Having just turned 13, my boy Ferdy doesn’t really do early mornings. Indeed, during the summer hols we rarely glimpsed him before noon and then only fleetingly whenever he chose to assemble himself a triple-decker jam and Nutella sandwich and flee back upstairs to his darkened room and repeats of Top Gear on his iPad.
I saw more of our neighbours’ kids than I did of our own. But there Ferdy was at 5.30 a.m., bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and raring to go. ‘Come on, daddy, for heaven’s sake shake a leg, everyone’s waiting!’ I hardly recognised the boy.
We were staying at Phinda Forest Lodge in KwaZulu-Natal, south-east of Johannesburg, for three days’ safari and some father-and-son bonding, and it was time for the first early-morning game drive.
Phinda Private Game Reserve encompasses an impressive 23,000 hectares of prime wilderness, and Forest Lodge — one of six on the reserve — is in the middle of nowhere. It comprises a dozen or so wooden suites set deep in a forest of towering torchwood trees. The suites are reassuringly swish, each with its own veranda, double bedroom, shower, bath, air con, telephone and commendably well-stocked minibar. The only reason we had to double-lock our door was to keep out the thieving and increasingly ingenious local monkeys.
In the heart of the camp there was an infinity pool, a boma, a viewing deck and a wooden dining and sitting area open on all sides so that the jungle seemed on the point of swallowing it up whole. It was all delightfully rustic but chic and stylish too — a sort of Zulu zen retreat — and Ferdy and I were both entranced.
A quick cup of tea and a snack and it was off on our first dawn run into the bush. There were four other guests with us in the open-top-and-sides Land Rover or whatever it was, and Ferdy sat beside me, unable to stop grinning.
We careered along for about ten minutes into the forest, spewing up dust as we went, until suddenly Jabs, our tracker riding shotgun at the front, yelled ‘Stop!’
We all looked nervously around for the bull elephant or pride of lions that was surely upon us, only for Jabs to point at a small bush no more than two feet away. None of us could see a damn thing, so Jabs had to get out and point with a twig to the tiny creature he had his eye on. Finally we saw it, a chameleon — no bigger than Ferdy’s thumb — sitting immobile and inscrutable on a leafy branch. How Jabs spotted it I had no idea. But I was thrilled: our first wild animal!
There were, of course, plenty more to come. That morning alone we saw impalas, elephants, lions, kudus and a couple of cheetahs. There were birds galore too, including pelicans, crowned hornbills, Egyptian geese, herons, flycatchers, yellow-bellied greenbelts and a lone bateleur, an eagle famous for having little or no tail. Its French name means ‘street performer’ or ‘tightrope walker’, which it earned thanks to the delicate, tail-free balancing act it employs simply to stay aloft.
It was then back to camp for breakfast, a snooze, lunch, a massage (me), black rhino tracking (Ferdy) and then the early-evening game drive. This time we headed to more open country and saw giraffes, nyalas, baboons, lions and cubs, zebras (a.k.a. ‘disco donkeys’), hyenas, warthogs (my favourites), aardvarks, wildebeest, hippos and white and black rhinos.
At one point a rhino wandered over to our vehicle and stood staring at us for a full ten minutes, no more than an arm’s length from Jabs at the front. He finally lost interest in us and we all breathed again. Even Jabs looked a little disconcerted. Ferdy just couldn’t believe his luck.
With our sighting on the last day of a leopard we bagged ourselves the Big Five, so-called by big game hunters because lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard were the hardest animals in Africa to hunt on foot. We also saw the Little Five of ant lion, elephant shrew, buffalo weaver, rhino beetle and leopard tortoise, and Ferdy shot a hilarious video of a dung beetle going Sisyphus-like about its work.
We ate and drank like kings thanks to the efforts of Welcome the waiter, Sibu the barman and Sam the chef.
‘My goal is delicious,’ Sam told me in his Mandela-like drawl. ‘I dream delicious, my heart is full of delicious and I’ve been dancing delicious with your food today. If you finish it, you sleep well; if you sleep well, I sleep well and I kiss you for free.’
Well, we did finish it and we did sleep well, each and every night. And, strangely enough, for three glorious days Ferdy didn’t complain once about having to get up before noon.
Jonathan Ray travelled with Journeys by Design and British Airways, which operates a twice-daily service from Heathrow to Johannesburg with return fares starting at £895.