I’m not into bondage, whips and leather. So in my book, suffering to attain pleasure is a complete turn-off. The drive to Madikwe River Lodge was not fun in my wife’s sedan that can’t even tolerate Joburg potholes. No pain no gain… blah blah blah.
But, enough whining. The sight of giraffe and zebras roaming free a few metres from the gate signals the game park’s promise of the ultimate bush experience. Impala and antelope grazing along the road make you anticipate the moment when predators answer nature’s call for the next meal.
The gravel road through the wilderness leads to the lodge, where you are well received and made to feel at home. We are greeted with freshly squeezed fruit juice to quench our thirst and damp towels to keep the sweat at bay before we are led to our thatched-roof chalet.
Wow! That’s all I can say about the beautiful African-themed chalets. Even vervet monkeys want a piece of the good life as patrons are warned to always keep their windows closed and doors hooked. Did I mention that this is the only “crime” that is likely to be committed against you during your stay here?
We arrived just in time for a snack which is followed by an afternoon game drive. For eat-on-the-go Joburgers, the snacks provided could suffice for a meal. Who snacks on drumsticks, potato wedges and samoosas? Maybe being in the bush gives you the appetite of a lion.
We opted for fruit lest we felt like a siesta and missed the action.
Our designated game ranger first verified that we had signed the indemnity forms and then gave us a brief description of what the drive entails. Everyone knows that the best measures are in place to ensure tourists’ safety during these excursions, but the mere mention of indemnity screams “you are entering the lions’ den at your own risk”. Fears overcome, we said: “Ride on.”
What’s the point of going on a game drive and not seeing the Big Five? The first question a German guy we were with jokingly asked the ranger: “Can you show us the Big Five within the first 30 minutes?” That’s frankly everyone’s wish in this instant gratification era but, in reality, it’s very ambitious considering that the park is 75 000ha big and has about 8 000 free-roaming animals.
Being a curtain-raiser is not good for anyone, even for waterbuck and deer. A snap here and there, we took pictures just because we were in the bush. When clouds gathered, several gregarious animals crossed the road seeking shelter from the impending rain. It was only then that we spotted elephants – the first big animal sighting of the day. In their nonchalant way, they went about their business as we clicked away.
It started raining, dampening our hopes for more exciting sightings, but we drove on. This is when the supplied raincoats came in handy except for our friend who had to “prove” to his two children that he had braved many an African storm when he was an exchange student in the country.
The ranger was radioed about a lion sighting close by and we sped there, but it was not to be. Even stars of the show need a break from the prying eyes, especially if you have to “pose” for pictures in the rain. We agreed that we had to drive back to the lodge and hope for a better day. We got back to find staffers waiting for us with umbrellas in hand.
The buffet dinner that awaited was enough to feed an army, considering that there were only four families in the lodge. The selection of dishes clearly distinguished a five-star game lodge from hotels of a similar rating, with the former providing the finest yet simple menu as opposed to “out of this world” cuisine that seldom meets expectation. Oxtail, line fish, poultry and a vegetarian option, laced with an assortment of beverages. What more can you ask for?
The thought of going back to an unlocked chalet late at night was still unsettling for us. Joburg baggage is hard to shake off. But since it was way past the vervet monkeys’ bedtime, there was nothing to worry about except the random giant millipede that always finds its way into the room. We had the best night with the sounds of the bush in the background.
But all good things have to come to an end. We got a wake-up call from our ranger at 5am to get ready for the morning drive. Who needs make-up at 5am? After all, the animals are the stars. We just grabbed coffee and off we went on the lion (and other big game) hunt. Sleep is just not worth missing out on the action.
Our ranger must be a “morning person”. He was on fire and seemed to have a different brief that morning: go big (spot lions) or go home. He would stop and check the spoor and, on occasion, drive into what had seemed like unchartered terrain the previous day. After driving into a few herds of wildebeest and waterbuck we came across a pride of lions… and the experience was just so surreal.
The majestic beasts went about their business without a care. They would momentarily and nonchalantly look our way, and then proceed on their morning walk. At some stage they got too close for comfort to our truck but the ranger said there was nothing to worry about as lions didn’t see vehicles as a threat – they were known to attack only humans on foot. We clicked away... although it felt as if the camera was getting in the way of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s a pity the images engraved on our minds cannot be duplicated on print.
Eventually the lions left and we left in search of more game sightings. We were radioed about another lion that had just made a kill and we rushed there as soon as we could. There were already two vehicles packed with tourists admiring the sight. We navigated our way through the shrubs to get a ringside seat. There, partly concealed in thorny bushes with the young male lion keeping a close watch and basking in the glory, lay a huge buffalo carcass.
Having had such a good morning, it was only natural to set off looking for more game. Seeing rhino, which are always in the news for all the wrong reasons, would be the cherry on top, not to mention leopards which are said to have been in the park long before it was declared private property and most of the 8000 animals reintroduced. But that wasn’t to be.
We rounded off the morning drive with tea and muffins under the trees before we headed back to the lodge for a shower and breakfast. Returning with good stories to tell was really worth missing out on the morning snooze, and all who had cried jet lag in the morning were green with envy.
Having woken too early, we had a massage therapist do her magic in the comfort of our chalet before we made up for lost sleep. It was the best siesta ever, interrupted only by the monkeys banging their heads against the window pane hoping to whisk some fruit from the kitchenette. However, the unruly rascals can tell right from wrong as they dash away as soon as you make eye contact.
We gave the afternoon game drive a miss and opted for sundowners in the boma just to reflect on our experiences and ponder the dreaded drive back to Joburg the following day. We chose to dwell more on the former.
Our two-night stay was a worthwhile experience, something different from the concrete jungle in which mall-hopping and staying in chain hotels and lodges (which offer more of the same in a different city) are our peers’ idea of fun.
We were not entirely convinced that our friends would pay big bucks to trek out of the city and see animals they can see at Joburg or Pretoria zoo. The only time my friends’ SUVs touch a dirt road is when they visit family in the bundu. Did I mention that almost every second homestead there has a thatch-roofed house?