A former cattle region comprising impoverished farmers playing hardscrabble in over-grazed terrain, North West’s Madikwe Reserve is something of a miracle. It’s not just the density of predator species – lion, cheetah, wild dog, hyena, and crocodile among the 8 000 animals translocated here by Operation Phoenix in the 1990s – it’s also the kaleido-scopic birdlife, from giant eagle owls to kori bustards, bee eaters, and crimson-breasted shrikes.
The 75 000ha of grassy plains, woodlands, rocky outcrops, and mountains make up South Africa’s fifth-largest game reserve. Zeerust, the nearest town, is 100km away, making this a true off-the-beaten-track adventure. The furthest northwest of 31 Madikwe establishments, Tau Game Lodge offers a remote sense of kinship with the wilderness.
About a four-hour drive on toll roads via Rustenburg and Groot Marico, it’s 360km from Joburg. After Zeerust, you turn right onto the R49 towards Gaberone, and my advice is to stick to the tarred road at all costs, no matter what your GPS tells you. With the jowl-jiggling contours of a 33km dirt road – my husband’s idea of a short cut – etched like a sonograph across my frontal lobe, we locate the Tau gate a few hundred metres from the SA/Botswana border post of Tlokweng with some relief. We are led via lush lawns to our stone and thatch chalet as a baboon skips nimbly out of the pathway.
Overlooking a koppie and waterhole glimpsed through glass sliding doors from our king-sized bed, our chalet had an indoor bath, outdoor shower, rain toiletries in glass containers, air-con, and a ceiling fan. Soaps shaped like lion cub paws, distressed wooden frames, a carved lampstand in the shape of a giraffe, porcupine quill shades and green accents enhance the African ambience.
On our first afternoon out on a game drive with our ranger Ernest (Ernie) Maetla, we get impala, wildebeest, zebra, a clan of four hyenas sauntering along the path, and a puncture. A quick wheel change under the watchful eye of a lone rhino and we’re off again.
Ernie, who exudes Buddha-like calm, is a master at reading spoor. After peering at the ground and following the alarm calls of a few guinea fowl, he drives further into the thicket where we encounter a magnificent cheetah.
That evening we feast on lambchops in the boma under a gibbous yellow moon before tottering off to bed, where the basso profondo cough of a lion starts me from a deep sleep. Brutal and guttural, it travels for miles without losing its power.
In the pale, hushed chill of daybreak, we set off on another game drive with Ernie. As the morning heats up and the air begins to shimmy, we encounter a crash of four white rhinos including a mum and baby pulling serenely on the grass. Concession fees support anti-poaching measures with the backing of the various lodges and North West Parks Board. The rhino baby is adorable but even cuter are four hyena cubs we encounter frolicking in a den. Their black baby fur had just begun to give way to spots.
We also see elephants on every drive, including one lone male shovelling branches of acacia thorns into his mouth like crisps and a mother with her baby. Ernie tells us there are now 1 400 elephants in Madikwe, from the original 100 introduced by Operation Phoenix. Due to the steep growth in Madikwe’s elephant population – the density of elephant here is higher than any other protected area in SA. Lions have been put on contraception to try and balance the scale of predators and prey. Ernie tells us that had the lions been allowed to breed indiscriminately, several antelope species might have been wiped out. Recently, Madikwe park management relocated 40 lions, reducing the population from 100 to 60 to try and maintain homeostasis between predators and herbivores.
Certainly we never saw any large antelope in Madikwe with the exception of three kudu cows, although we did encounter several laidback lions yawning and flicking black-tipped tails in the tawny grass.
Between game drives I lounge about on our small wooden deck scouring the surrounds with binoculars. I see an enormous crocodile on the banks, zebra, two elephants, assorted buck, and my husband in his underpants. A shy squirrel peeps out at us from a tree fork just outside our chalet, and every morning we see the same gorgeous male southern Tree Agama with a bright blue head.
A visit to The Spa Oasis overlooking the bush dissolves residual stress and after a soothing back, neck, and foot rub, I even managed to forgive my husband for the dirt road debacle. Meals were served on the deck overlooking the waterhole. Head chef Obakeng Kgoleng’s springbok carpaccio starter, duck breast on a bed of mashed potato and beetroot jus, followed by a cheese platter, was as good as anything you might find in a five-star boutique hotel.
Madikwe brings many unforgettable moments, whether it’s a herd of wildebeest running alongside us or a giant eagle owl taking flight. Tau Game Lodge’s webcam now means armchair game spotters can log in from anywhere to observe the passing parade at the waterhole. This really is a place to sit, stare, and wonder.