From the Burj to the Bush

Our super awesome room with a direct view of the “animal highway”

They say that the meaning of safari is “a long journey.” It’s fitting that it took a 13 hour flight followed by a 10 hour layover in Dubai, another 8 hour flight to Johannesburg, and a 4 hour drive to our final destination in the African bush before we could say we’d arrived. The next 6 days in the bushveld would be the true journey though, and one that will stay with us for a lifetime.

Our first stop would be 3 nights at Madikwe Game Reserve, a private reserve on the border of Botswana open only to guests staying at one of the reserve’s private lodges. After realizing that the soil was too poor for farming, the South African government decided to repurpose the land as part of one of the largest wildlife relocation programs in history. Under the code name “Operation Phoenix,” the government was able to relocate entire herds of some species, while reintroducing rare species of predators totaling in over 10,000 animals over a ten year span.

Because we were nervous about driving on the left side of the road while sitting on the right side of the car, on pretty much zero sleep (not to mention we had no idea what the driving conditions would even be), we decided to book a private transfer to ensure we minimized the adventure part of our trip until we actually arrived at the reserve. We had a fascinating driver, Breyton, who was more than happy to talk to us about his country, its history, and surroundings. We learned quite a bit for the first hour of the drive:

  • There is actually quite a bit of gold still buried under the highway near the airport. We were amazed no one had tried to dig it up yet but it would be too costly to repave the roads.
  • The national tree is the jacaranda tree, which is a lovely lilac color when in bloom. We were lucky to see the trees in their one month of bloom lining the greater Pretoria area.
  • South Africa currently has a 28% unemployment rate, which seems really high. But, compared to its neighboring Zimbabwe which has an unemployment rate of over 75%, it’s not. Not surprisingly, illegal immigration has been a challenge.
  • Mining is still the top industry in the country. We saw a ton of mines lining the national highways on our drive.
  • There are eleven official languages in South Africa. Very few actually speak all eleven, but everyone is expected to know at least two languages.
Jacaranda tree

Unfortunately, given how little we slept on the flights, we knocked out after the first hour, leaving poor Breyton to drive in silence and probably boredom. I felt really bad when he had to wake us up when we approached the gate to the reserve, where our lodge was located, to let us know we were almost there. Upon reaching the main gate, where we had to register ourselves, we were greeted by a small elephant. Talk about a warm welcome!

In case we didn’t know we were approaching Big 5 Country, the elephant in the background quickly reminded us of this

It was a short 10 minute drive to Impodimo Lodge from the entrance, through low lying bushveld, bare trees, and dry haylike grass. The area was just coming out of a dry winter season, and was experiencing a really bad drought. It was only 11am and therefore too early to check in, so the staff walked us through our daily schedule, explained what to do in case of an animal encounter on the property (the lodge is unfenced, so any of the reserves’ wildlife can walk right through), and showed us around the common areas. This would be our home for the next three days. Our schedule would be:

5am wake up call
5:15am coffee/tea/snacks in the dining area
5:30am depart for morning game drive
8:30/9am return to camp for breakfast
4pm teatime with munchies
4:30pm depart for evening game drive
7:30/8pm return to camp for hors d’oeuvres and dinner

The luxury huts we stayed in at Impodimo. We always had to keep our eyes and ears open for wildlife at any hour of the day.
A southern yellow-billed hornbill, right in our backyard
A lot of guidelines to remember during our stay…most importantly, “Do Not Panic.” Did we mention, DO NOT PANIC??

We thought we might be hungry in between meals but boy, were we wrong. There were never more than a few hours without food, and in the rare event we did need a snack, the staff was happy to prepare something. Since we arrived after breakfast, the staff was kind enough to prepare us some sandwiches while we took everything in. We hung out by the pool while we waited for our room to be ready, in hopes of seeing some wildlife venture over to either the watering hole or the surrounding area. Very soon after we got there, some baboons showed up and played around some mud puddles. We were fawning over the mama carrying her baby on her underside when the area started to fill up with other wildlife, right before our eyes. One by one, we saw klipspringers (dwarf antelope), gemsbok (larger antelope), zebra, even a giraffe made an appearance! It was such a marvelous site to witness this scene coming together. All of a sudden, the gemsbok started to make alarm calls. Out of the thicket, we saw a bit of a ruckus before an extremely ugly animal emerged. A brown hyena! It didn’t look right though, as it was limping slowly during the heat of the day. Normally a hunter by night, we later confirmed this hyena had a broken leg and had been hanging around the lodge for the last 6 weeks, scavenging for food as its foot ailment rendered him useless as a predator. Of course, the other animals didn’t know that, and as soon as he arrived, the party was over.

