Only the thought of visiting Madikwe Game Reserve and the beautiful Rhulani Guest Lodge made leaving Maru-a-Pula tolerable. MaP headmaster Andy Taylor had strongly urged us to go, so we searched through Madikwe’s Last Minute Specials online, and got one night at Rhulani Guest Lodge for nearly half the usual price.
We set off on Sunday morning at 10:30am and, with our fiasco getting from South Africa into Botswana in mind, we allowed for 2 hours to cross the border. As luck would have it there were only a handful of people at both border crossings and it was plain sailing – apart from the car inspection that revealed we had a stray orange in our bag in the trunk, which earned us a bit of a telling off from the guard. Crossing took 25 minutes in total, and within another 15 minutes we were at Madikwe.
We passed through the entry gate and drove along a dirt road, where we saw zebra, Guinea fowl, and hornbills, and when we arrived at Rhulani there were four attendants waiting for us with warm, scented wash cloths, instructions on where everything was, valet service for our car, and a tour of the resort.
Rhulani was a proper luxury lodge, and the immediate impression was enormously eye-pleasing; a small-scale version of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, if done by Frank Lloyd Wright in all native materials (stone, wood, tree limbs and thatch).
We sat in the open-air lounge drinking the non-alcoholic cocktail offered and enjoyed the staff’s first-class invitation to be massively indolent.
Having arrived early, we had plenty of time to look around, take in the views, take photos and explore our accommodation, which was a mini-lodge with a private plunge pool, indoor and outdoor showers, four-poster bed with mosquito netting, more great views, WiFi and air-conditioning (but, happily NO television).
We were treated to our own table for two at lunch, as the rest of the resort’s guests were still out on their morning game drive, so we had the place entirely to ourselves, with our own server. A nice caprese salad arrived, followed by chicken, risotto and a delicious side of collard greens. Sadly, Simon’s glass of wine was blown over by a gust of wind and landed in his starter, but his glass was soon re-filled (although the table-cloth was Ieft soaking in chardonnay!).
A fruit meringue was served as dessert and we waddled off to chill out and enjoy the Rhulani vibe (which is a Zulu word for ‘relax’), sitting with our feet in our plunge pool, watching the birds flitting about, and relaxing on our loungers.
When the other guests returned from their morning game drive they had a bite to eat and time to freshen up and relax, then we broke into groups, with us going out with a German couple, and our driver, Sean, a young man who gave up the city life in Jo’burg for life on the open range. Our big Toyota vehicle was equipped for full off-roading (as we would soon discover), and it was immensely comfortable navigating the dirt roads that had nearly shaken our fillings out in our tiny hire car.
Sean was a wealth of information as we discuss the full range of Madikwe wildlife, and in the span of a couple of hours we saw elephants, zebra, a huge male giraffe, wildebeest, impala, lots of beautiful birds, and steenbok, and we drove (slowly!) into a herd of Cape buffalo who were grazing on long, dry grass. The soft swish of their movements and their gentle chewing was just sublime, with the heat, the yellow sunlight, golden grass and their quiet snorts.
We then went to a watering hole where seven elephants were drinking. They were young males, and they had churned the shallow water into mud, so one of them carved out a hole in the bottom of the bank until he reached fresh water. They were taking turns slurping it up their trunks like they were using a straw. What a comical sound!
A male lion had been spotted at the watering hole before the elephants arrived, so Sean decided we’d track him down. We tracked him for an hour, with Sean catching sight of the lion but then losing him when he flopped down in the long grass. As the sky darkened we were rewarded with a full-throated roar. We didn’t so much hear the roar as feel it, a full bass growl that registered in our solar plexus’. With that, Sean took the vehicle through thorn scrub and long grass until he spotted the lion on the other side of a gulley. The lion roared again and when we found him Sean pulled up right next to him, which startled us a bit. Quite a bit, actually.
