Monday, December 07, 2009

South Africa, Day 4 (part 2)

The story so far:

At the gate to the Madikwe Reserve, there is a small guardhouse and a manually operated lift gate. The ranger checked our names on his list and called up to the Etali Lodge where we would be staying, had us fill out a few forms, and gave us general directions to the lodge.

A few notes about the Madikwe Game Reserve. It was formed by the government of the Northwest Province from land that had been used for farming. The farm income had been around 400,000 Rand per year. The game preserve income is well into the multiple millions and employs many more people. Since it used to be farmland, much of the reserve is still relatively cleared out, and the reserve management is slowly getting the land back into its original shape. The animals on the reserve are all indigenous to the area, but were almost entirely relocated from other areas in the largest mass relocation of animals in history. The reserve seems enormous and is the 4th largest reserve in South America, but is dwarfed by the more popular Kruger reserve. Unlike other reserves, no vehicles are allowed off of the few major roads except for park vehicles. Within the park are about 11 private resorts like the Etali Safari Lodge where we stayed. The guides from each of the lodges communicate over radios, which ensures a much higher probability of seeing spectacular wildlife in a short visit.

The true size of the Madikwe Reserve became obvious as we drive through the gate and started on our way to the lodge. It took over 30 minutes to get there on dirt roads that twisted and turned for over 20km. Along the way, we spotted zebra, warthogs, and impala along the sides of the road. At one point, we were sure that we’d made a wrong turn and would just pop out on the other side of the reserve at any point (not necessarily a good thing, as the other side of the reserve was the border with Botswana). Eventually, we found the one sign in the reserve that pointed to our lodge and pulled up to the front reception where the staff was waiting for us with wet towels and glasses of fresh fruit juice.

The Etali Safari Lodge is set up on the edge of a man-made watering hole that attracts wildlife all hours of the day and night. Inside, the Lodge is gloriously luxurious, with all the services of a world-class resort and spa. The staff took our bags while we signed in, and we were given a brief tour of the main areas and escorted to our rooms.

My room was built into the side of the hill, with natural stone actually part of the room. It had a mini-bar (no charge), an enormous bed, a very secluded deck with a private whirlpool, a bath/shower combination like in the hotel, and an indoor and outdoor standup shower (hallelujah!). The rooms are air-conditioned and mosquito treated (although there have never been any mosquito problems reported in the area), and mine had a spectacular view of the bushveld and part of the watering hole.

We arrived with only about an hour to spare before the evening safari, so I changed into shorts (it’s hot in the summer in Madikwe) and my new safari hat. Roelf and I were the only ones on this safari, so it was like having a private reserve to ourselves. On this first safari, we saw elephant, rhinoceros, giraffe, lions, impala, and more, including a pair of lions in the distance roaring. The descriptions don’t do it justice so I’ll have to rely on pictures.

We returned from safari in time for drinks while watching the sun set followed by a magnificent dinner down next to the fire pit. The food was all served in bowls and platters sitting in hot coals, and while I did not recognize everything, I did eat some of everything. In the middle of dinner, the black African staff sang a set of traditional songs that perfectly set the mood for the day. The bugs were a little persistent, but every glass was provided with two coasters – one for under the glass and one for on top of the glass. We even had a praying mantis on our table for a little while.

By what seemed like midnight but was actually closer to 10, it was time for a well-deserved night’s sleep in preparation for a 5am wakeup call and 5:30 safari the next morning.

The rest of the story:

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