Baboons in our yard
The view from the pool: klipspringers and baboons congregating by their own “pool”
The crippled brown hyena we saw during the day, scavenging for anything he can find

By this time, our room was ready and we got settled into our lovely villa that opened out to a private viewing deck in front of what the lodge nicknamed the “animal highway.” We napped for a bit and when we woke up, there was a parade of elephants right in front of our room! Teatime consisted of an array of snacks (BBQ sliders, banana bread, fruit, and pastries for today) and allowed us a chance to caffeinate before leaving for our first game drive. While we weren’t sure how it would go being on a drive with other guests, we soon learned that this was all part of the experience, and helped to create some really great memories. Today, we would ride with 3 other guests – a doctor from Canada volunteering in Botswana and a French couple living in Johannesburg – along with the two most important people to our stay. Margiet was our driver, but also our guide that would stop and explain a number of sightings for us. Holiday was our tracker, and sat in a special seat on the hood of the Land Cruiser to keep an eye out for clues leading us to the animals. As Margiet instructed, the animals are very used to the vehicles and see it as one unit, therefore we were to never break apart from the unit by standing up or calling out to the animals for fear they would take out Holiday first, and we certainly couldn’t live without him.

elephants outside room
I woke up to this herd of elephants walking right past our window. Good morning indeed!
The view from our balcony. At any minute, it could fill up with wildlife, and then go back to being devoid of anything.

As we quickly learned, no game drive would be alike and while our guides do put in quite a bit of preparation to determine a general route and animals to target, these plans can quickly go out the window if there is an unexpected sighting that comes through the radio. Across the 680 sq km of fenced-in land, the animals can roam freely, so although certain species stayed within their territories, most also do a fair amount of wandering and hiding. All of the guides working at the various lodges in Madikwe are connected via radio, so they would often clue one another to certain sightings. It was best to go in with no expectations and to be flexible. As was the case with many other parks, Madikwe practices responsible tourism and only allows 3 vehicles at a time at any sighting. So there were also alliances, certainly within the 3 vehicles Impodimo uses, but it also proved helpful to have friends. It turned out immensely advantageous for us to have a tracker, as none of the other lodges employed them, so one of the 3 vehicles from our lodge almost always was the first to stumble across a key sighting and would alert the other 2 vehicles to come before anyone else would find out.

Today, we would see on our drive: Klipspringer, Zebra, Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest, Jackal, Kori Bustard (largest flying bird species), Gemsbok, Elephants, White Rhino, Ostrich, Warthog, Kudu, Giant Ants (so big that the bites from multiple ants could cause temporary paralysis).

Red hartebeest
Our first white rhino sighting, with many many more to come

We also tried to track lions, as Margiet received a radio call that there were a few other guides nearby who were on the search. She drove us into a field, where the other vehicles were parked, and the guides took off together to track prints and other clues. All of the guides had been gone for quite some time, and out of sight, when all of a sudden, we heard a roar! Umm…where did our guides go?! We weren’t briefed on this! Thankfully, the guides came running back to our cars, and Margiet explained that a lion’s roar can be heard up to 5 miles away, so unless it was a deafening, bone-chilling roar, it likely wasn’t too close. We never ended up finding the lion, at least not right now.

“Um, was that a lion’s roar that we just heard?”
Up close and personal with some REALLY big African elephants. Those thorns don’t look like they’d be too tasty.
We were on the road observing the elephants when all of a sudden, one of them came charging towards us. Instead of backing up, Holiday instructed Margiet to drive towards it, while he banged on the hood of the car to scare it off! Thankfully, it worked. Margiet didn’t seem too thrilled that we went with this option.

After our run-in with the elephants, we stopped for a glass of wine or beer in an open field which the locals like to call a sundowner, as we watched the sun slip away into night. Once night fell, Holiday pulled out a lamp and scanned the horizon for the glisten of eyes. We did find two lionesses laying in a field, unmoving, but couldn’t come closer as they were on another lodge’s property.

Back at the lodge, we were welcomed with warm towels to wipe off the dust we collected riding around, along with a glass of sherry and some hors d’oeuvres while we awaited dinner. Since it was quite windy tonight, we sat in the indoor dining room as a group, with Margiet, and enjoyed our 3-course meal while exchanging stories. One of the rules of the lodge was that guests had to be escorted by an armed guide at night so, all spent from an exciting day, we all walked back together to our rooms to call it an early night.

Our first African sunset
Taking a break for our sundowner – drinks and snacks while we watch the sunset
This pic doesn’t do it justice but the sunsets gave Santorini a run for its money!
A reminder that we are staying in the African bush! Thankfully, this guy wasn’t poisonous.

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