Set in rare and beautiful sand forest, Phinda Forest Lodge offers a sweeping view of one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet. Angela Beitz visits this magical place north of Richards Bay, South Africa.

Alone bull giraffe slowly saunters across the dirt road in front of me. I haven’t even arrived at the lodge yet but I’m already gobsmacked to have seen this beautiful animal who stops to look at us for a few moments before slowly walking off, casting the occasional glance back in our direction. I arrive at the Phinda Forest lodge, which is one of four properties that Phinda is made up of. Phinda, meaning ‘the return’ in Zulu, is a series of eco lodges from the and Beyond group. Their focus is on preserving wildlife and they’ve worked to return the land to a thriving state after years of agricultural management and misuse. Phinda Forest is a luxury lodge with 16 suites. As it’s in the bush, there’s one main rule: no walking around the property by yourself at night. The wildlife, including lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalos and more can be found wandering around the property as it’s not fenced off (that makes it all the more exciting!).

The luxurious air-conditioned glass suites at the Forest Lodge are on stilts and appear to float between the rare Sand Forest floor and the great Torchwood trees. Floor-to-ceiling windows invite the forest in but the dense canopy provides privacy. The dainty forms of dwarf forest antelope dart among and below the suites, raised on stilts to float between the sandy floor and the leafy shade above. Waking up to rustling forest sounds and bird song, surrounded by delicate leaf-filtered light, gives us a pervading sense of peace and calm, setting the tone for your entire day.

The room boasts a beautiful king-sized bed and opposite to this, is a couch and table plus a writing desk. There’s a huge separate bathroom with many big glass windows (but don’t worry, it’s been designed so that no one can see in) and a large free standing bath. We love the Phinda body lotion, liquid soap and other amenities – all in gorgeous bottles – with the silhouettes of African animals on them. The suite is so beautiful, decorated in an exquisite combination of glass, timbers and neutral fabric – everything feels superluxe. There’s a large deck perfect for sipping an afternoon beverage that you can make yourself with their wellstocked mini bar, which is kept locked so that the cheeky monkeys don’t get their hands on what’s inside.

Game drives, as they’re called, rather than safaris, are really a must when you’re here. After all, getting up close and personal with the nature and wildlife is what this place is all about. These are best to embark on early in the morning. As the 5:30am wakeup call rouses up and calls us to the main building at 6am, we’re given coffee, tea and biscuits which is such a great touch and something I feel I could really get used to. Africa is known to be the hotspot for the Big 5 which are the five most difficult creatures to find on foot. This includes the lion, African elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. Phinda is also well known for having 436 bird species.

There’s no shortage of these beautiful beasts at this South African wildlife haven, which is particularly renowened for black rhinos and leopards. Apart from game drives, there’s a list of 10 included activities such as a Zulu village tour, black rhino tracking on foot, swimming with whale sharks and seasonal whale watching amongst other once-in-a-lifetime experiences. There’s one rule for game drives: never break the silhouette of the Land Rover, which means not standing up in the vehicle. The animals see the vehicle as one large entity that is larger than them so they do not take the vehicle on. Also, standing up makes it appear like you are towering over them which can be threatening to them. I board the open Land Rover and head out on a fifteen minute drive where we spot various wildlife set against the world’s only remaining sand forest. We start looking for fresh tracks and the guides spot some tracks for a lion and a leopard. The spotters are excellent here at Phinda, they have such an amazing passion for their surroundings and all that lives within it.

One of the guides lets us know that he’s spotted four cheetahs, so we head over to check them out. These graceful animals are just breathtaking and we sit in awe of them for a while until we notice they’re on edge and start looking around quite agitated. We then see in the distance, a very large female lioness, heading towards us. We drive towards her but she looks ahead in one direction, on a clear mission, and our guide explains that she’s in search of her two cubs. The whole experience is just amazing and this is only a small snippet of what we encountered. Every game drive brings so much excitement and it renders us speechless every time, especially because you never know what you’ll see once you get out there. The afternoon game drives are great as well and they end with a cold beverage watching the sunset which, in this setting, is pretty hard to beat.

GO: Visit lodge for reservations and more information.