It's take a little while to get started but here is the 1st installment for my trip report March 1 - March 17.
This trip was for 14 nights including 3 in Joburg, 4 on safari in Madikwe and 7 in Botswana. Originally we had 5 nights in Cape Town and Wine Country scheduled but I had a personal conflict that forced us to drop that part of the trip. I had made my bookings with the help of fellow fodorite Selwyn, and was really excited to experience the township of Kayamandi with him. I include this only to say that when I had to cancel Selwyn was a true champion and I was fortunate to recover virtually all of my deposits, more than I was actually entitled to. I wish I could echo many former travelers on what an excellent experience they had with Selwyn but I can say in both planning and cancellation his help was superb!
We departed 1:20 am on March 1st from Denver. No need for lots of details as most everyone knows the flight over is the one misery of making an Africa trip. We arrived Atlanta around 5:30 a.m. then waited for our 10:30 a.m. to Joburg. We made Joburg on time 10:30ish a.m. the next day. With 2 missed nights of sleep, and not being good plane sleepers I prefer to take the first day to just crash and not start a safari. We checked into the D’Oreale Grande at Emperor’s Palace – formerly Ceasars. This is a great option if you need to be by the airport, we were flying out to Madikwe the next morning so I wanted to stay near the airport. They have a free shuttle that runs to and from the airport every 20 minutes. Our room was very nice and comfortable. When in the hotel you have no idea that it is attached to a casino a short walk away. There are numerous restaurants and shops with late night hours, which is great in case jet lag has you up at strange times. There is a big pool, spa, and workout facilities as well. I would definitely recommend this as a stopover hotel near the airport. There are also two other hotels in the complex that offer different pricing options. I was too tired to try my hand at gambling but the casino is 24 hours. They even have a little indoor roller coaster, fresco painted ceilings, etc. It’s like one Vegas hotel dropped in by itself. After catching up on our sleep deprivation Mrs. Predator Biologist and myself caught a flight to Madikwe. Originally I was going to drive it but we were meeting friends on March 7th (Mrs. PB’s birthday) in Joburg so I wanted to get in our full game drive and be back at a good hour to meet them so we decided to fly.
Madikwe Game Reserve
I was very interested in checking out the Madikwe Game Reserve for a number of reasons. For those that don’t know Madikwe is a unique project where a large reserve was created in 1991 on ranch lands that had been severely overgrazed leading to them losing value for cattle grazing. At 76,000 hectares it is the 4th largest game reserve in South Africa and during Operation Phoenix over 8,000 mammals of 27 species were relocated to the reserve. This was all supposed to aid in wildlife conservation but also in economic development of local communities in this impoverished region.
I believe this type of restoration is the key to future conservation in Africa where land can be rehabilitated to create corridors connecting the existing parks and wilderness areas. Thus I wanted to see first hand how this effort was working. Also I am leading group trips that are designed for those interested in a conservation focus and I thought this could provide a very interesting educational component to trip itineraries. There are so many interesting topics including land restoration and management, species research, wildlife management, etc. For example, I learned that the buffalo were purchased from a zoo program in Czechoslovakia because they have the only disease free breeding stock in the world. However, because you pay $2,500 per buffalo they also consciously stocked their lion from Etosha because they come from a lion culture that does not eat buffalo but rather focus on wildebeest and zebra which are cheaper and easy to establish and stock. There are many of these interesting considerations that take you well beyond simply spotting animals. The area is also a reservoir for rare species and is an excellent place to see African wild dog and both white and black rhino which were compelling reasons for me to visit as I knew they would be hard to see in Botswana at this time of year. Normally the more wild an area and the less people the more appealing to me, but for these educational reasons I chose to visit this fenced reserve project.
Our first stop was the ultra luxurious Madikwe Hills. This was over the top luxury in the true South African style. Lots of glass windows, air-conditioned, fridge/bar, soaking tub, fireplace, multiple rooms, and my favorite -- the private plunge pool. I am definitely one who comes for the wildlife and does not need the luxury, however, I certainly do love it when I have it – especially when I can grab a cold drink from my fridge and enjoy my own pool! Main lodging was beautiful incorporating boulders right into decks and the bar. There was a t.v. in the lounge area that was only on the first afternoon as there was a big cricket match going on – not something I want at my lodges but I did not really notice it being there. I guess it would depend on the crowd. There was also a small spa and work out facility that were out of the way and only found if you went looking.
One thing true for our whole trip was huge rains have fallen this year. There were rumors that some Sabi Sand lodges were being evacuated from a huge rain that came just before our arrival. In Madikwe it left many roads impassable so all the lodges were left using the ½ of the roads available adding to increased vehicle sightings. On the worst day I would guess we saw about 12 other vehicles. This was usually just in passing and sightings are restricted to 3 vehicles I believe while guides “Q” up over the radio for opportunities to get a turn at a sighting so it wasn't bad, it just wasn't Botswana. Our guide was fairly new to the reserve and he had one of those earpiece jaw line type phones listening to constant guide chatter. I think that had him a little distracted from interpreting the sights. Our tracker Victor knew the area well and took a test to become a guide while we were there. He was more out going than the average tracker and was quite a character. In a little challenge with an Australian visitor he ate an impala pellet – there wasn’t even cash involved, just shock value. Then when I was watering the African landscape he heaved a rock into the bushes behind me in an effort to frighten me – fortunately I am very comfortable in the bush having spent nights alone walking in the Western forests of the U.S. doing owl surveys so I didn’t generate the reaction he was hoping for. The next morning he gave another guest a pretty good scare. Our first drive here was not too productive although we did see a mother and baby white rhino just after dark on our way back. I was happy to be in Africa and hoped the sightings would improve.
