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.

At Madikwe Game Re­serve, the rules of the road are dic­tated not by po­lite­ness, but paw size. JONATHAN STRUG FOR THE OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN

Thakadu tented camp is an ex­am­ple of fair trade in tourism: it’s a part­ner­ship be­tween Madikwe Game Re­serve and the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

CHARLES DHARAPAK, REUTERS U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and her fam­ily lis­ten to their guide dur­ing a sa­fari at the Madikwe Game Re­serve in June.

JONATHAN STRUG FOR THE OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN It’s not only lions with whom you’ll have to share the road — ex­pect fre­quent run-ins with ele­phants, ze­bras, gi­raffes and a bevy of an­te­lope species.

JONATHAN STRUG FOR THE OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN Be­cause ze­bras breed through­out the year, sa­fari-go­ers have a good chance of see­ing ba­bies at any time.

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