Disclaimer: We get very gushy in this particular blog, we don’t receive any kind of remuneration from either Madikwe or Mosethla, it was as every bit as amazing as we make it out to be.
Most flights to South Africa are overnight flights and we are not great sleepers on planes but we probably managed about 4 hours of broken sleep each by the time that we landed in Jo’burg. We quickly secured flip flops and a Sim card and commenced the inevitably interminable process of picking up our rental car. James summoned some reserve of energy from somewhere and managed to drive the four hours to Madikwe Reserve. We’d visited South Africa previously but the area we drove through was significantly different to the Garden Route that we had travelled before. The poverty was far more evident; a majority of the houses that we passed were made of corrugated iron sheeting and were surrounded with fences and barbed wire. There were some truly beautiful stretches of empty scrub land with a straight road to infinity stretching ahead of us. We stopped 100kms short of the park to get some sustenance in the form of chips and diet coke from the world’s most inefficient KFC. Because we had visited before, we hadn’t done the usual research on customs so were slightly surprised when a man came up to us as we got back to the car and assured us that no one had scratched it, smiling expectantly. It took us a beat to remember that this is a thing in SA, you pay someone to watch your car in the carpark.
We eventually made it to the gates of Madikwe, checked in with the ranger and proceeded into the park past our favourite type of warning sign.
We had our first experience of self-drive safari with 12kms of track through to the park headquarters where our safari guide was waiting for us. The deck may have been stacked slightly in our favour as we passed two waterholes along the way. At the first we passed a large herd of elephants enjoying an afternoon bath.
They were also spread across the road and we proceeded with much apprehension, never having learned how you are supposed to navigate a herd of elephants in a VW Polo (whom we christened Jilly, incidentally). The second watering hole looked like the opening scene from The Lion King, albeit without the lions. There were gazelle, wildebeest and Zebra scattered around, a couple of elephants having a wash and a giraffe gracefully loping across the plain. (The photos don’t do it justice, they were taken from Polo height!)
We parked up at headquarters and met Sibu, our guide. He told us that he wanted to fill the waterhole up; it delays everyone arriving in the park and it sets expectations so high. He wasn’t wrong, our tiredness was temporarily forgotten and we were bouncing in our seats. Sibu asked us what we wanted to see and we had replied: “Cats!” before he had finished the question. “Oh and dogs”. It was at this point that we learned that the wild dog pack had been quarantined a few days earlier in order to introduce some new animals; they were aiming to split the pack in two. This was a bit of a blow, but it was good to know that the pack was successful enough to be split and we knew that we had opportunities to see dogs later on.
We arrived at Mosethla Camp and were given a tour of our room and the facilities. Mosethla is an eco-camp and it takes that status very seriously. There is no electricity, the food is 90% prepared over fire, water is heated in a donkey boiler and then carried in buckets to the showers, which are also buckets. It took us a day to get used to the set up but after that we were absolutely raring to go. Monica, the camp manager, was a brilliant host and shared Caro’s rather dry sense of humour, when we weren’t out seeing animals they were frequently found cackling together. Mosethla is the only non-five star accommodation in the park but the cabins are exceptionally comfortable and, whilst the food isn’t luxury, it is tasty and served constantly, in mountainous portions.
We did six game drives in total; we won’t go through them one by one but just give you the highlights. We have done a fair bit of safari between the two of us, and Madikwe is definitely up there with the best. Madikwe was established in 1991 as a joint venture between the State, private business and the local community in a model which has been replicated across SA. It was an enormous operation to clear the remains of agriculture and re-establish wildlife in the area. In the case of Madikwe, it has created one of the largest and most beautiful reserves in SA which generates funds for conservation and supports the local community. It is also a wonderful environment to drive around so the experience is pleasant regardless of what you see.
We were woken at 4:45 each morning and game drives commenced at 5:15 after a hurried and necessary cup of tea. The drives were simply fantastic, there were so many animals around and we felt that we were being well and truly spoiled. On one of our morning drives we had seen four of the big five and Sibu careered around the place trying to find the last so that we could tick off all five in one drive; he was looking for water buffalo, we’d already seen lion, leopard, elephant and rhino that morning, that’s the kind of safari on which we found ourselves. Enough chatter, here are some photos.
That’s a mongoose by the way.
Afternoon game drives began at 16:15 and included sun downers before coming back to camp for dinner. Here is where we felt that Mosethla really had an edge; in the five star lodges it was important to get back promptly in time for whatever creation the chefs had in store for dinner. We had no such restraints, safari came first. On one occasion, we had our sun downers in near total darkness because we had lingered with some lions and then found some brown hyena to follow and drinks got pushed back (though not cancelled, which would have been a travesty). Gin tastes so much better in the bush with a gorgeous sunset.
We enjoyed every second of our drives but there are some truly special moments that we would like to call out in particular. On our first morning we sat with a pride of six lionesses and one lion for about 30 minutes. The lions were perfectly relaxed but also on the lookout for a potential hunt resulting in a failed attempt on a warthog by one of the young females. It was all going swimmingly until an elephant lumbered on to the scene.
The eagled-eyed amongst you may also have spotted the leopard tortoise behind them. When the females were distracted it made a mad dash to get away and nearly ran slap bang in to the male.
After two days of searching we finally tracked down a pair of cheetah brothers just before we lost the light.
We were thrilled to have some excellent rhino sightings, both black and white; they are James’s favourite animal and are severely endangered so it was heartening to see some babies as well.
There was a waterhole that was extremely popular with the elephants with at least 40 of them milling around, including many adorable babies.
We watched, on two separate occasions, as two male lions laid down the foundations of a turf war by scent-marking extensively around another lion’s territory.
One stepped on a thorn and had to work it out with his teeth.
Perhaps best of all was the spectacular leopard sighting. You can generally tell when it is a leopard because your guide goes all cagey and starts driving like a rally driver. Madikwe only allow three vehicles to be around an animal at any one time so we joined the queue to see her hiding up in a tree. When our turn came however, she decided that she had had enough and climbed down the tree and into the dense thickets below. We were so disappointed to have missed her but fortunately she decided to walk right towards us and we had 10-15 minutes, following her around. (Bear with us here, we couldn’t decide which photos to use so there are quite a few!)
Once we had roared through the big five we started asking Sibu to find us the slightly more obscure stuff, we needed to keep him challenged. So he found an African Wild Cat, during the day, which is crazy. It looked like a rather large moggy.
What was often astonishing was the number of different animals that we could see at any one time. Rhino, elephant, giraffe, impala and wildebeest all in one shot.
On our last morning the pride of lions had settled about a kilometre from the camp so Sibu took us to see them one last time.
This is mostly an excuse to add more pictures up but James has developed the skill of taking an iphone photo through binoculars, it was quite a challenge at first but by the end he had it absolutely nailed.
Madikwe was simply amazing, we loved every second of it and we cannot wait to go back.