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.
I have fond memories of our family vacations in South Africa, including our visit to Madikwe Game Reserve. Madikwe is a malaria-free area, which is a great option for families who wish to forgo taking anti-malarial medications when traveling. Game viewing in the reserve is great. 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. There are many excellent lodges in the area to choose from, including reasonably priced, family-friendly accommodations, along with 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 were here in winter, which means the landscape was 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.
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. 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 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. 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.
After heading out, we quickly found a very healthy looking female lion with 3 young cubs. 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. 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 South African family safari 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.