7 images

Phinda Forest Lodge

Game on: could low-impact ecotourism be the future?

5 June 2024 • Written by Belle Rice

Will others catch on to Phinda Forest Lodge's environmentally and community-conscious model? Belle Rice explores...

South Africa is home to so many of the world’s most luxurious and exclusive safari lodges that you might think you’ve seen it all. Enter the newly refurbished Phinda Forest Lodge from experiential enterprise &Beyond, which thoughtfully integrates luxurious surroundings within the heart of the forests and plains of KwaZulu-Natal.

A four-hour drive north from Durban, Phinda Private Game Reserve is the setting for the lodge. Sitting on the 74,000-acre Munyawana Conservancy, it has a unique “sand forest” ecosystem that can only be found here, in parts of the Amazon basin and in Malaysia. 

It’s believed to have been formed from fragments of coastal dunes that were separated from the ocean over millions of years as water levels and shorelines gradually moved, leaving a dusty layer of sand across dense portions of forest. This patch of land is the natural habitat of rarely seen plants and animals such as the red duiker and the suni antelope and more than 436 species of bird.

Of the 5,000 acres of sand forest that remain across the globe, nearly 2,000 of them are found at Phinda. The Africa Foundation — a sister charity to the Ocean Family Foundation — is working to conserve this ecosystem as part of its mission to protect wildlife and conservation areas throughout Southern and East Africa.

Twice-daily game drives allow guests to have close encounters with African wildlife

The organisation is underpinned by Nelson Mandela’s approach to protecting the environment, with the belief that “conservation is about people. If you don’t have sustainable development around these parks, then people will have no interest in them, and the parks will not survive.” This philosophy works perfectly at Phinda, where the Africa Foundation has partnered with &Beyond for 25 years.

The organisations work hand-in-hand to protect the species that live there, rehabilitating the land and reintroducing animals such as the lion and cheetah that had disappeared from the landscape decades ago when Phinda was used as a commercial agricultural site.

The community-driven focus also means that the Africa Foundation works not only in land sustainability, but also with nearby villages, where it has assisted in creating a primary school, medical clinic and Phinda’s Stars in Training Program. This initiative prepares men and women from the surrounding areas to join &Beyond and work as guides on safari, or join the catering and housekeeping departments.

Conservation efforts have brought lions back to the area, which had been intensely farmed

The local population isn’t the only beneficiaries, guests at Phinda Forest Lodge are encouraged to get involved with the conservation programs. Alongside twice-daily game drives — where visitors can spot at least one of the Big Five on an almost everyday basis — they can also participate in conservation projects when they’re taking place, including rhino ear notching, dehorning elephants and cheetah and lion collaring.

&Beyond and the Africa Foundation also work together on the privately guided pangolin research and monitoring initiative to protect the secretive mammals, which have become one of the world’s most trafficked animals.

There’s no need for concerns about the experience being too rough and ready though, for while guests are encouraged to join in as much as they want, the lodge’s newly refurbished accommodations and facilities offer a top-of-the-range luxury stay.

The two-bedroom family suite
The wellness spa

The 16 spacious lodges are built on stilts with floor-to-ceiling windows, meaning guests can spot deer, baboons and the occasional hyena wandering through the forest from the comfort of their large, comfortable beds. The lodges and the main buildings, including the spa, gym and gallery, are designed with a “Zulu-Zen” aesthetic, with darker woods and Lebombo wattle fire pits blending the buildings into the forest’s natural canopy.

Guests have their own butlers who remember all the finer details, such as drinks preferences, dietary requirements and more. It’s the little touches thoughtfully curated by the hotel team that make the most impact — for instance, helping younger guests make moulds of lion tracks and organising trips to nearby Zulu villages and artisan markets. Mealtimes, while casual and relaxed, are special affairs, including a bush dinner and a fire-lit pan-African al fresco banquet under the stars.

For those missing the sea breeze, Phinda runs trips to nearby Sodwana Bay to see humpback whales and dolphins, snorkel at protected marine reserve Jesser Point or enjoy seasonal turtle nesting adventures. Setting the tone for the future, this is surely just the beginning as Phinda leads others will follow in recreating this environmentally and community-conscious model, which refuses to compromise on luxury.

Read More/Eco-property: the emerging generation of energy efficient coastal homes

First published in the June 2024 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

Sponsored listings