This African Safari Lodge Just Got a Luxe Makeover. Here’s a Look Inside.

It can take a lifetime of travel to even begin to know the hugely diverse landscapes of Africa. But if you only have an American-sized vacation, there’s no need to chase charter flight after flight to camp after camp in country after country. Africa can be taken-in in miniature, provided you know where to go: for instance, the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. 
Here, a few hours north of Durban, near the border of the landlocked micro-nation of Eswatini, you’ll find the 30-year-old Phinda Private Game Reserve—115 square miles of protected land nicknamed the Seven Worlds of Wonder. It’s a cluster of seven distinct, ultra-rare dwarf ecosystems crammed together, including woodland, grassland, wetland, and forest (as well as an unusual sand forest), plus mountain ranges, rivers, marshes, and pans. It would take a grueling cross-continental, multi-national journey to tick even half of these boxes any other way. 
Better still, rare landscapes make for even rarer animals. So while the Big Five are in abundance, so are shy red duikers, diminutive suni antelopes, Tonga red squirrels, and 436 bird species.
Within Phinda, there are six camps, each targeting a different habitat within the reserve, but aim your LandRover at its Forest Lodge (from $850 per night). Within the reserve’s four-square-mile sand forest, andBeyond Phinda Forest Lodge recently emerged from its first full makeover since opening in 1994.

The lobby at andBeyond Phinda Forest Lodge
The reno amped up the camp’s signature Zulu Zen vibe.

The refurb—which cost an unspecified sum, spent by an unspecified ownership, according to the resorts rep—has ramped up the luxury of the lodge’s Zulu Zen style and added new facilities such as an infinity pool (complete with a poolside bar), a fitness room, and a spa. The panoramic forest views and grazing nyalas are still intact.

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The lodge’s Gallery, a tranquil library and lounge, is now decorated with a cabinet of curiosities and a series of prints depicting the life of Shaka Zulu, the former ruler of the Zulu Kingdom.

“The original catchphrase was ‘Zulu Zen,’ and we wanted to keep that,” says Kerri Smithers, general manager of Phinda Forest. “But we’ve also added an ‘Afro Japanese’ touch with the low seating and Japanese-inspired doors.”

A firepit at andBeyond Phinda Forest Lodge
Post-game drive guests gather at the bird-nest fire pit.

However, the design is remains very much rooted in South Africa, assures Smithers.

“The woven papyrus mats on the ceiling look Japanese but are actually made by local women and are used on flooring and to take to the beach,” she says. “The lights are inspired by traditional Zulu brooms and have also been made by local women. And as Zulus use lots of clay, we’ve added these decorative clay pots, which traditionally are passed around to drink beer out of.”

Outside, the terrace can be used to host private dinners, while a few steps away, the birds-nest-inspired fire pit is the new hot spot for pre-dinner drinks, while recounting the day’s safari adventures.

A bedroom at andBeyond Phinda Forest Lodge
Japan meets Africa in the exotic room designs.

The camp’s 16 lodges now include a new larger family-friendly suite. It’s made up of two interconnecting rooms that have been refigured to maximize the space, something that Smithers says was a key part of the refurbishment since it avoided a complete rebuild that would’ve disturbed the surrounding habitat. The bedroom’s clean lines nod to Japanese minimalism. The geometric headboard is made from the same papyrus mats as the Gallery’s ceiling, juxtaposed to broom lamps and decorative hanging beadwork. Chunky wood furnishings crafted from stained iroko and touches of forest green Astrus marble bring the outside in, but what really connects you with nature are the floor-to-ceiling windows that wrap around the lodge, including one next to the luxuriously deep tub. You can continue to spot grazing nyala and curious monkeys at all hours; the team even recommend sleeping with the curtains to really feel like you’re spending the night in the forest, at one with nature.

A bathroom at andBeyond Phinda Forest Lodge
The bathrooms are a highlight.

The lodge matters, but it’s ultimately designed to be left behind on daily game drives. And in unusual surroundings such as these, it’s only natural that the Phinda team specializes in organizing a more unique safari experience. For the first time, you can now e-biking through the sand forest. For the braver still, follow on a big game tracking walk to stalk rhinos, buffalo, and elephants. A final proof that this place is all about location, location, location: Phinda can even drive you to Sodwana Bay for a beach picnic. It’s one of the most scenic routes in Africa.
If you can handle both a late night and a bleary-eyed early morning, then for three months of the year—between November and January—you can head back to the bay after dark to watch two of the ocean’s largest turtles, the leatherback and loggerhead, emerge from the ocean to lay their eggs.
What andBeyond brings to this extraordinary place is the element of surprise. A wild goose (or rather tiger) chase might end at a candle lit bush tucker dinner. You may be surprised with a sleep out under the stars—with an armed ranger, of course. You may find that, unbeknownst to you, the staff have run a hot bath in your room and chilled a bottle of Champagne. Mocha-choca-rulas—the classic safari drink of caffeine, chocolate, and booze—are served in the morning, as are G&Ts at sundown.

A game drive at andBeyond Phinda Forest Lodge
The lodge’s rare sand desert environment makes for excellent animal sightings.

Still, none of this comes easily. To operate any private reserve is a frustratingly Sisyphean task. The death of one beloved game animal leads to an over-population of another. Too many elephants can  destroy a forest; too few can leave it overgrown. But rather than toil in silence, andBeyond allows guests to become a part of their delicate conservation work. 
In fact, many of the camp’s most exclusive adventures allow a limited number of guests the once-in-a-lifetime experience of getting hands on.
Help by notching the ears of rhino, or dehorning one to deter poachers. You can also assist in changing the collars on elephants or witness the release of animals, such as cheetahs and lions. If you’re more into pangolins then predators, then andBeyond will take you out to play hide-and-seek with the elusive animals, which have been successfully reintroduced to the region. And, oh what a region it is. 

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