gave me a high five. “Good job, Beany,” he said. (Beany is my nickname.)


Our fabulous ranger-tracker duo even took us on a crazy quest through the hills to find an elephant. You’d think an animal that big wouldn’t be so elusive.

Caitlin, the ranger, was impressed by how well-behaved Amaan was on the game drives. I agree — while Amaan is many things, quiet is not one of them, so we were pretty nervous about how he’d be during the three-hour treks, especially when he found himself inches from lions and his beloved giraffes. But seemed to truly understand the importance of not disturbing the animals, and barely let out a peep.

amaan in car

Of course, he did have his squirmy moments at the lodge, but can you blame him — who can sit still when there are nyalas drinking from their private plunge pool right behind them?


I will say, however, the momentousness of the experience was perhaps somewhat diluted by the fact that Amaan has been to safari park attractions back in the States before, so he wasn’t fully grasping the magnitude of how surreal it is to be that close to wild animals in their natural environs. But he did enjoy it, and still talks about it in great detail — just the other night he was reminding me of the baby leopard and mama leopard we saw.

I’m sure a big factor in my general attitude toward nature and animals comes from my mom — she’s petrified of even housecats, and family lore has it that she once screamed so loudly upon encountering a dog on a sidewalk that the dog ran away in terror, so animals were never a big thing in our household. But even she managed to have a good time! Here she is with some lions chilling in the background.


The entire Khan clan, ages 4 to 64, agrees: this was hands down our favorite family vacation ever.

On our drive down the long dirt road out of Phinda, my mom noticed Amaan was staring out the window, lost in thought. “What are you thinking about, sweetie?” she asked him. “I’m thinking about when I can come back here,” he answered.

Phinda Mountain Lodge
Hluhluwe, KwaZulu Natal

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