The rain subsides as the landscape gradually transforms from harsh Highveld to true African bush over the next four hours. We are headed to Madikwe - a place I have been chomping the bit to experience for a long time.
As we get closer, the undulating green hills remind me more of Ireland than the dry African bushveld. The rains have been good this year; every drop greedily swallowed by the thirsty earth. We traverse an escarpment. "Right here is where Madikwe begins," says Jonas, our very knowledgeable driver. "Madikwe has at least 20 lodges and hotels," he says.
The Reserve is situated against the Botswana border, 90 km north of Zeerust, just four hours' drive from both Johannesburg and Pretoria, is now one of South Africa's prime safari destinations. It is a Big Five game reserve covering some 75,000 hectare and one of the largest game reserves in South Africa.
Jonas goes on to tell us that the Reserve was announced to the public in August 1991. The reserve was proclaimed after a detailed feasibility study of the area was conducted by independent consultants. The study showed that wildlife-based tourism was the most beneficial option for this remote and economically depressed area.
Madikwe Game Reserve has the distinction of being one of the few game reserves in the world to be proclaimed a reserve purely on the grounds of this being the most appropriate and sustainable use for such an area of land.
The landscape around us is mesmerizing. The reserve consists of vast plains of open woodlands and grasslands, dissected by the rugged Rant van Tweedepoort, and bordered in the south by the Dwarsberg Mountains. The area is dotted with huge rocky hills, known as inselbergs. The entire reserve has been enclosed in a 150 km perimeter fence which has been electrified to prevent the escape of elephants and the larger predators.
Just after we enter the Reserve, we are stopped by a small truck coming the opposite way. He flashes us a noticeably nervous grin as he wildly gesticulates. He speaks fast and I'm sure his pupils are slightly dilated. "We just got chased by a very angry elephant bull!" he exclaims. "Be careful, he's about 300 meters down the road."
We drive on and Jonas - who was a guide in the Kruger Park for many years - tells us that elephants don't like the smell and sound of diesel trucks, that's why he chased this poor chap. Sure enough, about half a kilometer further we encounter said offender; grazing peacefully and giving us barely a side-long glance. Jonas chuckles: "I feel sorry for the guy who doesn't know how to reverse fast enough on a rocky road in the African bush..."
The heat strikes us at full force as we emerge from the air-conditioned car at the lodge about 20 minutes later. We receive a warm welcome and we are shown to the deck for a light lunch. The panoramic scene stretches out before us lazily and ends many many miles on the horizon in hazy tones of blue.
Buffalo Ridge Lodge is set on the Tweedepoort Ridge with expansive views across the Northern plains and the Inselbergs which are situated in the west of the reserve. The main lodge is spectacularly located on two tiers of the ridge, accessed by a wooden bridge that crosses the ravine surrounded by rock figs.
It has been designed to blend in with the beauty of the natural surroundings. With only 16 beds and eight uniquely decorated suites, each with their own deck, Buffalo Ridge offers a very private experience. The thatched suites are decorated in a concert of natural colours and texture. They have sliding doors which reveal the bush and allow the concept of complete integration with the bushveld and - best of all - the massive shower and bath overlooks the splendid plains.
Later, on the game drive we come across zebra, giraffe, buffalo and wildebeest as well as many species of antelope. The game rangers are fascinating to listen to and among the most knowledgeable I have come across in my many and varied travels. That night after dinner I lie awake for a long time listening to the sounds of the African bush before I drift off to sleep, feeling quite at peace with the universe.
The following day it's off to another of the lodges in Madikwe - Tuningi Safari Lodge. This 5 star Madikwe safari lodge is set in a valley on the western side of the Madikwe Game Reserve and from the moment you set foot in the reception area, you feel like royalty.
The theme of the décor is 'Colonial African chic' and the main thatched lodge offers a luxurious lounge, a spacious dining room and a well-stocked bar with an impressive rim flow pool that overlooks a watering hole, all interlinked by a sweeping wooden deck that leads to the boma area.
The accommodation is just out of this world. The lodge can accommodate 16 guests in exclusive villas. All rooms at Tuningi and Little Tuningi have air conditioning, ceiling fans, gas fireplaces, en-suite bathrooms, beautifully appointed baths, outdoor rock showers and private wrap around wooden decks. The design brief was to create space by blending interiors with the bush through utilising retractable doors and windows wherever possible. Light streams in everywhere and the feeling of privacy and exclusivity is tangible.
The afternoon-evening game drive later is an experience I will long cherish. We come across elephant, buffalo, a very scares and endangered wild dog pack and finally as dusk begins to fall, we stop at a watering hole and watch hyenas frolic in the water for a while. Hyenas to me are like sensationalist celebrity magazines - you find the sight mortifying yet you are too fascinated to look away. But the piece de resistance was to happen shortly after on our way back to the lodge for dinner.
It was the foul smell carried to us on the wind that told us we were in the right place. A massive male lion had minutes before taken down a blue wildebeest (or Gnu) and we were there to watch it feast. The smell was pungent and the sound of those massive teeth ripping through bone and raw flesh was a bit much for a couple of guests on the vehicle, shame.
After a while of watching this spectacle, we suddenly heard that spine-chilling laugh behind us and emerging from the darkness the hyenas came at the lion from all direction - at least five of them. They made a valiant attempt to grab his dinner away from him but a couple snarls chased them away soon enough. That evening over a delicious dinner the conversation was lively and animated.
As night sets in at Tuningi, lanterns and candles are lit and the mood goes from bush to baroque. We return from the game drive to be presented with a bush extravaganza dinner, prepared by Tuningi's Executive Chef, in the boma with a blazing log fire to keep them warm.
The next morning I decide to sleep in while my photographer goes of with one of the rangers for more photo opportunities. Tuningi's game rangers are of course highly qualified but they also have a talent for making guests feel passionate about the environment and wildlife while offering a unique opportunity for those willing to be educated on many aspects of wildlife and bush etiquette either on foot - for those brave enough - or in 4x4 open air vehicles. Lion, elephant, buffalo, white and black rhino, leopard and the rare and endangered wild dog are only some of the unique sightings to experience here.
My photographer returns from the drive, eyes wide: "You won't believe what you missed! We went to same spot where the lion killed the wildebeest and while we were there, a leopard leapt from the grass meters from us onto an impala!! We never even saw the leopard, it was like lightning!" It turns out the leopard was unlucky and the buck got away but the sight itself is something he will never forget, he says...
Moments like these make Madikwe a remarkable place so it was with a hollow feeling we departed. Madikwe is truly an African story - go see for yourself.by Jo Kromberg