Madikwe magic

HR-baby-lionKruger might be South Africa’s most popular safari destination,  but north of Johannesburg there’s an exciting alternative. Madikwe Game Reserve not only boasts the Big Five but, as William Gray discovers during a stay at Etali Safari Lodge, its accommodation is sensational

There is something magical about spending a night in the African bush. A starlit sky, crackling fire and the strange, wild orchestra of the night shift… It doesn’t matter whether you rough it on a budget camping safari or splash out on a five-star lodge, the basic feelings of remoteness, atmosphere and intimacy are trademarks of wild nights out in Africa that every discerning traveller can enjoy – regardless of how much they spend.

My first taste of an African safari was a shoestring 10-day jaunt to Kenya’s Lake Turkana in the 1980s. Our minibus was so dilapidated that somewhere between Maralal and Baragoi the suspension collapsed. Our food dwindled to a few over-ripe bananas and the driver-guide couldn’t tell his dipstick from a dik-dik.

Don’t let me put you off the budget option. Camping safaris, in which you pitch your own tents and help with cooking, can be excellent value and great fun. Having recently spent a few nights at Etali Safari Lodge in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve, however, I have to admit that I’ve developed a weakness for luxury safaris at the other end of the scale.

It’s almost precocious the way in which accommodation is crafted in some of Africa’s safari destinations. Confronted by wild environments, seasonal rains, remote locations and difficult access, safari operators respond with feather duvets, fine dining, indulgent spas and plunge pools.

Take the eight luxury suites at Etali Safari Lodge. Privacy and intimacy are guaranteed in each thatched masterpiece. The spacious interiors are furnished with a king-size bed, leather armchairs, wood stove and elaborate ensuite. Large glass doors slide open to provide access to an equally stylish deck with splash pool and outdoor shower. Beyond lies wild Africa: don’t be surprised if you wake one morning to find an elephant siphoning your pool water.

Of course, luxury on safari means nothing if the wildlife watching isn’t up to scratch. At Etali, expert guides lead twice-daily game drives and optional game walks, but my personal favourite was the armchair safari – witnessing the ebb and flow of animals visiting the waterhole in front of the lodge’s main deck. During one laidback stint of game-viewing, I watched transfixed as a large herd of elephants – covered in red-ochre dust – converged on this precious water source. Buffalo, giraffe and zebra were also frequent visitors, while lion, leopard and rhino made cameo appearances.

Operation Phoenix
Tucked into a remote corner of South Africa’s North West province, the 75,000-hectare Madikwe Game Reserve was only established in 1991. Prior to that, farmland had a tenacious, yet unproductive, grip on this Kalahari borderland. Not only were cattle degrading the land, but they were doing little to improve livelihoods in an economically depressed region. When extensive land-use studies suggested that Madikwe would be far more prolific as a wildlife estate, the green light was given to an extraordinary transformation process. A 150km-long fence was erected around the reserve’s perimeter, while its habitats were carefully restored to a blend of Kalahari thornveld and mixed bushveld – a merging of biomes that brought geographically distinct species like impala and springbok side-by-side.

It was the restocking of Madikwe that dominated the headlines. A modern-day Genesis – over 8000 animals from 25 large mammal species were released into the reserve during Operation Phoenix – the world’s largest ever reintroduction programme. The herbivores came first, with 1175 impala, 770 blue wildebeest and 547 zebra being added in 1992 alone. Hundreds more arrived the following year, along with an ever-growing infantry of buffalo, eland, elephant, gemsbok, giraffe, hartebeest, kudu, waterbuck and white and black rhino. From 1994, small numbers of predators were added, including lion, spotted hyena and African wild dog. With leopard already present on the reserve, Madikwe’s Big Five status was sealed and the tourists started arriving.

The Complete Safari
Game viewing might be the main reason visitors come to Madikwe, but Etali Safari Lodge, like many top-end operators, also offers a range of other activities. Far from artificial light pollution, the clear night skies of the Kalahari promise superb stargazing. Families are also in for a treat. Not only is Madikwe malaria-free, but lodges like Etali excel in the art of child-friendly safaris. Even the journey to this far-flung wildlife haven, a four-hour drive northwest of Johannesburg, has family appeal if you stop halfway at fun-filled Sun City.

Food also lies at the heart of the ‘complete safari’ experience. At Etali, the friendly staff prepare sumptuous dinners around an open fire in the boma, or spoil you with bush breakfasts and lavish afternoon teas. And let’s not forget the spa where bush bliss is guaranteed through wellness treatments including massages, body wraps and facials.

Ultimately, however, the real magic of Madikwe lies in its wildlife. Whether you’re sipping tea on your private deck or enjoying a hot-stone massage, it’s the thrill of knowing that a herd of elephants might be just around the corner that makes a safari at Etali so special.

Plan your safari:
Etali Safari Lodge (tel: +27 12 346 0124, email: reservations@etalisafari.co.za,
www.etalisafari.co.za) costs R5100-8700 (US$360-614) per person per night sharing a luxury suite, including accommodation, twice-daily game drives and stargazing, all meals and snacks, house wines, local beers and soft drinks, kids activities and babysitting | Lodges like Etali can arrange private air charters to the reserve. Otherwise allow around four hours to drive to Madikwe from Johannesburg. A good option for breaking the journey is to spend a few nights at Pilanesberg National Park • The best time to visit is May-September when wildlife congregates at waterholes  • Further information: www.experiencemadikwe.com