Beyond the Kruger ParkSampling South Africa 1

| May 18, 2012

The game lodges of the Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa and its surrounding private reserves are probably the country’s best known attractions after Cape Town and deservedly so. For example, the Sabi Sands region of the Kruger is where you are the most likely to get up close and personal with a leopard anywhere in the world. Here in the first of a two-part series, Africa expert Jonathan Fitzsimmonds, tells us about some other areas in South Africa that are just as appealing.

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Madikwe National Park
Located just three and a half hour’s drive from Johannesburg airport, or a one hour light aircraft transfer, Madikwe is a unique wildlife reserve offering the Big Five, something between the Kalahari desert of Botswana and the Lowvelt of South Africa. Madikwe is famous for wild dog, rarely seen elsewhere in South Africa, of which I saw plenty. This was just one of a host of memorable experiences.

Elephant bathing etiquette
Whilst enjoying a gourmet five-course dinner overlooking a busy waterhole at Jamala Madikwe Royal Safari Lodge, I watched some wonderful elephants splashing about. Owners and hosts, Rodney Steyn and the late Shaun Roe, shared their observations of elephant bathing etiquette. Apparently, it is very poor form to dive in while others are drinking. Fellow waterhole visitors will display marked displeasure at such poor form. One must ALWAYS allow everyone to finish drinking before jumping in and having fun.

Already that afternoon, while enjoying a welcome drink, I had seen zebras, wildebeest and giraffe wander through. With a maximum of ten guests, visitors to Jamala really feel like they are cherished guests in a luxury African home in the bush and leave as friends wanting to return.

Birding Epiphany
I have to confess to rather frowning on the birdwatching community in the past, and being much more interested in being directed to the nearest large mammal whilst on safari. However, Madikwe is a birders paradise and some very endearing antics from our feathered friends did make me stop and take another look.

There was the red crested Korhaan for example. Otherwise known as the suicide bird, we frequently encountered its unusual courtship ritual. After letting out a series of little whoops, it launches itself into the air before freefalling in a ball of black feathers to just above the ground before recovering. Hopefully the females were around to appreciate his death defying feats of bravery and panache.

We also came across a pair of southern pied babblers, who were bravely seeing off an unwelcome visitor from their nesting tree. We observed them mobbing a large green poisonous boomslang tree snake, diving at it and pecking at its tail, sending it skulking off to a safe distance away. Those little birds meant business and they made sure the snake stayed away. My fantastic guide and tracker from Mateya Safari Lodge appeared to be particularly satisfied with this encounter and was relaying it to all and sundry back at the lodge, so I am guessing this was a rare and unusual treat.

Then there was the endangered ground hornbill. A huge and colourful creature with the most adorable long eyelashes; this individual had been hand reared locally and frequently tagged rides on game vehicles if it saw one passing and fancied some fun and a bit of company. It did have a nasty habit of pecking at shiny bonnets with its big beak though, so I don't think it was entirely welcome.

Jaci’s Sleepout
At Jaci’s Safari Lodge, I had the opportunity to spend the night in their sleepout. There is a big four poster bed swathed in mosquito netting set up in a hide overlooking their waterhole. Guests are escorted up there to find oil lamps set about and given instructions on how to blow them out and where to find the switch to light up the waterhole should they hear something lapping or splashing. If anything feline, elephantine or bovine made its way down there, I missed it completely. Surprisingly it turned out the be the best night’s sleep I had had in days and I was out like a log after a pleasant half an hour or so lying there snuggled up with the full moon shining down, being lulled to sleep by a chorus of frogs, insects ... and the occasional unidentified splash. Luckily for the faint hearted the hide is still inside the property’s electric fence, so if you have second thoughts in the middle of the night you are only a short walk from your room.

The Law of the Jungle
I had four nights in total in the bush in Madikwe and two game drives each day. The benefits of a slightly more extended stay are that you are less focused on ticking off the big animals on your list and begin to see the stories of the other animals unfold. Where possible I would recommend a minimum of three nights in any safari environment.

On the second day of my stay in Madikwe we saw a huge older male lion, sleeping away soundly in the grass without a care in the world, he didn't bat a fluffy ear at the approach of vehicles. Apparently he had just fed. We were told how he was the last remaining of two brothers who had ruled the area. This one was still in charge and had a pride of lionesses somewhere, but he was now more vulnerable being on his own and three rival males had been seen lurking about the borders of his territory.

The following day, we heard how this fine old lion had been in a fight and come off badly. It turns out the three interlopers had decided to take their chances. They were young and inexperienced, but knew he was alone. We found him ourselves the next morning and he was indeed looking sorry for himself, he had barely moved all night. As we watched, a brown hyena appeared attracted by the smell of blood. The old male looked sadly about, but was not quite ready to be scavenger food just yet. It was a sad day for him and for us, as we learnt that in all likelihood even if he lived, he had now lost his throne and would need to move on. This time comes in all male lions’ lives and is the way of the world for them.

We moved on and found the three newcomers, sunning themselves and looking relaxed. The New Order. They would have been turfed out of their own pride on reaching maturity; the older male could even have been their father. Forced to be nomadic and fending for themselves, this coalition had now come into their own. Their next job was to find the pride and force the females to submit to them. They would most likely kill the offspring off the previous male. Being a gang of three they would most likely stay in charge of the area for a while, but one day it would also be their time to bow out, perhaps at the hands of their own sons.

Despite the apparent endless sleeping in the sun, like adorable giant sized pussy cats, life for the Kings of the Jungle seemed to be much harsher than it initially appeared.

Cox & Kings organises luxury safaris in South Africa.

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