30 km for 30 years

Father & son duo, Les & Dean Carlisle, embark on a legacy walk on Phinda Private Game Reserve…

One last check of the radio, the rounds pouch, the ash bag, and with a solid fist-bump we were off. The cool early morning breeze was coming slightly from the west. Perfect. This meant it would be taking our scent away from any animals that may have been drawn to Kigelia pan, which was to be the first of many water sources we would by-pass on this adventure.

The soft sandy soils that dominate the north of Phinda, though difficult to walk through, mean that each well-placed step is near silent. We could hear the familiar bird calls ringing out all around us. A simple lift of the finger pointing in the direction that the sound was coming from was followed by a head nod in recognition of having heard it.

We both knew the other knew which bird it was, just as two accountants need not debate a commonly used formula and rather simply continue with their work. You see, this is what we love to do, it always has been, and it always will be.

A family dream is set into motion

Les Carlisle is known to many as “The Father of Phinda.” He played a major role in erecting the fences, reintroducing the animals and setting the standards that have been so wonderfully maintained to this day across this magical landscape.

Having just turned the corner from 60, recently retired, and in the year that Phinda celebrates 30 years of existence it dawned on us that this walk we had been discussing for years was finally staring us in the face.

Thanks to the kindness of lodge managers, reserve managers and head rangers we set a date and committed. In classic Carlisle fashion, the final plan was only decided on the day before we left, but decided on it was. We would do three days of walking, each day about 10 km and each day in a new area of the reserve.

This was not about walking as far as possible, but rather about celebrating the hard work put in by so many individuals over Phinda’s 30-year history. We would spend two nights camping out in the reserve and finish at Phinda Mountain Lodge, apt I thought, as this was where Les and my mom Lynette spent much of their early time at Phinda and where some of my earliest memories were born.

Day 1: the ancient sand forest

After about an hour and a half of walking we arrived at the Indlulamithi sand forest. Surrounded by trees of all shapes and sizes, some of which are thousands of years old, we marvelled at the details. The venation of each leaf, the texture of each trunk and the way the light fought to penetrate the mostly closed canopy on its journey to the ground.

By now we were both tired of walking on the roads and after having briefly consulted the maps we decided that our campsite for the evening was more or less due south of our position. From our breakfast spot we quietly and slowly went about walking in the footsteps of giants. Initially, we followed the elephant paths that wormed their way through the sand forest, carving out tunnels through the otherwise thick vegetation.

We could see where a lone bull had recently broken off a massive branch and tossed some sand over his body with his trunk, reading his story from patterns in the sand in front of us. The forest soon gave way to a system of pans. We were now on a rhino trail that appeared to link together forming a necklace through the heart of Phinda. We rested under an old Torchwood and watched as a herd of impala tentatively descended towards Kudu pan. We wondered how many herds of impala that tree had seen coming down to drink.

After lunch we continued our southerly journey, bisecting blocks and avoiding roads wherever possible. We both noticed two large pans that were mapped, but were quite a long way off any of the roads. A goal within a goal was established and we changed course slightly to incorporate these two landmarks.

This turned out to be a great idea, as these hidden gems proved to be exactly that. The game trails all congregated at an indentation which must have been 60 m across. The trunks of the nearby trees were all caked with mud and provided evidence that, in the rainy season, this was clearly a congregating point – Hlanganani – the meeting place. We pictured rhino, buffalo and warthogs travelling from all directions to share the cool, deep mud.

The last part of the first day’s walking took us through broad-leaved woodland. Here we kept coming across small groups of nyala, invariably a stare-off ensued, and never sure who was more surprised to see the other.

Camp for the first night was in a small patch of sand forest that served as the base for Phinda’s walking safaris camp in years gone by. It was a perfect evening and as we slowly set up camp we were both filled with gratitude and emotion. A Zulu phrase kept running through my head: Ngifezekile iphupho lami – my dreams have come true. I was doing what I had always wanted to do, with the person I had always wanted to do it with.

Day 2: in search of endangered succulents

Day two began with a cup of coffee, much needed on a cold and blustery morning, not weather normally associated with Zululand. We packed up camp and headed off for our next destination: Bride’s Bush, an amazing ridge flanked on either side by deep valleys, with a view into Mkuze to the west and towards the dune ridges that border the Indian Ocean to the east.

Being so elevated, the spot is very exposed to wind, and we had to shorten our walk considerably. The focus for the day was to find a specimen of Haworthia limifolia lebomboensis – a small and endangered succulent, Bride’s Bush being the only place on Phinda where you can find it. After scouring every rocky outcrop on the mountain we eventually found one and then rested in some shade at the pan on the top of the mountain.

We watched as a buffalo bull slowly grazed away from us in the distance before we too headed back to camp. It was still very windy and the thought of spending a night in a buffeting tent didn’t sound all that appealing as we contemplated leaving the mountain.

After a quick nap, we went for an afternoon walk to watch the sun go down. It turns out that despite our searching, the best spot is still from the marula that is so well known by many of the Phinda guides. By now the wind had died down, so we lit a fire and settled in for the night. We heard a lion roaring way off in the distance, and stayed up, bathing in the light of the full moon, warmed by a crackling fire.

Day 3: a meaningful homecoming

Coffee in hand we headed to the eastern side of the mountain to watch the sunrise. It was still cold, but the sky was mesmerising as the sunrise danced with the slow moving cloud bank in front of us.

We drove to Phinda Mountain Lodge to start the last day of walking. We only left 30 minutes later. Every staff member at the lodge wanted to greet Intshebe – the bearded one – as Les had affectionately come to be known on Phinda.

We walked off of the mountain down towards the mighty Mzinene River, again avoiding roads where possible. One particular stretch was about 2 km through a very thick area. I remember turning back, a little worried that I had selected a poor route, only to be greeted by a big thumbs up and a broad smile.

We emerged onto a road and both of us laughed, Les saying that was his favourite part of the walk so far. We slowly ascended the steep road from the river and emerged onto the Ndabana open areas, while we discussed some of the experiences Les had shared on these very roads.


The bearded one

Arriving at Mountain Lodge, we were greeted by Sabelo, a butler who has been with the company since its inception. It was fitting that he came and sat with us as we ate our cake, sharing some of the stories of the past few days.

To spend time with a man who played such an important role in the creation of Phinda was the most humbling experience. To call him my dad is a privilege in every sense of the word.


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