Following a trip to Madikwe Game Reserve and the Waterberg Biosphere, Justin Fox reveals why we should travel to this remote, northern part of South Africa
The northern corner of South Africa, along the border with Botswana, falls beyond the compass of most visitors. This sparsely populated Bushveld region has good ecotourism infrastructure, fine game reserves, superb scenery and diverse appeal, especially for families. The two main safari areas are Madikwe Game Reserve and the Waterberg Biosphere.
The former doesn’t allow day visitors or self-drive safaris and has more than a dozen private properties. At the budget end of the spectrum is the rustic Mosetlha Bush Camp & Eco Lodge but most are top-end safari hideaways, such as Jaci’s Lodges, with all the pampering you’d expect of such establishments. The wildlife viewing in Madikwe is excellent.
The latter is a varied, mountainous biosphere with a number of parks and private reserves. These include the spectacular Lapalala Wilderness and Marakele National Park, a good choice for budget travellers as it offers basic accommodation and camping facilities. With its 4WD trails, world-class golf course and horse-riding options, the Waterberg has much to offer.
Where Bushveld meets Kalahari
Madikwe is all about big skies, red earth and wide-open plains in a zone where Bushveld and Kalahari meet. Comprising 760sq km, this malaria-free, Big Five reserve has a rich diversity of vegetation, which ensures a wide range of fauna and birdlife, as well as topography that’s ideal for game viewing. It is a relatively new park and an ecological success story. In 1836, the hunter William Cornwallis Harris described the landscape here as teeming with elephant, the first sable antelope known to science and marauding lions that terrorised inhabitants. By 1991, when the park was declared, the area had been reduced to a series of degraded cattle farms and the wildlife had all but disappeared.
An extensive restocking programme was instituted. Operation Phoenix was reputedly the largest reintroduction of game in the world and, today, the reserve is home to more than 16,000 mammals of nearly 100 species.
I arrived hot and dusty from Johannesburg and settled into my accommodation. There are several places to stay in Madikwe. Particularly well known are Jaci’s Lodges, whose owner-managers, Jaci and Jan van Heteren, opened the reserve’s first lodge in the mid 1990s. But on this occasion, I was staying at Morukuru Farm House. A converted homestead with five suites, a pool, a wine cellar and a boma with an ancient marula tree, it specialises in hosting sole-use groups of friends or families (with great facilities for children). You have your own private ranger, tracker and vehicle, so game drives don’t have to follow any fixed routine.
I set out on an afternoon drive with guide Warren Leahy. Khaki landscape, scarlet termite mounds, green magic guarri bushes, cobalt sky… The sightings came at regular intervals: waterbuck, zebra, giraffe and buffalo, and even a pack of wild dogs. At sunset, we arrived at a dam where elephant were playfully spraying themselves with mud. Teenagers jousted with each other, then turned their attention on us so we had to back off smartly.
Parked a little way off, and giving the elephant some room, Warren told me a bit more about Operation Phoenix. Whole families of elephant were introduced from drought-stricken Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, along with youngsters left over from culling in the Kruger. Then came lion. They wanted to find the biggest, most handsome cats in southern Africa. These were in Etosha and they were magnificent specimens. I hoped we’d spot some of them…
Much of my time in Madikwe was spent lounging beside the pool or birdwatching. The avian life in the camp was splendid, so I found a spot beneath a tree and began ticking off the sightings on my bird list: crimson-breasted shrike, white-throated robin, Jameson’s firefinch, paradise whydah. Just then, a bunch of rowdy banded mongooses ambled over to have a look at what I was up to. So tame were they that they allowed me to lie down on the grass beside them. I could have tickled their tummies, but resisted the temptation.
Late afternoon, we were back on a game drive, listening in on the two-way radio conversations. As vehicles from other lodges took to the road, the sighting reports started coming in. And then our tracker spotted a lioness, crouched down and trying to sneak up on a herd of wildebeest. Her male companion wasn’t in the mood and flopped down in the long grass. The lioness worked herself into a position where she could have a decent crack at the approaching beasts. But there was no backup from the male. He rolled over, exposing his white belly, paws in the air. “He’s mulling over the game plan,” said Warren.
Tension mounted. The wildebeest spotted something amiss. They took off as though a starting gun had fired. The female trudged back to the male who was now snoozing peacefully.
Mountains of water
Next, I drove north-east to the Waterberg, a region of muscular mountains, clear streams and rolling Bushveld. It’s dotted with Big Five parks and game farms that form part of the 15,000sq-km Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, one of Africa’s two UNESCO-registered savannah biospheres.
The Waterberg is among the continent’s most beguiling ranges. Situated some 180km north of Pretoria, its southern escarpment presents a line of soaring crags dominated by the Seven Sisters. Wide-open grasslands form its central plateau and the north-eastern ramparts rise out of the land in a series of towering formations.
With plenty of ground water, these mountains were home to our hominid ancestors for up to three million years and were later inhabited by hunter-gathering San. In the 19th century, the Waterberg had a reputation for gunrunners and big-game hunters, its fringes loosely settled by hardy pioneer families and mining prospectors.
My first stop in the Waterberg was Marakele. This national park, the largest single component of the biosphere, boasts gorgeous mountain landscapes, their grass-clad slopes dotted with yellow-wood and cedar trees. It’s also home to the Big Five and a great variety of birds, including perhaps the world’s biggest colony of Cape vultures.
