Wildlife watching in South Africa

Lisa Skyes goes on an adventure to find the best, most exciting wildlife South Africa has to offer

3 mins

I stood on a rocky outcrop where, just a few hours before, a leopard had also paused to survey the plain below. Before me was a sizeable chunk of South Africa, known as Madikwe.

In Africa, dry is a colour – somewhere between golden and orange but bleached by a withering sun. This stony land along the Marico river falls between the arid Kalahari in the west and the moist savannahs in the east. It is hard to believe that ten years ago this seemingly wild bush was actually farmland, but the dominant colour is now dry.

The poor farmland, severely degraded by unsuitable cattle ranching, was expropriated by the South African government, with a view to redistributing it to local black livestock farmers. But the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board questioned whether this was the best way to use the land – economically or environmentally. An independent study confirmed their doubts, with the result that in 1991 the Madikwe Game Reserve was established. The homelands such as Bophuthatswana were officially abolished in 1994 and Madikwe is now run by the North-West Parks Board, widely recognised as one of the best in the country.

Madikwe has made history, as the first wildlife park in the world to be founded purely as the best way of using the land to make money for the local community. The local people – some 25,000 people who live in the villages around the reserve – even have a direct say in how the park is run and receive a proportion of the income from tourism. No people were removed to make way for the animals, nor have their livelihoods been destroyed or displaced.

But there has been displacement of sorts – some 10,000 animals were brought into the reserve between 1992 and 1998. There were only a few leopard, jackal and brown hyena remaining and antelopes were thin on the ground; just some kudu, steenbok and impala. To attract the tourists, Madikwe needed the Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. Now there are more than 13,000 animals and it is home to the second largest group of elephant in the country.

The plan was to recreate the ecosystem that existed pre-farming and to reintroduce indigenous animals, which also included zebra, giraffe, hippo, cheetah and the highly endangered African wild dog, all of which now thrive in the reserve.

Day one: a busy evening lay ahead of us

Simone, our ranger for the next two days, was explaining how we were going to take time to stop and learn about “the little stuff” in the bush – the birds, the insects, the animals’ signs and the trees – as well as hopefully see some big mammals. I was all for it. The large zoo atmosphere of many East African safaris, where you drive in convoy from rhino to lion to elephant is fine for your first time, but now I wanted to see more and ask a million questions to someone who really knows the bush. Mid-pep talk, Simone was interrupted by a call on the radio. She gave us the choice; either we could hurtle right across the park in order to see five lion on a kill, or we could potter around getting to know the place and maybe get lucky. I abandoned “the little stuff is just as important” principles in a matter of seconds and we revved the engine.

It was refreshing to have a woman ranger, and one who was scathing about bush life machismo and gloating campfire stories. She was as genuinely enthused by seeing a pair of hoopoe as she was from getting up close and personal with a gatecrasher rhino during our sundowners.

Halfway into our mad dash, with the bitter wind trying to find a way into the blankets we had wrapped ourselves in, we rounded a bend in the track and came face to face with a huge and angry elephant. I had never seen one before and all my Disneyesque preconceptions of cute, friendly herbivores disappeared. This was an immensely powerful wild animal; in Madikwe many of the elephant were brought from Gonazherou National Park in Zimbabwe where they had lived through bush wars, drought and a poaching epidemic, so their attitude to humans can, understandably, be aggressive.

Our immediate problem was that the mature bull elephant ahead of us was in must – a period where lone bulls are looking for a female, any female, and if they can’t find one they rip up a few trees in disgust. Of course a vehicle full of tourists is a slightly more interesting proposition than common old trees. He began to run – towards us. Simone showed no sign of panic, executed a damn-near-perfect three-point turn and we pulled away from the sprinting animal. While we waited further down the track, Simone helpfully told us that an elephant has more than 20,000 muscles in its trunk, with which it is so dextrous that it can pick up a twig or turn over a vehicle. Perhaps just a little more information than I needed to know right then. We tried again. This time he was even closer as we came around the bend, and even more mad. The turn was less perfect, Simone’s voice less confident. We took no chances and hid an entire Toyota safari van in some bushes.

When we eventually reached our lions, they were stuffed and panting hard with the pains of indigestion. The beginnings of a pride, there were two scruffy looking, scarred males – young with barely a mane as yet – and three lionesses. One, possibly the males’ mother, was older and wiser; she dragged the dead zebra further away from the vehicle.

Piercing eyes and a face black with blood

Our busy night had only just begun. “You won’t believe this,” said Simone, after getting another radio call. “There are four cheetah on a kill up in the north. Shall we go?” It wasn’t a question that needed answering. The light began to fade as we reached one of the many water holes in the reserve, the West Pan, where three cheetah were devouring a waterbuck. Having settled over the carcass they behaved like tabby cats – arching and purring. Out of the darkness came a fourth, back from its turn on watch. Seamlessly, another one rose from the group and drifted off – there was no obvious communication, no arguing, it just left. The scene, bathed in red light from the vehicles’ night lamps, was magical.

It was only possible for us to see it because of the way the rangers share information in Madikwe. With just a couple of lodges and a bush camp in the park, there are only ever three or four vehicles in the reserve at any one time – you might pass each other on one of the main trails, but most of the time it’s just you and the bush. The rangers here are a lesson in politeness and animal-watching etiquette; if one finds something good they’ll call another, who asks if it’s OK to join them. When they get there they wait a while and approach slowly and quietly. It’s a simple system that keeps everyone happy.

