Exhilaratingly close encounters with African wildlife are the reason to go to Phinda Private Game Reserve, a South African luxury lodge run by eco-tourism pioneer CC Africa. On this 37,000-acre camp, conservation-minded bush buffs can participate in leopard-tagging and rhino-darting expeditions. On our recent visit, Guy Balme, a sort of Indiana Jones of the bush, instructed us on the science of using telemetry to track eight leopards who had been fitted with radio collars (Phinda's small population of leopards faces an increasing threat from trophy hunters on adjoining farms). In our Land Rover we shadowed one cat—sleek, sinewy, and breathtaking—long into the night. We also saw lions, cheetahs, hippos, elephants, giraffes, zebras, a red duiker, a hinged tortoise, even the elusive Pel's fishing owl.
We wished we'd had three more days at Phinda to participate in the rhinoceros-darting trip. For this, guests travel on foot, accompanied by Phinda guides, who instruct on how to track a rhino by the direction that grass has been tramped and how to use an ash bag to stay downwind. Once the rhino is darted and sedated, guests assist a veterinarian with collecting tissue samples and implanting a microchip in the animal's horn.
Guests at Phinda stay in one of four lodges. Rock has six sandstone-and-adobe suites hugging the side of a cliff. Mountain has 20 chalets with private terraces and soothing interiors. Vlei consists of six teak-and-thatch suites overlooking a popular animal thoroughfare. And Forest has 16 glass chalets built on stilts. Rooms, $370-$650; includes meals, drinks, laundry, and insurance. Leopard outing, $1,150 for one to six people for four days. Rhino darting, $1,705 per person for three days. 888-88-2374; www.ccafrica.com.
Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.