When most people think of going on safari in South Africa, they think of Kruger National Park, the country’s premier game viewing destination. There’s no doubt that Kruger and the surrounding private reserves such as Sabi Sand and Timbavati are fantastic, but there are also many excellent alternatives.
When we decided to take our annual family vacation in South Africa, we chose Madikwe Game Reserve. Firstly, Madikwe is a malaria free area, which allowed us to forgo taking anti-malarials. Secondly, the game viewing is great. This former cattle ranching area was turned into a wild animal reserve in the 90s and has been getting better and better ever since. Today its bushy hills and plains are home to a wide range of animals including lions, elephants, kudu, impala, warthogs, jackals, white rhinos, leopard, baboons, vervet monkeys, zebra, and my personal favorite, African wild dogs. Thirdly, there are many excellent lodges in the area to choose from, including reasonably priced, family friendly accommodations to 5-star luxury properties.
Madikwe is located on the border with Botswana in South Africa’s North-West Province. It’s a 4-hour drive from Johannesburg, or you can fly in just 55 minutes. It’s also just 1.5 hours drive from Gabarone, the capital of Botswana. The landscape at Madikwe is bushy, with short acacia and shrubs dominating the hills and valleys with a few small plains here and there. A few taller trees line one river in the park, and some of the gullies and washes. We are here in winter, which means the landscape is very dry, the grasses having turned yellow-gold and some of the trees having lost their leaves. With little if any standing water around, many of the residents trek to the handful of water holes or the river each day, making those great spots to wait and watch at.
Our family of 4 (myself, wife Kelly and sons Grady, 8, and Tate, 7) stayed at Madikwe Safari Lodge, owned by More Hotels. This 24-room property sits at the base of a small hill on the eastern side of the reserve. Each chalet here includes a roomy sleeping area, small sitting area, and large outdoor deck with plunge pool. Facilities are en-suite with 6-piece bath–toilet, double sink, bathtub, indoor shower and outdoor shower. The rooms have air conditioning and, better for us traveling in May, a small fireplace. The main dining area and lounge feature overstuffed couches, large fireplaces and a nice bar and reading area.
Madikwe Safari Lodge accepts children of all ages but those 7 and older can go on game drives in open-top 4WD Toyotas, which accommodate 7 passengers in 4 tiered rows. More can fit if some people sit in the middle. The lodge allows families with kids 6 and under to go on game drives if they pay for a private vehicle.
On our first afternoon (in just a few hours), we saw elephants from our room, then later on during our game drive we viewed impala, warthogs, a very large horned white rhino with calf, impressive male kudus with spiral horns 3 feet in length, and a two female lions with a sub-adult male whose face was scarred and eye nearly torn out from a battering by older males. The biggest highlight by far (and in fact the highlight of the safari for me) was watching a pack of African wild dogs devour an unlucky impala. It took them less than 20 minutes to rip it apart and reduce it to a bloody rib cage and some skin. After a bit of playing, they shot off, disappearing into the bushes in search of more food before they were meant to return to their den, which we were told was now home to a new litter of pups just a few weeks old.
After this, we feasted also with corn nuts, biltong, soda, beer and wine at our sundowner and then drove back to the lodge in the dark, using our spotlight to seek out nocturnal species (unsuccessfully). After a hot shower, we enjoyed a fun outdoor boma dinner, complete with grilled meats, salads, fresh bread, sides and rice, and a large fire to keep warm.
Keeping warm was challenging at Madikwe at this time of year, especially on Day 2. We put on every layer of clothes we had, including T-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, fleece, and outer shell, and we were still cold. Luckily, our hosts took pity on us and gave the boys an extra fleece and Kelly and I some warm scarves. These, along with extra blankets in the car, kept us warm enough for game viewing, but we definitely would bring more warmer clothes when traveling to Southern Africa in their late fall and winter, which runs from May to September. It warmed up a bit in the afternoon this day but we still needed everything we had, which would have included more warm clothes if Kelly would have followed her own instincts and packed more warm clothes, instead of listening to me and packed very lightly. While shivering, I consoled myself with the pride of having traveled half-way around the world with just a carry-on and two backpacks for myself and son, Tate. (More packing-lite tips in my blog from last month.)
Our third day at Madikwe was sunny and pleasant, though we still needed all our layers in the morning. After heading out, we quickly found a very healthy looking female lion with 3 young cubs. (The lions were imported from Etosha National Park in Namibia as part of Operation Phoenix, the program to populate the reserve with more than 8,000 large mammals from many areas in Southern Africa to benefit the local Boputhwatsana people.) We were told she had 4 cubs but lost one. Unfortunately, one of the remaining cubs was born with a deformed back leg, forcing it to struggle on just 3 good legs to keep up with her mother and siblings. We watched them for more than an hour as the mother called every few minutes to find another female from her pride. In the afternoon, our guide, Kenneth, took out the boys (with parents in tow) to make plaster castings of tracks found in the dirt. The boys each got a lion print along with a guinea fowl, kudu and zebra. The boys really enjoyed making the castings which will make for great reminders of our safari. Other kid activities offered include puzzles and games and a special eco center with skulls, horns, plants, games and even snakes preserved in jars of liquid. Our afternoon finished with some additional lion sightings and then one final run for the wild dogs. Both kids and adults loved speeding along the game path toward the reported location of the dogs, and as we rounded a corner we caught a glimpse of one before it followed the pack into the thick bush, hunting an impala or kudu, but we couldn’t follow.
All too soon, our stay at Madikwe came to an end and we left the next morning to drive back to Johannesburg. On the way, we passed through tidy villages with stone and brick homes filled mainly with school aged kids and retirees (the working age people often move to larger cities to earn a living and support the family). After passing the mines of Rustenberg and the amusements of Sun City, we drove 2 more hours to Johannesburg for the flight to our next adventure, the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.