All I could think about was steak. It was 8pm, I’d had three hours sleep and been traveling for 10 hours. You may never hear another guide utter such a confession again but my short-cut through the back roads of the North West Province had not been my finest moment.
The black night, the buzz of the car heater and the gentle corrugations on the dirt road were tugging at my eyelids. REM had set in, and apparitions of a wood fire, a warm bed and a juicy fillet floated towards me. Just as my face was about to go zombie and spill an embarrassing trickle of drool, Garth’s voice brought me back from the land of the living dead.
I knew it was straight all the way from here, but my earlier moment of misplaced confidence demanded at least a glance at the map. I looked up again as we approached a river and the headlights caught a sign board with its name. THE GROOT MARICO. A wave of excitement washed over me.
This was a part of the country I’d never been to: the land I’d read about as a child in the books of Herman Charles Bosman. And the reserve I knew only by reputation, a volcanic landscape famous for its plains game and painted wolves: Madikwe.
Even though it was a straight and easy drive from the entrance to Jaci’s Safari Lodge, their staff caringly drove out to escort us though the darkness. Stepping out of the vehicle and entering the camp on a swing bridge I was reminded of why I love winter in the African bushveld so much: the sounds and the smells that the cool, dense air brought into the watercourse around the camp were invigorating. Our lodging was a beautiful tent with a wooden deck, a shower under the stars and a heated floor, romantic enough to leave Garth and I in a cloud of unspoken awkwardness. And to end the evening my fantasy come true: a wood fire and a side of melt-in-your-mouth steak in green peppercorn sauce that would have had the strictest vegan quivering with temptation.
After a night of hyena calls echoing along the river and through our canvas walls we drifted out on our morning drive into a land of inselbergs, acacias and wide open plains. Located along South Africa’s border with Botswana, Madikwe lies in a transition zone between Lowveld bushveld and Kalahari thornveld. As a result the region is host to an incredible diversity of species from both ecosystems. Over 340 bird species are found here, including specials like the yellow-throated sandgrouse and Caspian plover, and an incredible 66 mammal species which include hard-to-see creatures like the Cape clawless otter, African hedgehog, pangolin, Selous’ mongoose, and Cape and bat-eared foxes. It was here in 1991that Operation Phoenix, the largest translocation project in the world, began. More than 8000 animals of 28 species including elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, cheetah, Cape hunting dog, spotted hyaena, and many species of antelope and herbivores were introduced: a phenomenal conservation achievement.
Our three-night stay yielded some memorable sightings: crimson-breasted shrikes, violet-eared waxbills and pied babblers darted amongst the acacia thickets. We walked amoungst a family of the normally shy banded mongoose, and had a fleeting glimpse of the rare brown hyena. We watched zebra stallions fighting each other in the golden dusk surrounded by clouds of red Kalahari sand . We found a lioness desperately calling for her lost cubs. Eventually she gave up and returned to the rest of the pride and their wildebeest kill, only for the tiny cubs to somehow navigate their way through the bush on their own and find themselves in the middle of an overwhelming family reunion. Back at the camp we delighted in giraffe, kudu, waterbuck and wildebeest drinking at the water’s edge, and saw a monitor lizard the size of a small Comodo dragon. Our fellow guests at Jaci’s were lucky enough to see a leopard and a herd of 400 buffalo…and someone even got to see a pangolin, an animal I have only seen once in my life.
But if there are two reasons you should visit Jaci’s Lodges and Madikwe these are mine:
There are very few places left in the world where you can regularly see herds of over 100 elephants. In Southern Africa these places would include the Savuti, Chobe, Linyanti, Hwange, the Tuli Block….. and Madikwe. Having a population of over 900 elephants on 75 000 hectares of land, your chances of having some very special encounters with these pachyderms are incredibly high. We came to a waterhole in the late evening to find what must have been about five family groups of elephant congregating together. I have always been amazed at how elephants seem to time their arrival at water with other groups so impeccably, but then with so much evidence pointing to an ability to communicate over unbelievable distances, why should I be? A herd of rhinos made a hasty retreat from the approaching giants, and a magical scene of beauty and chaos unfolded before us. There were the soft pastels of a purple evening sky reflecting off their grey bodies, and the plumes of red dust they kicked up chasing each other around and into the water. This contrasted powerfully with the jurassic trumpets, bellows, rumbles, screeches and screams that are only heard at a gathering such as this. Young bulls took the opportunity to test each other’s strength, mothers chased after their misbehaving calves and what seemed like groups of old friends delighted in each other’s company and the joy of the water in this parched environ. It was only the fading light that pulled us away from this breath-taking spectacle.
2. CAPE HUNTING DOGS
Also known as the African wild dog or painted wolf, this is a highly endangered mammal that most people will sadly never see on safari. Perhaps once numbering 500,000 in 39 countries their numbers have dwindled to somewhere between 3 and 5000 in possibly only 14 countries. This is in my opinion of the most entertaining of all creatures to spend time with. It’s no coincidence we used it as our logo! For those that don’t know this animal, this is why: They are highly intelligent, and have a well organized and fascinating societal structure. In contrast to lions, which tend to spend most of their lives sleeping, these dogs are full of energy and constantly play and chase one another as they move through the bush. They are incredible hunters, often killing twice a day. They work as a pack and are capable of taking down prey as large as an eland. Phenomenal athletes, they can reach speeds of up to 40 miles an hour, will cover distances of over 3 miles in a single hunt, and can travel up to 25 miles in a day. Their success ratio can be 3 to 4 times that of some of the large cat species. Their hunting method has been described as cruel by the ignorant; it is instead fast and effective, and they are not only non-aggressive towards each other while feeding, but they will take food back to the pups and the babysitters that stayed behind at the den. If you’re looking for action on safari, this is your animal. And there are few better places to see them than here.
There are two packs currently denning at Madikwe. We spent two occasions at a den with a pack that whose 13 pups had just recently come above ground. They were incredibly relaxed in the presence of the vehicle, and we watched them chasing and play-fighting with each other for hours, delighting in their bird-like chitters and whimpers. They scratched holes, they played tug-of war with sticks, they begged the baby sitters for scraps and we even saw them nursing from the alpha female. Both sightings would rank as all-time wildlife highlights, and made me incredibly glad that I’d finally ventured across the Groot Marico.
Getting there: You can fly into Madikwe, or drive. It’s a 3½ hour drive from Johannesburg, if you avoid my short-cut
Best time of year: All seasons have their advantages here. Winter mornings are cold, but the dogs typically den from late May to late July/ beginning of August, and this is your best chance to see them.
Malaria: Jaci’s Lodges are in a malaria free area.
Tips: There is a sleep out at the hide if you’re feeling adventurous. When it’s not too cold, that is.
Conservation: Jaci’s are actively involved in raising funds for rhino conservation.
Food: The steak. Get the steak.
Owners: There’s something about owner-managed safari lodges: an added feeling of warmth, family and pride. Jaci and Jan van Heteren are actively involved in the running of the camp. Jan even joined us for dinner, and we spoke for hours of safari stories that may never be published on Rangerdiaries.com