DURING the hour-long scenic flight from Johannesburg to Madikwe, I get a fleeting feeling of being in a ‘parallel universe.'
At first glance, the patchwork of red earth, rocky outcrops and khaki shrubs below looks exactly like outback Australia … well, until you notice it’s garnished with giraffes and zebras.
Landing at the Madikwe East Air Strip, I’m greeted by the smiley Mitchell Huggins, my Madikwe Safari Lodge field guide, who reveals that the lodge is sprawled across three different sites – Kopano, Dithaba and Lelapa - where I’ll be staying in one of 12 plush, standalone suites overlooking the bushveld.
On the short drive to Lelapa, we pass a herd of impala. It’s rutting season so the males are frisky; and even though they look Bambi-cute, their agro grunts sound about as cuddly as a velociraptor. Nope, definitely not in Oz now!
Madikwe Game Reserve sprawls some 76,000ha along the Botswana border in South Africa’s North West Province, where the terrain is a mixture of hills, outcrops, Kalahari plains, savannah and wooded glades. This varied landscape is home to nearly 70 different types of mammal – including the Big 5 – and nearly 350 types of bird.
Here, Lelapa’s understated luxury seamlessly blends into the environment, its tastefully decorated main lodge consisting of open-air lounge and dining areas, as well as a rustic bar with an enviable gin collection. It’s a great place to sip a Springbok (a local shooter made from Crème De Menthe and Amarula) and swap stories with fellow guests at the end of the day.
When it’s time to kick back, Lelapa’s standalone suites offer five-star comfort with epic views over the bushveld. Each features its own deck (where you can cool off in your own private plunge pool or spy on plains animals from your outdoor shower), along with comfy indoor lounge areas. Crisp textiles, gigantic bathtubs, rain showers and king-size beds take comfort to the next level – and the supplied Africology beauty products ensure you feel head-to-toe glowy.
If you really want to max out the bliss factor, book in for a massage at the lodge’s spa (or have the masseuse come to your suite). Our pick of the treatments on offer is the Intonga Amasatchi – a 75-minute deep tissue massage that uses wooden sticks to help stretch out tight muscles. Heaven!
The lodge’s personalised service continues right through to its safari drives, where our super-knowledgeable field guide Huggins points out the reserve’s various wild highlights, and over three game drives we get comfortably close to spitting cobras, white rhinos, lions, cheetahs, painted wolves, elephants, and countless giraffes, zebras, wildebeests and impalas.
We set off on our morning drives at 6am so we could see the animals kickstarting their day; our evening drives left the lodge at 4pm to coincide with the wildlife’s dinner time.
In between safaris, there was plenty of time to tuck into breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and relax beside the lodge’s lush pool.
Here, the sunlounges are perfectly positioned to view a waterhole, where elephants, warthogs, giraffes, zebras and impala all visit to cool off.
On my last day, I’m alone by the pool, watching the waterhole, when a lone elephant strolls over to within mere metres of my sunlounge; he stops to stare at me with idle curiosity, then silently wanders away.
It’s a humbling moment, especially when you think there’s less than 400,000 of these gentle giants left in the wild across Africa. It’s utterly unforgettable – just like Madikwe.
SAVE A RHINO
During your stay at the Madikwe Safari Lodge, you can take part in their Rhino Conservation Experience. Headed up by the legendary Phillip Hattingh, the Counter-Poaching Unit microchips, notches and extracts DNA samples from previously unknown rhinos, thereby recording their ID to help keep them safe. To kick off the experience, the team locates the rhinos by chopper, then the vet darts them with a tranquilliser. As the animals fall asleep, their eyes are covered and ears plugged to keep them comfy while the team do their work. Afterwards, the rhinos receive another injection to wake them up … and then they toddle off and go about their day. During my Madikwe stay I help the team with a rhino calf and his 30-year-old mum – we end up naming the calf Archie, in honour of the master of Sussex. The whole process only takes around 20 minutes, but it’s comforting to know I’ve done something to help these incredible animals as they race against extinction.
To plan your South Africa adventure, see www.southafrica.net.