After gleaning lots of useful information from this forum for our trip, I wanted to give something back so here is the first instalment. I am still writing it up so please be patient (my first trip report) and also forgive me if it is too long winded - I got carried away writing it as it was so enjoyable!
Wed 16 Nov: London-Johannesburg
I had managed to use my air miles to book 2 First class tickets on the BA flight, something I was looking forward to as a great way to start our holiday. My wife had never even flown long haul business class before so I wanted to surprise her. I pretended we were flying economy all the way until we arrived at the airport and then instead of queuing with the masses we veered off to the First class check in desk, which has happily empty! She had a big smile on her face when she realised this and it remained for a long time afterwards.
We made our way through to the First lounge and got comfortable in the peaceful and welcoming surroundings. We helped ourselves to drinks and snacks and also booked a back massage at the Molton Brown spa. This was a nice bonus and I spent a very relaxing 20 mins there, so much so that I fell asleep and had to be woken by the masseuse!
We boarded efficiently using the premium line and settled into our seats, with acres of room to move around in. A nice touch was the sleeping suit BA provide, which certainly helps to prevent your clothes being creased when you wake up, making you look like you’ve spent the night on the street! Service was smooth and friendly and the on-board entertainment good, even though we only watched a couple of films before settling in for the night. Special mention for the lie-flat beds, which are longer than in business class but felt a bit narrower. However with the duvet provided, earplugs in and blindfold on, I had a fairly successful night’s sleep.
Thurs 17 Nov: Johannesburg-Madikwe
Arrival was on time and we got through immigration without any hassles. Luggage took a while to come out though as it appeared ours had not been tagged priority. However after that we strolled over to the Intercontinental to make use of the arrivals lounge. I have to say I was very impressed with this – the shower rooms were huge enough for both of us to change and shower and everything looked very new. Shower was one of the best I have EVER used! The breakfast room was also well stocked with drinks, cereals and muffins, with plenty of seating and news on TV. (As an aside the receptionist didn’t have a name list yet so she just took our names and said she would tick it off later!).
I then returned to the airport to collect our tickets from Nationwide that I had booked for Cape Town-Johannesburg later on in our trip. Finally in my errands I picked up our car from Avis. I had booked a 3 day hire for only 352 Rand, although this only included 100km per day. However little did I know that they had given my a Golf Citi (Chico!), which anyone who has driven in SA will know is a tiny car with no A/C or power steering! I only checked my booking when I returned to London and discovered that I had booked a better car, so the moral is to make sure you print off the page with the car type that you have hired.
The 4 hour drive to Madikwe was uneventful but fairly scenic and mostly traffic-free once we had gotten out of Johannesburg. We drove up to the Hartbeespoort Dam and then across on the N4 to Zeerust before turning North towards Gabarone. Once we turned off into the park itself the road became a dirt track but nothing our Chico couldn’t handle as long as we kept to 40kph. We even saw giraffes, wildebeest and other wildlife on our way to the lodge, but no other vehicles.
We were staying at Etali Lodge and this is someway inside the park so it took almost another hour to get there. We were greeted with cold towels and fruit cocktails and after the 5 hour drive I was immensely glad to finally arrive! We were shown to our room, which was a suite on the far side on the lodge (one of 8), as I had asked for somewhere quiet. To say we were amazed by it is an understatement. We had a huge room with a super king size bed, a couple of armchairs, the bathroom had a double ceramic bath, double basins, both indoor and outdoor showers and best of all a whirlpool outside overlooking the waterhole. The décor was understated contemporary and it was clear the small details had been thought through, from the Monsoon slippers to bathroom accessories. They had even provided a bottle of champagne for us as I told them it was our honeymoon. All in all I was hugely impressed with the suite, and having stayed in the honeymoon suite at the Peninsula, Hong Kong, this compared favourably even with that, although it had a different style. Needless to say my wife was pleased about it anyway, so that’s what counts!
Two other notable mentions for Etali go to the food and Wellness centre. The food was all prepared fresh to order and we didn’t have a bad one there all 3 nights. Everything was just perfect, from the crabmeat salad on our first day to the braai with all the other guests and rangers on the last night. We also had some treatments at the Wellness centre included in our package and we enjoyed relaxing Swedish massages, facials, steam room treatments and body rubs (yes my wife dragged me along for those as well but I enjoyed the experience!). It was nice to have these to fill in the day after our game drives and ensured that we were never bored. I would advise anyone else staying there to at least try it out.