I was staying at the self-catering Tlopi Camp, a cluster of safari-style tents beside a dam in the heart of the park. Mine sat on a raised wooden deck among wild-olive trees. Weaver birds chattered in the branches, spurfowl scuffled under the deck, Egyptian geese lined the water’s edge kicking up a racket. It was a delightfully noisy spot.
Next morning, the roar of lions punctuated the first light of dawn. Their booming bounced off the crags and rolled west towards the Kalahari, announcing their ownership of the land. Later, head guide Sidney Mikosi took me on a tour of the park. I asked him about the scourge of rhino poaching. He confided that an adult had recently been shot, but for the most part, his rangers had a handle on things with regular armed patrols. “You want to see a rhino?” he asked. “Absolutely,” I said. “OK, let’s go and get you one on foot.”
He pulled off the track into a clearing. Rifle in hand, he set off at a brisk pace as I kept up behind. In no time, he’d found spoor. Sidney’s tracking skills were remarkable, following the faintest of hoof prints through long grass. Within half an hour, we came upon the area’s dominant male resting under a thorn tree. He was pale from a dust bath and his horns were red from a duel with a termite mound.
It appeared the mound had lost.
Sidney inched closer, unafraid. I hung back to take photos as well as to give myself a head start if running was in order. The bull allowed Sidney to get within 10 metres before standing up in a billow of dust, snorting gruffly and trotting off with the daintiness of a two-ton ballerina.
I spent most of the days here on my deck. The mountains held the camp in a close embrace. Not the soaring cragginess of the Drakensberg, but much older, worn and weathered mountains, already here two billion years ago when the supercontinent Gondwanaland began to split.
The sedimentary ramparts are fortress-like, the squared-off sandstone seemingly constructed by an ancient people. Some buttresses even look like outsize zimbabwes — a rounded architecture inspired by the shape of grass huts.
On my last evening, I took a drive through the park’s eastern uplands. A lovely, winding road, embowered in places, led along the side of a mountain. Its slopes were covered with proteas, euphorbias and 5m cycads. An elephant bull stood foursquare in the road, shaking his dusty head at me. I waited for him to finish making his point, then moved slowly by.
My next stop in the Waterberg Biosphere was to the east in an area called Welgevonden Game Reserve. Tucked in a picturesque corner of the berg, Makweti Safari Lodge is an elegant, intimate affair with only five chalets. It is set around a gorge of red sandstone that looks as though it’s been landscaped, so perfect are the proportions.
The buildings’ interiors are in dark woods with plenty of natural fabrics, African prints and hides. There’s a busy waterhole beside reception that’s a favourite with zebra, which queue up to drink.
As is customary, game vehicles head out in the mornings and evenings. Our field guide, Test Malunga, was a first-rate bush fundi from Zimbabwe. He was vastly knowledgeable about everything from the difference between male and female leopard tracks to the traditional method of catching queleas using latex from wild-rubber trees.
Our drives were lively affairs, with cheetah and lion making regular appearances; so, too, the lesser fry and some interesting birds. The white rhino were also plentiful. Indeed, Welgevonden has one of the largest private populations in Africa. Long may the poachers be kept at arms’ length.
On our final evening, we drove to the top of a kopje to watch the sunset. I looked out over the receding blue folds of the Waterberg. From somewhere came the tinkling of a stream, for these are truly mountains of water. Their crags and heathlands, kloofs and valleys, soak up the summer rain, then leak from every nook and cranny for the rest of the year, creating an upland Eden.
Nestled in the northernmost corner of the UNESCO Waterberg Biosphere is a small area of breathtaking natural beauty that teems with wildlife. Originally a game ranch, the 36sq-km Lapalala Wilderness is now a conservationist’s paradise dedicated to protecting and preserving biodiversity. The Lapalala Wilderness School has educated more than 70,000 students since its inception. Its diversity of habitats — rivers, waterfalls, rocky outcrops and woodlands — harbours countless species. Here, you can see buffalo gracefully roaming the plains and crocodile stalking the rivers, and even observe endangered black rhino in the wild. This is one of the country’s last remaining true wildernesses, replete with Bushveld, mountains and glorious vistas, and it is well worth a visit on your journey to Madikwe Game Reserve and the Waterberg Biosphere.
• Getting there Both the Madikwe Game Reserve and the Waterberg Biosphere are within easy striking distance (four and three hours respectively) of Johannesburg on good national roads. Many of the parks don’t allow private vehicles, but in those that do, an ordinary sedan is sufficient.
• Where to stay Madikwe doesn’t allow self-drive safaris or day visitors, which means you must stay at one of its private properties. Jaci’s Safari Lodge, Jaci’s Tree Lodge, Madikwe Hills and Tuningi safari lodges are some of the best choices for couples, groups and families looking for a comfortable getaway. Mosetlha Bush Camp & Eco Lodge is a good value budget option. The Waterberg has an array of offerings, ranging from budget accommodation at Marakele and self-catering at Tlopi Camp to trails with The Ant Collection and top-end options such as Makweti Safari Lodge.
• When to go This is a good year-round safari destination. For birding enthusiasts, the hot, wet summer months (November to March) are best. The dry winter months (June to September) are best for game viewing and the weather is pleasant, with warm days and cold nights.
• Health This is not a malarial region but be sure to enquire with your GP or local travel clinic about any necessary precautions or vaccinations.
• Further reading Herman Charles Bosman’s short stories of life in the north-west Bushveld can be found in The Complete Oom Schalk Lourens Stories.