When we came to South Africa we knew we would see animals. Probably quite a lot of them. And so far we haven’t been proved wrong. It has been an animal smorgsboard from day one.
But I don’t think I believed we would ever have such a great time as we did in Madikwe recently – a fantastic, malaria-free (this is important because the most-famous park, Kruger, isn’t), “Big 5” game reserve just four hours drive from Pretoria.
Madikwe is a well-managed park: to “safari” there you need to be staying at one of the lodges, and the guides all coordinate so there is never more than two vehicles at a siting at once. Sometimes they keep it to just one. This certanly gives the reserve an air of “exclusivity,” although I can’t pretend you don’t pay for this privilege.
Anyway with 30 lodges to chose from, it wasn’t going to be easy to decide where we would spend our three nights in the park. But luckily only a few are regarded as “child-friendly”, with several not accepting children at all. Plus, we had heard wonderful things about the Bush House – and in particular it’s underground hide, which allowed you to get within spitting distance of the elephants. So close in fact that often all you could see were their feet!
We stayed for three nights in Madikwe, and went on six game drives in that time (three in the morning, three in the afternoon). Each drive lasted more than three hours so in total we spend more than 18 hours sitting on our bums in an off-road vehicle. But it never felt that long – there was so much to see that the time always passed quickly, plus the stops for Amarula-filled coffee in the morning and sundowners in the evening helped!
We were woken every morning at 5am by a tap on the door from our trusty guide Greg. Now usually it’s impossible to get our younger daughter out of bed at 6am to go to school – but here she was up and dressed in no time each day: although the drives were long (and she ended up taking a book to occupy herself during the quieter moments!), she was excited as the rest of us to see what that morning would hold!
Each morning’s game drive followed a similar pattern – we would usually try and follow up on one or two leads that Greg had already established from communicating with other guides, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Once we had a good “sighting” under our belts, he would take us on a drive somewhere different each day – before stopping for coffee with the much-welcomed Amarula addition. We were incredibly lucky and saw some fantastic animals during our three days – like this leopard:
This guy was found because of his rather ostentatious dinner hanging in a nearby tree – leopards are well known for dragging carcasses up trees and leaving them there for when they feel like a bite to eat later. Nevertheless, we would never have spotted him hiding in a nearby bush, their camouflage is fantastic. It is at times like these that you really appreciate the skills of your highly-trained guides.
We also found a number of lions during our stay – two brothers who seemed to “rule the roost” one evening, a group of ladies another and finally another small pride complete with cubs on a third outing! It really did feel like quite a privilege.
As well as the “big” sightings, we also enjoyed seeing some of the smaller animals in the park – like a rather large scorpion spotted by my husband, a weedy little snake seen by me, a leopard tortoise viewed by us all and this pair of dung beetles rolling their dung (the male apparently doing all the work!) first sighted very proudly by my youngest daughter:
We saw so much it is hard to choose which pictures to share, but there were two sightings that probably stood out (as well as the leopard). The first was our amazing encounter with the park’s only pack of wild dogs (70% of the reserve’s dogs were sadly wiped out last year by rabies).
Greg had heard there were dogs in the area so we headed in the direction they had been briefly seen and patrolled slowly up and down the track by the bush, looking and listening for signs that we were in the right place. Suddenly – a howl! Greg and another guide made a little foray into the bush (we all stayed sensibly on the truck) and found exactly where they were! The pack had just killed a kudu and were in the process of chowing down. Apparently this is a quick process and they would be gone within ten minutes. So, beating back the thorn bushes as best we could, the vehicle drove into the bush and within metres of the dogs. Thanks to the great way the park is manged, they show no fear at all of the trucks – allowing us to get some brilliant photos (which would have been even better had our longer lens not decided to jam the day we arrived in Madikwe!)
We observed the wild dogs for about five minutes before moving off and allowing another brave truck to make the thorny-route into the clearing where they were polishing off the remains of their dinner. A truely magical experience!
The other sighting which will remain with me was of a caracal. A caracal is a lynx-like wild cat which is apparently rarely seen. As we came across it quite by chance, this spot really did feel very special:
We were able to sit quietly and watch this beautiful cat as it made its way round in circles, marking its territory, completely nochalent about the car full of humans sitting and watching him go about his business!
So all good things must come to an end and we finally reached our last night at the Bush House. We had had some great game sightings but, due to the fact that it had recently, rained the lodge’s waterhole was quieter than usual (the game finding their water in other places). However, the last night came good and we had a parade of animals – elephants, rhino and a huge herd of buffalo – making their way down to the hole. It was truely a magnificant way to end an amazing holiday!
If you are visiting South Africa I can thoroughly recommend the Bush House (even families with younger children can be accommodated – a Dutch family staying at the lodge with us had organised private game drives with their three-year-old). We will be going on a self-drive tour to Kruger later this year, malaria tablets and all. I am sure it will be a totally different experience, not least of all trying to work out how to feed us all for six days! But if it is ease and relaxation you are after then look no futher than Madikwe.