We had 2 drives per day whilst we were there and on the very first one we came across a (pack?) of newly born jackals running between rocks for shade as much as protection, all the while watched by their mum. This was followed by a close encounter with a pair of lions, who were nearing the end of their mating activities. Our guide told us it had been going on for 3 days, during which the male had not eaten or rested much, and he certainly looked the worse for wear! Exhaustion was settling in and although he still followed her around he was clearly looking forward to a few days rest. At one point they came a sat beside our vehicle in the shade, reminding me how impressive these animals are in real life. No amount of nature documentaries can prepare you for the amazement at seeing these in the flesh or at their huge size. We thought they were going to mate in front of us at one point but then they sauntered off into the bushes – clearly even lions have a degree of self-consciousness!
One of the good things about Madikwe is that whenever we came across a sighting like that, we were restricted to 3 vehicles at any one time, thus providing a sense of exclusivity but more importantly not disturbing the game any more than necessary. I appreciated this and others also noted it is a contrast from Kenya where it is more of a free-for-all. The guides are in radio contact with each other but more so with some than others – a healthy sense of rivalry still exists and not everything gets called in, as we were to find out…
Over the next few days we managed to see plenty of the usual suspects (giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, etc) but few other predators. We did come across a white rhino who crossed in front of our vehicle and into a crowd of zebra. We also saw a giraffe that had given birth that morning, with the afterbirth still clearly visible, although sadly no sight of the calf. I also managed a glimpse of a leopard of a hillside, but he was proving to be elusive to us in the heat. Madikwe had not had any rains for over 6 months so the fauna was looking particularly brown but thankfully it did get some on the day we left.
The highlight for us though was on the 2nd day. During the morning drive our guide got word of a sighting of a pack of “mukanyani” – wild dogs, what Madikwe is most well known for. We spotted them moving quickly about 100m away but their speed is quite incredible and we were not able to catch up. We later heard from the lodge that they had gone straight to the waterhole outside our room and spent some time there refreshing themselves! Disappointed we returned to our room cursing our luck but the trail resumed in the afternoon. As we were driving around on the eastern side of the reserve, our guide heard from the lodge that the wild dogs had hunted down a female impala and caught it in the access road to our lodge! We rushed back and although passed a few our vehicles on the way, this time our guide kept a poker face and so by the time we got back, there was no other vehicle there apart from the lodge owner. He had been lucky enough to witness the kill and confirmed that it was a female impala but also that she was pregnant… Our guide told us that wild dogs are one of the most vicious hunters, in that chase down their prey until they collapse from exhaustion, since they are not big enough themselves to bring it down. They are renown for being able to run long distances at sustained speed, since they are a pack they can take it in turns. Once they prey is down though, they devour it alive there and then, tearing the flesh off. It must be pretty painful, the only relief being that it is over pretty quickly, as they can devour a wildebeest in less than an hour.
When we arrived we could see a pack of around 15 dogs milling around. We were able to drive right up to the dogs and got a really good view of them still fighting over the carcass. There was not really anything left except the skull, which one dog was still dragging around for later! We watched them for about 20 mins, after which they became restless and started wandering around. It soon became clear that they were on the lookout for more food but also that they were looking for another pack that was in the area. They made some whooping noises that were directed into the ground so that the sound travelled further and then disappeared off into the bush.
Exhilarated, we watched them go then moved on a bit to have sundowners. As we discussed the amazing viewing, we heard yelps from not too far away. Our guide told us it sounded like the 2 packs had found each other and we could hear their barks getting more and more distant as they went off in search of the next meal. What a great way to end the day!
So that was the highlight for us, but we enjoyed just as much watching the animals coming to use the waterhole. During our stay we saw baboons, impala and elephant all come to drink, each time in large groups. We really enjoyed seeing the youngsters interacting and learning from the adults and it made for a welcome bonus viewing. I will definitely make sure our next safari is somewhere with a waterhole.
Next: The Garden Route: Knysna
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