Although the Kruger National Park is South Africa’s most famous Big 5 territory, the private Madikwe Reserve, on South Africa’s border with Botswana, to my mind, delivers a better game experience.
Even within the reserve – 75 000 hectares of reclaimed farmland that includes mountains and plains – the game experience differs on account of the varied landscape.
Those in the know understand that the vastness of the reserve matters little as there are only a limited number of possible kilometres to travel within each three-hour game drive. What does matter, however, is the number of vehicles on the roads and in this alone Madikwe is a better experience as self-drives are not permitted. And, the fact that Madikwe is Malaria-free is a significant saving in terms of required medication and worry.
Within Madikwe there are a number of lodges that span different price points. The reason to select Madikwe Hills Lodge, part of the Seasons in Africa collection of lodges, is for the spaciousness of the suites, 150 square meters of bush-inspired luxury with own plunge pools and private decks that look out over the river and plains beyond.
The bathrooms, voted by Harper’s Bazaar among the Top 10, are spa-sized with individual basins and mirrors on either end, a central walk-in shower and a free-standing tub next to the timber doors that pull back to bring the outside in. There is an outside shower at the edge of your own private swimming pool. The toilet is in a separate cubicle but the open-plan bathroom is visible from the bedroom. Suites are filled with natural light thanks to the high thatched roofs which is a welcome change as many safari lodges go for interiors so gloomy one needs lights on during the day. These suites are designed to be enjoyed no matter the weather – with a fireplace in the sitting room and heaters throughout and individual air-conditioning units in the lounging area and bedroom to keep cool.
Walls are plastered but with organically shaped textures to suggest that a branch of one of the Jackalberry trees was interred inside the wall during construction. There’s the ubiquitous mosquito net around the bed which is more a nod to romance than to necessity.
All suites are accessed via raised timber walkways. This means that it is safe to walk within the confines of the main buildings and the suites without an armed escort.
Madikwe Hills has supported a community-driven water purification project and guests are gifted branded-water flasks to refill from the water purifying fountains in the main area and in the individual suites. As with most luxury resorts, mini bar, meals and most beverages are included in the fee. We liked that our suite had an espresso machine and generous collection of nibbles and drinks. Suites have a collection of quality guidebooks and comfy, well-lit reading areas. If you want lots of alone time, meals can be served in the suite.
The sitting area of the main lodge, the space where you will meet before embarking on a game-drive and adjacent to the dining room, is built around the giant rock boulders that existed on the site. Lights inside upturned woven baskets are massed to form a dramatic chandelier and there are hanging chairs, such as were on trend in the 1970’s but these are shaped like the Weaver bird’s nests that hang from the trees outside.
Your game-drive vehicle might include up to five other people which means that the centre seat is typically left free. This, in itself, is a departure from many other lodges who cram nine people and upwards into the vehicle. While some lodges cut costs by having a driver who is your guide and tracker, at Madikwe Hills your game drive is hosted by two professionals – their trackers have the bush in their blood, come from the surrounding community and will often be second or third generation trackers who are able to find game by interpreting their tracks.
Also, which is a pleasant surprise, you might find them cooking boerewors – South Africa’s famous coriander-flavoured farmer’s sausage, on a gas stove during the afternoon sundowner bush stop for drinks. Gins and Tonics and delicious snacks, including just-cooked ones, while the African sun turns the horizon orange and the scent of the bush changes as coolness approaches, are always memorable.
For first-timers, your guide and tracker will ensure you see the Big 5. At Madikwe Hills, there is a better than average chance of seeing Wild Dogs which are quite rare elsewhere. Although a lion sighting is pretty much guaranteed, unless they are on the move lions can be boring to watch, especially during the day.
You have the choice of joining morning and afternoon game drives but know that if you choose just to enjoy the lodge you will see plenty of game visit the waterhole which you can view from comfy chairs and with a cocktail in hand. Morning drives start before sunrise so that you have the opportunity of seeing game before the heat of the day sends them for cover. That said, elephants, buffalo, rhino and most antelope will be visible most of the day and at Madikwe you have the advantage of seeing large herds interact around drinking areas. During our September visit, we experienced the elephant males rutting to assert their dominance ahead of the mating season.
The terracotta-coloured dried mud created clouds of henna-like powder in the air around them as they bumped and crashed into each other with their giant foreheads. Amid this display, even the nearby lions take cover under an Acacia thorn tree to give the real kings of the wild, the elephants, their space. The Chacma baboons, on the other hand, are close underfoot in the way a kibitzer annoyingly suggests which card you might play during a game. It takes a good few loud trumpet calls from the matriarch of the herd before the baboons give way.
After the elephants leave, tails in rhythm like a metronome, the zebra and the kudu bulls are off to the left, while the Impala are drinking to the right. Moments after a Kori Bustard, the largest flying bird and a national bird of Botswana, lands at the water – appearing irritated at the Spoonbill stork wading and prodding near the water’s edge. In a nanosecond, everything scatters for cover as the lions pounce at a kudu. Everything except for the baboons, still sitting lazily under a tree.
Tell me more about Madikwe Hills Lodge
Madikwe Hills Lodge, Zeerust, South Africa.
Tel: +27 (0)11 781 5431
Lodging from £1,195 per couple.
Fly to Madikwe in 50-minutes on daily scheduled flights from Johannesburg.