But the lion had been in the park with his mother since he was a cub, so he was fine with us nearby. As he lay there he gave two gigantic yawns and we had a marvelous view of his extremely impressive teeth!
We ended the evening there, but still saw lots of animals on our way back to Rhulani, including a big chameleon in a tree, which Sean called “the laziest animal I’ve ever seen” because it had been on that branch for a week.
Dinner that night was chilled salmon appetizer, Eland steak for Simon and duck breast for me, mashed potato and baby carrots and zucchini, with a tiny poached pear with cream cheese for dessert. Gaborone was only 15 miles away, and we were treated to the superb sight of a lightning storm over the city, bringing pula, the blessing of rain, to a place we now loved.
After dinner we returned to our villa with the safety of a guide, since there were wild dogs in our compound that night. The next morning’s alarm call came all too soon, and by 5:30am we were showered and ready to go. We had a quick snack of rusks, coffee and tea before setting off into the chilly darkness, but we were dressed for it, and our Jeep had warm blankets to offset the cold.
Sean decided we would track three male lions who had been hanging out along the reserve’s Southern fence. He spotted their tracks fairly easily, as it had rained the night before, but he kept saying, “They’re going this way. Now they’re going the opposite direction…” over and over, for nearly 2 hours. We covered a lot of ground, but finally gave up. We did see a huge male rhino during that time, who didn’t like us very much as we were a terrible distraction from the job at hand. He was on the scent of a female, so he loped off quickly.
We headed down a track where we came upon a giraffe with its head up, not eating. Susan asked Sean if it was looking at us, or at something else, and he said he thought it was looking at something else. Then we heard the most unusual sound, as if someone’s stomach had rumbled at the same time as a lion roared miles away. Sean brightened right up and said, “That’s baby lions!”
He followed their little roarings, and we found a mama lion with four young cubs. The babies were pestering mama for milk to go with the wildebeest she had killed and stashed beneath the tree they were lounging under. When we came upon her she immediately stood up and began to growl at us in a very clear warning. There was absolutely no mistaking her intent, and no mistaking the look of a mother who’s worn out with her babies’ constant demands. Plus, she had blood all over her front from the wildebeest, so we immediately took the hints.
Sean tried to pull away going forward, but she was having none of it. She kept up her angry stance until he backed the truck up and made a wide circle around her. She settled in and nursed her cubs, and from then on she was fine. Another mama and her two older cubs just sat there and watched the drama unfold.
When the babies had been fed they lay down with mama nearby, but one cub got up and ambled our way. When he saw our vehicle he stopped in his tracks, trying to hide behind a termite mound. Sean said he would take his cue from the other lions, and when they showed no reaction the cub knew it was safe. He was so cute and furry, with an obvious personality of his own. What a special thing to see! It made our whole day.
We drove off after a while, spotting troops of baboons as we went, until Sean stopped to give us the drinks and snacks we’d missed out on the night before as we tracked the male lion. Sean stopped the jeep about a mile beyond one of the baboon troops and laid out rusks, dried mango, shortbread and coffee spiked with Amarula. He said he might not have been completely comfortable with the location, but baboons always posted a sentinel, and we’d hear them if lions showed up.
He also told us the female lions with cubs explained the crazy pattern he’d tracked earlier: the males were walking back and forth looking for the females, but couldn’t find them. If it wasn’t for the giraffe, and then the irritable, pestering moans of the cubs, we never would have found them either.
When the time came to head back to Rhulani for breakfast we were fully sated with African wildlife, and already talking about a return visit. Our time at Madikwe was far, far too short, but we held the purpose of our visit to Africa in mind and felt extremely grateful to Andy Taylor (and his wonderful secretary Lynda!) who made sure we didn’t miss out on this incredible gem. We rarely take time off to do something “just for us” (some people call that a “vacation”, we’re told!), and if we could only have a day or so to do it, Madikwe was an unforgettable choice.
Next blog: The Faces Of Africa
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