I awoke next day to the sounds of lion roaring nearby – two males crossing the river just downstream of the lodge. When we drove out it was cold and quiet but the signs of spring were there; baby hartebeest a couple of weeks old and a very early zebra, probably the first of the season. At the top of a dead tree two Wahlberg’s eagles were building a nest together. The carcass from last night’s cheetah-fest had been wiped clean already by hyena, vulture and jackal.

Madikwe River Lodge is a tranquil place, set alongside the Marico river. Its design is that peculiar to safaris, of ethnic African meets all mod cons. You soon find the rhythm of game lodge life. Up at dawn for some tea, come back ravenous from a game drive for a huge brunch, chill out and read about animals, then at 3pm it’s afternoon tea – sandwiches with the crusts cut off – before another game drive. Back after dark to a gin and tonic and a fire and candles dinner in the boma, a traditional corral for keeping cattle and people in and wild animals out. Your body clock alters quickly and you are outdoors most of the time. But I was itching to get out of the vehicle; one reason I had come to Madikwe was that it was one of the few parks that allow bush-walking.

I think our group was a little nervous...

Hardly surprising, when you think that we had already hidden from an elephant, come face to face with a rhino and seen hungry lion and cheetah making short work of their kills. But it was good to be out there, in the bush with its smells, sounds and sensations. We climbed up a rocky outcrop to the leopard lookout and among the brain-shaped boulders were rock hyrax, actually the elephant’s closest relative.

Even the trees are fascinating, and all come with a story attached. Leadwood, for instance, is very strong and burns well – often for months after a bush fire. Locals use the ash for cleaning their teeth. Tau, on the other hand is poisonous – burn it and it produces toxic fumes – while the smelly shepherd tree is revolting, like an air freshener that hasn’t quite covered up the smell of a freshly used toilet.

The growing number of elephants – 323 at the last count – is a problem for the reserve. A 150km electrified fence encloses the 75,000 hectares, so migration isn’t a possibility, water has to be supplied, population sizes have to be watched and the bush has to be managed. Madikwe looks natural but is far from it; bluethorn and sticklebrush, (which, incidentally, is good for removing the itch from mosquito bites) grow rapidly into impenetrable thickets. More than 150 local people are employed to clear them. “We do small-scale projects using labour-intensive methods to ensure there is work,” says Bernard Maroba, the community liaison officer at the North West Parks board. “People are allowed to sell the cleared bush as firewood to lodges and the community.” Local people can hunt game and harvest wood, thatch and medicinal plants from time to time, providing there is no impact on tourism. If it is dry they are employed to distribute water for the game.

In some reserves this amount of interference with nature would not be acceptable but Madikwe has always been about people-based wildlife conservation. The animals are also managed – because every animal was bought and brought here, they are some of the most expensive game animals in the world. As a result, an ill 15,000-rand lion will be treated with vaccinations or drugs rather than left to fend for itself. One lion now only has one eye because his septic eye was removed. He’s known as Stevie Wonder.

It's not just about the animals

The lodges have to show a commitment to local people too. More than 40 people work at the Madikwe River Lodge and it also supports the local community by buying fresh produce and craftwork. Last year more than 200 people applied for eight places on a ranger training scheme run by the parks board and the two lodges. The 18-month programme offers a qualification from the hospitality training board, then vehicle maintenance, a driving licence and bush training.

To become a ranger in South Africa is very difficult for those with little formal education because there are written examinations to pass. Madikwe River Lodge is paying for Abel, its head ranger, to learn how to do exams and qualify. “He knows exactly when the rain is coming and a million other things about the bush,” says Andre Erasmus, the general manager at the lodge. “But he has to learn that it is a cumulonimbus cloud to qualify.”

The lodges pay a portion of their revenue to the parks board, which is used for conservation and maintaining game stocks. Some of this money goes to local institutions to finance community-based development projects, although until tourism grows there is simply not enough money to do very much. But already the economy of the region depends on Madikwe. “When the park started the aim was to relieve poverty – it was about creating employment, wealth and social upliftment. This is not a rich part of the country,” says Erasmus. “This reserve was approached differently from others. National parks are set up to save the animals, this was set up as the answer to a simple question – what would make the most money for the local people and conserve the land?”

Two criticisms are often levelled at private game reserves: firstly, that by fencing off good game land you are depriving people of grazing for their livestock and encouraging poaching as a response. The second is that building lodges and infrastructure ruins pristine wilderness areas. Madikwe is an experiment that has done neither of these – and the wildlife is wonderful too.

Madikwe Game Resevre: The park is in the North West province of South Africa, on the border with Botswana. It is about a four hour drive from Johannesburg.

When to go: Average temperatures in north-west South Africa are around 16-25°C with the warmest weather from November to March, which is also the rainy season.

Getting around: It is possible to self-drive to one of the lodges or the bushcamp in Madikwe but self-drive safaris in the reserve are currently not allowed.

Madikwe is malaria-free, so there’s no need to take prophylactics. If you’re visiting the Kruger National Park and other areas, however, you may need them, so seek up-to-date advice before you go.

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