Phantom of Phinda
“Rhinos have really bad eyesight,” Seth Vorster whispers in my ear as a hundred yards away—huddled under a barbed thicket midway across the floor of South Africa’s Bumbeni crater—lie three two-and-a-half-ton white rhinos. “But their sense of smell and their hearing are acute.”
The words of the burly Afrikaans game warden, a lifetime veteran of the KwaZulu-Natal bush, drown out the only other sounds in the predawn South African air: a warm zephyr brushing the tinder-dry, thigh-high grasses and the rhythmic tick of the ornate clock set deep into the wooden dashboard of the royal blue Rolls-Royce Phantom that serves as our viewing platform.
Having forsaken his trusty open-topped Land Rover Defender to join me in one of the first Rolls-Royce Phantoms to reach Africa, Vorster, the head warden at the Phinda Game Reserve near the South Africa/ Mozambique border, feels uneasy. The animals are accustomed to seeing him driving his green Defender, and he is anxious about how they will react to a Rolls, a vehicle that has not been used for game viewing on the African plains since well before the second World War.
While Rolls-Royces provided a luxurious means of transportation in inter-war London and New York, in Africa at that time, they were favored for their indestructibility. Heroes and explorers of the early 20th century had perpetuated such an image for these automobiles; Lawrence of Arabia drove an armored Rolls-Royce in the Sahara and Egypt, and motoring pioneer H.E. Symons made trailblazing trips from London to Nairobi in a Rolls.
Traversing tracks not unlike Phinda’s network of rutted trails, the Flying Lady tamed South Africa’s vast velds in the years between world wars, and so while a Ferrari or Maybach might look ridiculous in the heart of Africa, the Phantom, with its layers of blue lacquer cloaked in ocher African dust, appears at home.
Nearly three years after introducing the Phantom to the rest of the world, Rolls-Royce is just now beginning to sell the car in Africa. Our game-viewing vehicle is only the second Phantom on the continent. The previous afternoon we drove it the six hours south from the Rolls-Royce boutique at Johannesburg’s Saxon Hotel along the border with the kingdom of Lesotho—whose monarch is said to have ordered a Phantom—to an area of Phinda near the Indian Ocean coast.
The Phantom, with its ability to swallow mile after mile of open road, seems ideally suited for the immensity of Africa. However, at Phinda, we are testing its ability to cope with the unpaved African terrain as well as its ancestors did. If the Phantom can withstand the roads—and the inhabitants—of the game reserve, it should be able to survive almost anywhere.
Vorster regards every inch of Phinda’s 42,000 acres as a car-breaker. In dry weather, the roads are fissured and potholed. When it rains, they are axle-deep in oily red mud. Venture off-road, and termite mounds, acacia bushes barbed with two-inch spikes, and holes concealed by a thin covering of grass might sabotage your vehicle. There is, of course, also the threat that the wildlife pose, as a road sign depicting an elephant reminds us: The sign has been knocked to the ground, presumably by an elephant. “Our mechanic is good,” warns Vorster. “And there’s not a lot even he can do if an elephant takes a dislike to something.”
At 3 tons and capable of out-sprinting (on asphalt) anything bar a cheetah, the Phantom sits somewhere between a rhino and an elephant in the African pecking order, but in a confrontation involving rhino and Rolls, Vorster would place a wager on the rhino. And now, as I watch the first rays of fiery sun reflect off these creatures’ horns, I would have to agree with my guide.
“I’ve seen a rhino charge through about 40 buffalo, single out one that was bothering its calf, and launch it right up into the sky,” says Vorster, the drama and depth in his voice nearly lifting it above a whisper. Although he has a gun by his side, Vorster knows that neither it nor the Phantom would stop any of the three white rhinos to our right if one were to charge. There is a reason why the collective noun for rhinos is a crash.
Yet Vorster claims to have us just where he wants us. These nearly prehistoric gray tanks of the animal kingdom can hear us and smell us, and they also have picked up the scent of the hand-stitched leather and deep-pile carpet in which we are cocooned. But we are beyond their personal space.
“They are like us,” Vorster explains, his hand now firmly wrapped around the stock of his rifle. “If someone walks past your house, you are not bothered. If they come onto your property, you take notice and keep an eye on them. And if they walked straight into your house, you’d confront them.”
It has been an hour since we rose from our beds at Phinda’s Zuka Lodge to the sounds of chattering apes and screeching birds that had gathered at a neighboring watering hole. I am ravenous, for in the daze that was 5 am, we had time only for coffee and a type of hard cookie that South Africans call a rusk. Breakfast must wait until after the fauna’s early morning rush hour, which concludes by 10 o’clock, when the animals of Phinda have gone to ground once again for the remainder of the day. The window of opportunity for game driving therefore is a short one.
