Cheetahs with my chakras

Sunday Times
Published: 24th March 2013


There is a white light within you.” There certainly is. I am with my flame-haired yoga teacher, Meryl, on top of a mountain — the Mountain of the King. The last thing we see before we close our eyes to meditate is a sturdy black rhino crashing through the bush below. Overhead, a crowned eagle sweeps into the immense orange sunset above the Phinda Private Game Reserve.

I am on a yoga safari in Maputaland, the land of the Zulus. This is a South Africa exuberant with wildlife. On the way to Meryl’s mountain eyrie, we passed a moody elephant that flapped her ears at us and stomped her mighty feet. We drove past a rhino with her baby, a miniature black fortress with a spear on its head. We saw a cheetah stalking through the long grass with her cubs, their sweet fluffy faces bloodstained from plunging into the entrails of a nyala antelope their mother had killed. All very fecund. There was a crocodile, too, guarding her eggs as she watched us with hooded eyes and a proud, toothy grin.

Phinda, it seems to me, has every animal under the African sun: leopards and leopard tortoises, black and white rhinos, lions and cheetahs. The Gettys have a house here, and Prince Charles visited the thatched Homestead villa last year — it is fit for a prince, with four astonishing suites, a private chef, a butler, a ranger, use of a 4x4 and a pool. But this is luxury with a conscience — and how else will these animals survive without ecotourism?

“Feel the positive energy,” Meryl says as we sit cross-legged, palms upwards. Phinda yoga safaris combine game-watching, meditation and lots of blissed-out bodily contortion. Each day brings a gentle yoga session in the morning, either on my terrace or out in the bush, a game drive and some meditation before nightfall.

In the past, meditation for me has been an opportunity to check that all my anxieties and problems are intact, but this time it seems to be working. As for yoga, I’m usually far too impatient.

“Connect with the energy of the eagle,” Meryl whispers. And I do. In fact, I seem able to hear every separate sound on the plain below, from the cry of a frog to the chime of songbirds and the trumpet of an elephant. Only two weeks earlier, a lioness had made her den here on the Mountain of the King.

Many safari-goers could do with a little meditation to get their minds in tune with what they see. There’s the American in our party, for example, who can’t stop checking his mobile phone. Late one night, we drive to a deserted beach beside the Indian Ocean to look for turtles. We find a 3ft loggerhead laying her eggs, a concrete shield covered in barnacles, like something left over from the First World War. She sprays us with sand as she buries her clutch, and drags her huge exhausted body back to the ocean, where she melts into the water, transforming into a glossy mermaid and splashing away into the tiers of waves.

Meanwhile, the night sky swirls with stars and the wide, sandy beach scurries with ghost crabs. As we return to the 4x4, shaken and moved, our wired American notes: “I’ve just had two missed calls from my dentist.”

To be fair, the next morning he says he’s going to rethink his life. “I realise now how jaded we are in the west. I mean, this place is astonishing... it’s Jurassic Park. I had no idea. I want to get the balance back.” Meditation and yoga teach how to push out extraneous thoughts, how not to think about the next phone call.

Back on the mountaintop, Meryl guides me further beyond the bounds of everyday consciousness.
“Be in the present moment,” she urges. “Connect with the energy of the universe.” We drink fresh mango juice, and even that tastes better, as though I am experiencing it fully for the first time.

On the drive back to the lodge, we see delicate baby giraffes with their preposterously huge parents, and Callie, our ranger, talks about how hyenas are the best mothers in the animal kingdom. “No one wants to see them any more, because of The Lion King,” she says mournfully.

Callie picks us sawtooth love grass, which the locals use in spells. (I decide to keep some.) She tells us stories of Burchell’s coucal, which calls out whenever rain is coming, and the green-backed heron, which lays out locusts on the water to entice fish.

Most of all, I am in awe of Callie herself, a ranger bringing Phinda’s filigree of sights and sounds alive in all their brilliance. Her gentle insights are the perfect complement to Meryl’s meditation and yoga teaching.

The next morning, we drive out early, at 5.30am. After stopping at an elephant roadblock, we reach a clearing where breakfast has been prepared beside the yoga mats — tropical fruit, muesli and muffins, all laid out on a red and white tablecloth. I’m peckish, but Meryl wants to raise my consciousness first.

We emulate the movements of the Phinda big cats — some feline stretches, the lion pose, the warrior pose — and I feel serene, although I do keep half an eye on a nearby colony of ants. I’m not afraid of any bigger animals interrupting us, as the area has been scouted beforehand. Besides, Callie, the superheroine ranger, is fearless. She has a huge rifle, and I have seen her plugging brass bullets into it. “I’ve never had to use it,” she says. Meryl suggests that the positive energy created by yoga might keep the animals calm. Hmm.

That evening, we meditate on a boat floating down the Mzinene River, the sky solemn, the water ruffling beneath us. We are observed as we go by vervet monkeys clutching babies to their chests, while the overarching branches spring with birds, including yellow weavers darting in and out of their reed nests. Black-and-white pied kingfishers fish among the water lilies. Nile crocodiles smile as we go by.

I return to my thatched suite at Mountain Lodge, an enchanted enclave with a plunge pool and a private terrace overlooking all those frogs and birds. In the grounds, impalas stroll and little warthogs rove about with their tails in the air, looking curiously self-conscious.

After dinner, I find a brown foam-nest frog perching patiently beside my bathtub, where a bubble bath has been run for me and candles have been lit. I’ve a momentary fancy that the management has provided me with my own gentle frog prince, who is enjoying the romance of the soft candlelight. Perhaps I’ve been connecting too completely with the energy and magic of Phinda.

Need to Know

Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of &Beyond and Mahlatini Travel

Phinda is the flagship reserve of the luxury safari company &Beyond (00 27 11 809 4300, Mahlatini Travel (028 9073 6050, has four-night yoga safaris at the Phinda Homestead from £2,950pp, all-inclusive, based on eight sharing and including flights from London via Johannesburg; Mountain Lodge suites start at £3,995pp, based on two sharing. A four-day extension in a five-star hotel in Durban or Cape Town starts at £600pp. Or try Imagine Africa (020 7622 5114, or Africa Exclusive (01604 628979, November to February is the cheapest time to visit, but can be rainy; our summer is cooler and drier.