When I put together my Fuckit List (was it really only 4 years ago?) aside from going to New York, the one trip I was determined I would do, at some point, was a Safari. Even if I had to pitch my own tent each night. (Kidding. I can’t pitch a tent)
Last month, we set off on the trip of my lifetime.
Because MrS has been to most places already, it’s important to me that he doesn’t end up going on the same holidays again (albeit many years apart) and however much he says it’s a completely different holiday with me, we do try and go to slightly different places. Previously he had been to Kenya, and he is often in Jo’berg on business, so when we began researching the holiday MrS said that he would love to go to Cape Town as part of this trip. This meant it was most logical to go to South Africa itself for the safari.
MrS conducted some research of his own, asking his Jo’berg colleagues for their suggestions, most importantly stressing that I wanted to see giraffes. They laughingly told him that he only had to drive down the road for about an hour to find them “like cows by the side of the road” so South Africa seemed like a good bet all round. We also thought that if we were going to go to Cape Town it would be rude not to visit the winelands.
After an 11 hour, overnight flight, we landed at Jo’berg airport, where we transferred to Federal Air by car (only 10 minutes as it turned out to be on the other side of the main airport).
If I thought the Fed Air terminal was small, this was the funniest terminal I’d ever seen…
We were collected by Jacques from Makanyane, who would be our guide for the time we were there and driven the short ride back to the lodge. Before we’d even landed we could see impala and zebra from the plane and on the drive we saw lots of giraffes, but also 2 young male rhino. I couldn’t believe we’d already seen so much.
Makanyane Safari Lodge is a perfect size of just 8 lodges, meaning a maximum of 6 people on each drive.
As new arrivals we had a special lunch - during the course of the day Makanyane don’t serve lunch as such but more of that later - and then were shown to our lodge so we could get ready for that evening’s drive.
The lodge was nothing short of stunning, all with a river view (although not so much of the river when we were there). Some friends seemed to think we were going to be in a tent, nothing could have been further from the truth.
The wooden lodges have three glass walls so you feel like you’re submerged in the wildlife, and they have bifold doors that open the bathroom area up to the outside, leading to an outdoor shower (as well as the indoor one and a claw foot bath), along with a large wooden veranda.
We didn’t have time to hang around, we were straight back to the main lodge for afternoon tea, after which the evening game drives began.
"If you're not a people person you should probably think twice about a safari"
There is pattern to the days, and I have to say if you’re not a morning person, you should probably think twice about a spring/summer safari (it was Spring when we were there as the seasons are opposite to ours). If you're not a people person you should probably think twice about a safari full stop. (Or shell out for a private driver...)
Each day at Makanyane starts at 5am with a knock on the door to let you know it’s time to get up, then the staff return for you at 5:30am to escort you to the main lodge, where you can have a light snack with tea and coffee, before setting off at 6am for the morning drive. You return at around 9:30/10am when you have brunch. After that you can catch up on sleep, spend time at the pool or bar, get a massage or just spend time in your lodge. At 3pm it’s afternoon tea, which is exactly what it says on the tin, followed by heading out at 4pm for the evening drive.
The drives take in a stop for both sunrise and sun down, at a location deemed safe enough for everyone to get out and walk around, with either a coffee/hot chocolate or a G&T/Champagne, depending on whether it’s up or down. This is a great time to get to know your guide and your jeep buddies.
After the evening drive you return for dinner. It’s a myth that food on safari has to be basic. The food at Makanyane was incredible. Evening meal was three courses, and the wine was well chosen. We had several local dishes while we were there, including ostrich and eland and on our first night we had a wonderful outdoor BBQ by firelight. The bars in the room are all inclusive topped up twice a day. The staff could not do enough for us. They were always there to welcome us back from the drive with a hot flannel and, in the evening, a welcome cocktail.
After dinner you are escorted back to your lodge; everyone is escorted in the dark for safety because, although there is an electric fence around the camp, it’s solely to keep the elephants out, and anything smaller than a baby elephant can get into camp. While we were there a leopard took a casual wander through the camp one night.
"We had been warned that the temperatures would be extreme"
As it was spring we had been warned that the temperatures would be extreme and they were. Although the lodges were warm, each morning was freezing, I mean “walking around in December without a coat freezing”. We had both taken fleece jackets, base layers and long trousers with us, along with warm hats, but we were very glad of the fleece lined ponchos that they kept in the jeeps, and the Amarula-laced hot chocolate served with the sunrise. By the time we went out for the evening drive the heat of the day had come out again, so when we went out at 4pm we were in short sleeves and shorts, yet as soon as the sun went down the temperature dropped rapidly again. Because of this though we were bug free, which was a definite bonus. In fact, Madikwe is a malaria free reserve.
Before we went out on our first drive Jacques spent some time chatting with us about what we’d like to see. For me it was easy, essentially anything, but especially giraffes. MrS was more specific, the only thing he’d never seen in the wild was a leopard. This would be a big ask we thought, even though we knew they had leopards in the reserve. Jacques seem unperturbed, although none of the guides ever promise you will see anything in particular.
Neither of us could believe it when the first thing we saw that night was a leopard. The second thing was a pair of cheetahs.
The beauty of Madikwe is that, even at 75,000 hectares, as a fenced reserve they are pretty sure of which animals are on the reserve at any one time. As well as the Big 5, it is home to the (vulnerable) Cheetahs and (extremely endangered) African Wild Dogs. The Big 5 is a reference to the 5 species that it was felt were most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt on foot, in the days those things were deemed acceptable. In Africa, the big five game animals are the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros.
The area where Madikwe Game Reserve stands was previously farm land, used for cattle and arable agriculture, however this was largely a failure, due to bad farming practises and mismanagement. It was decided after a feasibility study that wildlife- based tourism was the most favourable option for the area, bringing much needed money and jobs.
While we were at Makanyane we were lucky enough to see all of the Big 5 and more. The guides use the local terms for animals when communicating with each other, so that the guests don’t get too excited about a possible sighting that doesn’t work out, or is a lovely surprise for them when it does.
At Makanyane though, we didn’t miss out on anything, and Jacques even managed to find us some hippos (well, their ears at least) by taking us just outside the reserve to the river.
Jacques was a knowledgeable, fun guide. He’d often wind us up to see if we were paying attention, he had a great eye for getting a fantastic photo, knew how to position the jeep to get the animal in the right light, and most importantly how to find the animals in the first place. He clearly loves his job, and cares very deeply for the wildlife and Madikwe itself. He told us about the poaching issues, and indeed the fact that there are actually too many elephants in the reserve for the remaining trees so a large amount of time and effort is going into thinking about how to deal with this.
On our final night there Jacques suddenly cut short a chat about hyenas to drive like a crazy thing to a reported sighting about which we guests were in the dark. We were racing the light, but made it in time to see a pack of wild dogs, including 8 pups, feeding on an eland that they had chased down. I felt incredibly privileged to have seen these endangered animals in a truly wild setting and it was really fitting that this was our last evening at Makanyane.
After 3 nights we said a sad goodbye to Jacques and Makanyane, and left for Timbavati and the Greater Kruger Park...
We travelled with Abercrombie and Kent who put together this bespoke package for us.