Our South Africa season continues as Nick Hammond, in the first of an exclusive series highlighting the safari of a lifetime, self-drives his young family from Johannesburg to the bush. His first stop is at the Madikwe Game Reserve on the Botswana border…
SEVERAL hours at Heathrow, a 12-hour overnight flight and a five-hour drive past tower blocks, townships and dust-blown villages haven’t dampened their enthusiasm.
A 30km drive along a ‘road’ which bears more resemblance to a pot-holed, iron-ridged, deep-rutted track from hell had been threatening to do just that until a Leopard Tortoise – one of the Little Five, don’t you know – shuffled across in front of our vehicle and caused us to grind to a halt (traffic is not exactly an issue out here – the nearest vehicle is roughly two miles away and we can see its dust cloud rising and shimmering on the horizon).
We carefully move the little fellow to the roadside (amid excited squeals of “Quick, quick, there might be lions!”). And when we’re back on the road, enthusiasm levels are turned back up to 11.
It’s remarkable what an 11 and an 8-year-old girl will put up with when worldwide adventure is at stake. Two weeks off school also helps smooth the passage.
Since honeymooning in the Masaai Mara some 15 years ago, I’ve been in love with Africa and its wildlife. I’ve been back several times to repeatedly dip my toe in its ancient, mysterious waters. And since having kids, I’ve been impatiently biding my time until they’re old enough to experience this glorious continent themselves.
A fortuitous conversation with the remarkable Rose Cobb of Luxury Travel Specialist Abambo kickstarted our current expedition. Several months of fevered planning, preparation and dreaming followed. And you join us on the doorstep of Madikwe.
Except a doorstep in Africa appears to go on for bloody miles. And you’re never quite sure whether you’re knocking on the right door.
After the 30km road of doom, which our poor little Toyota Corolla is able to neogotiate with relatively minor dentage, we finally arrive at a guarded gate into an earthly paradise where the Big Five roam.
As the last excruciating clunk on our vehicle’s undercarriage fades, we are welcomed with a cool drink and and damp flannel. This is Jaci’s Camp.
It’s built on the bend of a river, cut off by a simple rope bridge from the over-zealous interest of the aforementioned Big Five – elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard.
The scent of woodsmoke wraps itself around the Leadwood and thatch domed roof of the main building and vervet monkeys bicker on the far bank. A pied kingfisher arrows from an unseen perch and returns with a twitching silver fish. There’s the faint whiff of plains game dung, the purr of a Cape Turtle Dove. This is the Africa I dream of.
The kids run ahead joyfully, skidding to a standstill every few yards with the advent of a fat lizard, a finger thick millipede or a dung beetle, rocking and rolling its determined way across their path.
Our lodge – nay house, nay enclave – includes secluded gardens where waterbuck tiptoe, and its own raised deck overlooking a waterhole.
There’s a plunge pool and an upstairs suite for the girls, full aircon throughout. Our bedroom walls are canvas, thrown open to the breeze in the day and securely fastened at night. The four-poster bed is draped with mosquito netting and the magnificent outdoor showers face the secluded bush where, just yards away, huge, drying elephant turds tell of mighty nocturnal visitors.
We have our own game guide and vehicle and our days starts before dawn with a gentle knock.
I didn’t know they made mornings this early.
Let me share a secret. I’m not a morning person; my family would concur. I’m a shuffling, grunting, grizzly bear sort of chap first thing in the morning.
But I certainly have more bounce to the ounce this AM – wildlife awaits. And the glory of a warm outdoor shower as a blush spreads across Africa’s star-freckled cheeks is deeply revitalising.
Hot, sweet coffee and a freshly prepared omelette breaks the fast. And then, with thick blankets to keep out the morning chill, we’re off into the bush. I’m so happy I could burst.
I had the forethought to drag Mrs H along to our nearest Orvis store before departure from Blighty and now we reap the rewards. In the chill of a moving game vehicle, the warm and lightweight clothing is a Godsend. My 14-pocket – 14 no less! – Expedition Trousers are the best thing since sliced bread and who doesn’t love a warm fleece on a cold morning?
Once you’re comfortably immersed in the bush experience, an enormous sense of wellbeing descends. You are always in radio contact and your guide is equipped with a rifle in case of dire emergencies, but effectively you’re on your own, living out all the cowboy/Indiana Jones/Dr Livingstone fantasies you can dream of.
The birdlife here is stunning, with rollers and bee-eaters swooping through the acacia scrub and eagles and buzzards banking on thermals above. Impala bucks belch and the occasional black hide of a wildebeest breaks the passing cover.
The sun is starting to warm my bones and ease my flight-scrunched muscles when we round a corner and I can’t quite get the cogs of my brain to conceive what I’m looking at.
Half a mile distant, an enormous shape blocks the red dirt track. It looks vaguely elephant-shaped – but it’s too big, surely?
But as we near, its shape and movement become unmistakeable. An enormous, mind-boggling, screen-filling lone male elephant rolling about in a muddy puddle.
His cracked, leathery hide is splattered with gore. Huge levels of iron in the soil at Madikwe makes large tracts of the reserve blood red after rain. And this giant bull is busy painting himself a new shade of ochre.
Having finished his ablutions, he saunters to a nearby tree – perhaps a foot around and 20 years old – and, leaning his massive head against it, snaps the bole with a crack.
A few choice leaves from the very top of the now doomed tree and a short stop to scratch his backside on the broken trunk, and he plods off silently into the thickness of the bush. It swallows him completely.
The kids’ eyes are enormous. And there are big grins on their faces.
This up front and personal introduction to the area’s wildlife is why you come to Madikwe. Our days continue to unfold with sensational game viewing, followed by a hearty meal, a few quiet hours to take a cooling dip, a snooze or catch up on some reading.
I enjoy a cigar with my binoculars at my elbow as the kids splash joyously in the pool; one evening, Chef cooks an Eland steak supper just for us on our candlelit verandah. Afterwards, as dung beetles the size of golf balls career and crash with a whump of helicopter wings, we share cold beers with camp staff.
A newly created Terrapin Hide here takes you – via an underwater tunnel – to an observatory which sits at water level bringing you incredibly close to the action safely. There’s even the option of sleeping out here under the stars.
We sing and dance around the campfire in the ‘boma’ or traditional enclosure; enjoy gin & tonic sundowners (or cans of pop, depending on your preference) with handfuls of salty biltong; awake each morning to new promise and forget about lessons, phones, emails and deadlines.
Three nights at Jaci’s feels like a lifetime but it’s still too short. The girls hug camp staff goodbye as the poor Corolla is dragged out of retirement for it’s next ordeal.
Time to head to Leobo.
Nick Hammond’s trip was expertly curated by Abambo, the luxury Africa Tour Specialist led by Rosanne Cobb (founder and editor of The Good Safari Guide). With 10+ years experience in creating tailor-made tours – at no cost to the traveller – Abambo offers an unrivalled depth of knowledge and access to some of the finest lodges and game experiences on the continent. This is the tour operator for the experienced safari enthusiast. For more information, visit www.abambo.co.uk. To discuss your bespoke Safari package, drop Rose an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about Jaci’s Camp and the other camps in Madikwe reserve, visit www.madikwe.com.