Wondering where the lions are?
At this little-known African game reserve, you’re almost guaranteed to see the Big Five
The number of people admitted into Madikwe Game Reserve is strictly limited, which may be why visitors are likely to see an abundance of lions, zebras, giraffes, rhinos and elephants. The reserve has been under the radar, but with the recent visit of Michelle Obama and daughters, that low profile may not last long.
Judging by the look in their eyes (and yes, we really are close enough to see into their eyes) the lions have no intention of sharing the road with our safari vehicle. Patience Bogatus, Thakadu River Camp’s unflappable ranger (and the first black female ranger in South Africa), seems to be taking their intransigence in stride, and as she settles comfortably into her seat, the group of us passengers can’t help but wonder if her name is the result of prescient parents or a more recent moniker resulting from frequently tested forbearance in the face of obstinate felines.
Regardless, clearly the rules of the road here at Madikwe Game Reserve are dictated not by politeness but rather by paw size and we are in no position to argue. Nor do we want to. We have all come here to see the Big Five and within 20 minutes of our first game drive we are face-to-face with this most coveted, if headstrong, of specimens.
You’ve got to be prepared for many such roadside right-of-way disputes at Madikwe, a 75,000-hectare reserve just three hours from Johannesburg along the Botswana border.
This year, the reserve celebrates the 20th anniversary of Operation Phoenix, a project in which 8,000 animals, from 28 different species, were relocated to Madikwe. It was the largest translocation of game ever recorded and the reserve has since become one of the country’s best conservation successes.
Its low profile is due largely to its attempts to limit the amount of visitors in order to maintain the integrity of the landscape and avoid the “traffic jam” scenarios often experienced at animal sightings at more touristed reserves. At Madikwe, only guests staying at one of the reserve’s lodges are permitted in the park — no day visitors are allowed.
But Madikwe is unlikely to remain unknown for much longer.
What better proof that the reserve is the rising star in South Africa’s safari portfolio than the recent visit by the Obama family in June? The First Lady and her daughters were all smiles as they took a trek through Madikwe in search of the Big Five.
“I smell elephant,” says Patience, as she slows down the vehicle and inhales deeply.
Already fancying ourselves amateur rangers, we all give the air a good sniff. “All I smell is mud,” whispers the man beside me.
I just smell the faint odour of Gauloises cigarettes coming from the friendly Parisian couple seated behind.
But no sooner have we compared our odorous abilities than a baby elephant steps out onto the road from a wall of towering wild grass and acacia trees. Close behind are several more elephants who, with nothing more than a quick, wary glance in our direction, continue along their way.
Maybe it’s the strictly limited number of visitors at Madikwe that explains the abundance of animals spotted during our game drives. The frequency with which we see lions, zebras, giraffes, rhinos, all variety of antelope and elephants suggests the wildlife at Madikwe may well be pining for an audience.
Or maybe they just like Patience. Certainly she shares a unique kinship with the reserve’s occupants: her nearby community’s revitalization mirrors Madikwe’s own.
Those of us staying at Thakadu are a varied bunch, but we have one thing in common: we’ve all come as much for the great wildlife sightings and five-star, luxurious, tented accommodation as for Thakadu’s unique status as one of the few lodges in South Africa that is wholly-owned and principally operated by the local Molatedi community in partnership with the South African government. It’s a rare opportunity to have an authentic safari experience in tandem with a genuine cultural immersion.
“This was my school,” says Patience rubbing her palm against a cracked, forlorn looking structure.
“Its walls are made of cow dung,” she adds smiling.
The lodge offers guests tours of the community and, as a resident of Molatedi, Patience is the ideal guide. She speaks proudly of the jobs and burgeoning prosperity Thakadu has helped to create. She even drives us by her family home, explaining that she has put her younger sister through school with her earnings as a ranger.
Not only does the community tour provide insight into a completely different way of life, it also has the unexpected side effect of teaching empathy for Madikwe’s frequently gawked-at wildlife. As we are toured around the community, the children greet us with wide-eyed stares, excited waves and shouts of “hello, hello,” giving one a not unpleasant sense of being a welcome oddity on display.
Back at the lodge, over a delicious lunch, I am further reminded of the singular opportunities the community-owned Thakadu provides for unique educational experiences when my waiter and Molatedi village resident, Lucky Rhino, explains how village members deal with the heat of summer.
“We sleep outside where it is cooler, but first we ring the sleeping area with gasoline,” he says.
In response to my confused expression Lucky Rhino adds, “everyone knows that poisonous snakes hate the smell of gasoline.”
Thankfully at Thakadu the only animals we occasionally have to share our space with are a handful of playful vervet monkeys and a clan of curious banded mongoose who enjoy sunning themselves on the deck of my suite.
But not all animals at Madikwe are so tolerant of company. Later that afternoon on safari, what at first appears to be a sleeping zebra proves in fact to be dinner for a lion who pops his head out of the creature’s rib cage as we approach.
Clearly we are interrupting a heartily satisfying meal. The lion pauses long enough for us to see his bloodstained mane and to give us a look that makes it clear we are not welcome to stay for dinner. To punctuate his feelings he offers up a powerful roar followed by three loud grunts before going back to his meal.
Patience begins to turn the vehicle around, then stops.
“Do you know what the lion is saying when he roars,” she asks. We all shake our heads. “Whose land is this? Mine. Mine. Mine.”
Indeed it is, and we are privileged to share it even for a few days.