The Rhinos have not moved for 20 minutes, and Vorster would like to find other animals before the rush hour ends. Crouching behind the bulk of the Phantom, with only a hundred feet or so of ground between him and the rhinos, he slides back to his Land Rover, which he has parked behind the Rolls. Driving the Phantom, I follow him toward Corridor Pan, a watering hole that is reputed to be the Grand Central station for Phinda’s animals.
En route, we see a pair of springboks skitter across the plains to our left, and a pair of zebras temporarily block the track ahead of us. Next to appear are two giraffes, but either the sight of the Rolls-Royce or the call of breakfast prompts them to depart quickly.
As I edge along behind Vorster, his Land Rover appears to judder and buck with every topographical imperfection, while the Phantom, with a 20-inch wheel on each corner and its suspension and chassis working overtime, prevents the lumps and bumps of raw Africa from ever reaching my leather-cushioned spine or posterior. We are moving at a pace that is little more than a jog, so the chances of rocks and holes damaging the car are minimal. Nevertheless, I continually check the “lift” button to be sure that the feature, which raises the suspension by a hand’s width or so, is engaged.
For reassurance that the terrain is not shredding the underside of the Phantom, I lower the passenger window, exposing myself to the elements but also enabling me to listen for bumps and grinds and any hint of thorn on rubber or rock on paintwork. But at 10 mph, the car is nearly as subdued now as when we sat silent before the rhino. The immense V-12 engine purrs more peacefully than a tabby, let alone a lion, cheetah, or leopard.
Ahead of me in the Land Rover, Vorster slows down as we come upon a track that appears positively lunar. Chasms have formed in the trail, making a straight run impossible. Each hole represents a chicane that we approach at only a shuffling pace. Because it is the animals’ breakfast time, Vorster is unwilling to get out of his vehicle and guide me around the impediments. Instead, he signals me when to turn left and when to turn right.
Impressed with the agility that the Phantom demonstrates on the obstacle course, Vorster asks to have a go behind the wheel. “It is amazing,” he effuses, as he drives us closer to the watering hole. His rifle is now down by my feet in the passenger foot well. “I’ve never driven a better car on these roads. It is so smooth, so quiet, good for game viewing, as it does not scare the animals. Give me a convertible version [Rolls-Royce will introduce one next year], and it would be the perfect game viewer.”
Vorster’s walkie-talkie then crackles. “You’re never going to believe this,” a voice says, as if announcing the sighting of a rare animal. “There’s a Rolls-Royce down near Corridor Pan.” We have been spotted by other wardens leading game-viewing expeditions. Vorster picks up the radio and confirms the sighting, then adds, “It’s me in the Rolls.”
When we reach Corridor Pan, it is bustling with wildebeests, springboks, zebras, and the three rhinos that we had seen at dawn. Not wanting to frighten the animals, Vorster stops the Phantom. If they come to us, he explains, it means they are comfortable. The wildebeests are curious and gather about the Phantom like paparazzi outside a movie premiere. Maybe this relaxes the rhinos, because they edge closer.
Inside the Rolls-Royce we remain still. Vorster’s rifle is off the floor and back in his hands. “In reality the white rhino is quite chilled out,” he whispers, sensing my fear. “Nothing much bothers them.”
The rhinos, two adults and a baby, are now less than 20 feet from the taillights of the Phantom. They are so close that we can see clearly the scars and marks on their mud-crusted hides and the chips gouged from their horns. Oxpecker birds ride pillion, feeding on the parasites and picking the wax out of the rhinos’ trumpet-shaped ears.
The rhinos stop and stare at us before easing off into a thicket, at which point a collective sigh rings through the Phantom’s interior. Vorster is the first to speak. “Rhinos are inquisitive,” he says, explaining what we have just witnessed. Then, with a titter, he adds, “They won’t have seen a Rolls-Royce before.”
Phinda’s Wildlife and Refined Lodgings
Operated by Conservation Corporation Africa, the Phinda Private Game Reserve is located two hours northeast of Durban, South Africa’s third largest city. It borders the Indian Ocean and Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park.
Phinda has seven distinct habitats, from wetland to savannah. Among the reserve’s inhabitants are Africa’s Big Five (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffalos) and 380 bird species. Visitors, accompanied by a ranger and a Zulu tracker, can view the wildlife in purpose-built Land Rovers or on foot, during multiday walking safaris.
Phinda offers six safari lodges, ranging in size from the 20-suite Mountain Lodge to the Getty Lodge—the home of Tara Getty, son of John Paul Getty II and a director of CC Africa—which is available at certain times of the year. The lodge’s stone farmhouse was dismantled and transported hundreds of miles from Free State province to Phinda. Phinda’s Zuka is also a private lodge, with four thatched cottages that can accommodate as many as eight. The price for Zuka is about $2,400 per night and includes two daily game drives—in a Land Rover, not a Rolls-Royce.
Conservation Corporation Africa