Our first dinner was a social event as we were joined by 3 Aussie pilots who were hilarious and an outgoing couple from the U.K. The food at the camp was very good and so were the drinks. Somehow after consuming quite a bit of wine from the Cape we got introduced to the Springbok – a tasty little shooter consisting of Amarula and Crème de Menthe which added a nice green color approximating the South African Springboks rugby team colors. Well as we all showed up a little green for our first morning game drive I recounted the story to our guide (who had retired after the first round of springbok) that a whole herd of Springbok came by and we knocked them all down.
Our morning drive was a pleasant one and we saw some giraffe, an elephant, white rhino, lots of nice birds, hippo etc. We were starting to get in the groove. On the afternoon drive we found a lioness consuming the remains of a wildebeest – her partner already stuffed and sleeping off to the side. More white rhino too.
Wild dogs of my dreams
Our second night I had scheduled a private dinner to celebrate Mrs. PB’s birthday while we were still traveling alone. It ended up raining this night and we got a little wet and chilly on our way back from viewing. When we entered our chalet there was a lovely table set for two in our living room. Throughout the bathroom was a scattering of burning candles and flower petals on the floor. Our soaking tub was filled with a hot bubble bath with flower petals and the bath mat had I Love U spelled out in petals. It was a very romantic scene.
Our dinner was then served by a wonderful young man appropriately named Charity. He was kept up a little late the night previous herding together the Springbok and now he personally delivered each dinner course to our chalet. The dinner was devine with a terrific crawfish salad with citrus vinegarette, impala steaks, polenta, and pancotta.
The night before we arrived the Aussies had actually had a couple of wild dogs on their back deck. Their chalet was down on the edge of a clearing so it was in the right spot – most are built around rocky areas up the hill. This night I was awoken by the roaring of lions, makes me so ecstatic to be awoken by that sound. Then as I fell into a deep sleep I dreamt of our guide Gary coming around the corner of the chalet with 3 wild dogs in his arms. He crouched down and released each one of them onto our deck and I saw them run by our glass doors.
We awoke to dreary rains but I just knew there was a reward in store for us if we toughed it out (considering a canopy on the vehicle this would be nothing compared to toughing out our Botswana activities to come later). After about an hour and a half the rains ended and the sun broke through. We were rumbling down a road and there just off the road ahead was a magnificent black rhino! He was reddened from wallowing in the mud and was unusually out in the open. The black rhino (more accurately the hooked-lipped rhino) is a browser that is usually in the bushes and somewhat shy. Rhino’s have terrible eye sight making them dangerous because if they know something is there but can’t determine what it is by smell the charge is on. This rhino had trouble sniffing us and continued to approach providing an excellent observational sighting. Eventually he came close enough and determined he was not in danger and went off into the bush. We were very excited by this sighting! We then picked up lion tracks and followed the trail for a good while. They eventually led to the fence line – our first encounter seeing the fence. That was not my favorite thing to see but it quickly changed as we looked up the fence line and there was a pack of African wild dogs!! We counted 12 – one with a radio-collar. A few of the species here are very well studied but the researches do not utilize the technology to share sightings, they have to be earned like any other reserve. The dogs looked like they may go hunt as they trotted off in front of us. The behavior was fascinating to watch as some dogs would stop and bond with another by begging and possibly regurgitating some food. At one point 7 or 8 dogs were surrounding each other and appearing to eat. I pointed out this behavior and our guide said they are probably catching mice and frogs, etc. along the way – I know that was not the case. This bonding ritual is key to getting everyone excited and working as a team. We followed for a while and then the dog turned around as if they may be sensing something. A couple of dogs were right next to me where I possibly could have petted them they were so close. I heard a bird make an alarm call and the dogs all took a jump in that direction. They then trotted about 20 yards from us and were staring out into deeper vegetation. Another vehicle had arrived and was on the other side of them. I told my wife that I though the lions we were tracking were in there. Sure enough the other guide radioed over that he believed the lions were in there too. I believe the dogs figured out where they were and then moved on safely in the other direction at which time we let another vehicle take our place at the sighting. It was tremendous that we were the ones who found them so we had a nice ½ hour with them mostly by ourselves.
On just our second morning the Madikwe visit had been a big success. We had seen my favorite species to observe – the wild dog, had excellent viewing of both rhino species and I was enjoying learning more about the creation of a wildlife park. Our next lodge was also in Madikwe on the far western side of the reserve about an hour and a half drive away. I chose to visit two lodges because I wanted to see the high end luxury but I also wanted to stay at the first local community owned property in South Africa.
Next up … Buffalo Ridge, Madikwe Game Reserve.
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It's take a little while to get started but here is the 1st installment for my trip report March 1 - March 17.