Saving the Rhinos

Grabbing tea/coffee in a nice (seemingly safe) clearing in Madikwe. The best part? The shot of Amarula in our hot chocolates to give us that extra pep in our step.

Because our morning drives started at 5:30am and got us back by 8:30am, we actually lucked out by squeezing in one last game drive before our road transfer picked us up at 9am. Explore early, nap later…

We are probably getting spoiled and are getting used to life in the bush, because it felt like a pretty uneventful morning driving around. Still determined to find that leopard, we drove to some new areas scanning both on the ground and in the trees. But alas, it remained a calm morning, as we saw the usual suspects: Kudus, Wildebeest, Fish Eagle, White Rhino, Klipspringers, Black-backed Jackal and her pups, Steenbok, Waterbuck, Warthogs, Ostrich, Giraffes, and Zebras.

Peaceful sunrise as we headed out for yet another morning game drive
View of our lodge from our game drive
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed!

And strangely, no elephants this morning. We drove to a spot we hadn’t been by before for coffee though, a much greener area that was flat beyond what the eye could see. We must all be getting comfortable being in the bush, especially since today was relatively uneventful in our search for predators, that all of the others started taking off walking. Margiet, and even Holiday at one point, had to call after the other guests and chase them down to make sure they stayed close to our car. We were still in big game territory after all! It can definitely be deceiving to drive around in a large, safe Land Cruiser that’s high off the ground and think that we are safe. But even the ostriches and warthogs nearby could’ve been dangerous.

At up to 18 feet tall, giraffes are the tallest land animals.  Fun fact: they have 7 vertebrae in their neck…just like humans!  Theirs are just way longer.
Kori bustard, the largest flying bird
Little gopher? I actually have no idea what this is, Doug was obsessed with taking its picture.
Ostriches running past our coffee break

We asked about snake sightings and ironically, that’s the one thing Holiday won’t go near. He had no issues tracking lions, even allowing some to walk right past his vulnerable position on the hood of the car, yet he shuddered when we asked about seeing snakes.

Back at the lodge, we didn’t have time to eat but the folks at Impodimo packed us a nice lunch to go, for our 3 hour drive to the Waterberg Biosphere. We absolutely loved our stay at Impodimo and the service was truly top-notch. Even with upwards of 20 guests to tend to at a time, they knew each of us on a first name basis and were always on top of their game. For a brief moment, I wondered how we could match, let alone top, our experience having seen so many diverse animals already. But, silly us, how could we possibly be sick of safari life already? There was still so much left to discover in a completely different landscape, with a completely different guide and style…

Our lodge was located within the Welgevonden Game Reserve, a considerably smaller reserve than Madikwe, located within the UNESCO World Heritage Waterberg Biosphere. Unlike Madikwe, Welgevonden does not allow any public vehicles on the property, only those that are registered with a specific property. The reserve has over 50 properties, but only 11 are revenue-generating lodges while the others are private. We had to wait for a representative from Makweti Safari Lodge to meet us at the gate to transfer us the 30 minutes to camp. Here, we met Neil, our guide and driver for our stay. Since Makweti doesn’t employ trackers (nor did any of the other lodges, from what we saw), Neil was also our tracker. A 17-year veteran of working in guiding, conservation, and hotel management, Neil reminded us of South Africa’s version of Crocodile Hunter, with his unadulterated passion for animals and conservation. We would quickly find how infectious his love was, not only with his respect for the animals but his love for the process of finding them.

Neil explained to us that because of its location of within a natural biosphere, the reserve sees much more rainwater flowing from the hills into the valley that it’s situated within. So even though the last rainfall was 3 months ago, the area still had water flowing in its streams. The landscape was very different from Madikwe in that there was more greenery, and also more rolling hills. The soil was red and very nutrient-rich, and for this reason (amongst others), vehicles were not permitted to go off-road here. The major difference was that all the animals would have to be seen from the road. Although we thought this would be a huge disadvantage, there was also far less thicket so we could see more clearly at a distance. The animals also seemed to be really comfortable with visitors so many actually approached us pretty closely. The rule was always to respect the animal’s comfort zone, and they would let us into theirs.

Valley area of Welgevonden Game Reserve. Translated to “well found” in Dutch, Welgevonden was a nice find indeed.
View from the restaurant’s patio. The cool trees are Makweti trees, after which our lodge was named.

We checked in, got oriented, and received the rules of the lodge, which weren’t too different from the rules at Impodimo. The biggest difference was that our rooms didn’t have locks, which they explained was in the case of an animal encounter, any guest or staff member could quickly seek safety in any building. The guides didn’t carry guns here so it was especially important for them (or us) to be able to dart into the nearest building in case an animal charged them. Yikes! Thankfully, even though there were baboons in the reserve, they never frequented the lodge so we didn’t have to worry about them opening our doors. Makweti was another 5-star lodge, beautifully built and designed like old Africa with dark, handsome details, oil lamps, and zebra decor. We thought Impodimo was small and intimate, but Makweti only had 5 chalets so we really felt like we had the place all to ourselves. It was never full either, so they actually surprised us by upgrading us to a room with a private plunge pool outside.

Our outside deck area to watch the wildlife in our backyard
Our private pool and lounge area. We were advised to only go during the day as there can be leopards in the hills beyond.

Before our evening drive, Makweti served us a nice 2-course lunch on their outside patio, consisting of bobotie and a lemon meringue tart. Once upon a time, Doug had made up a “Top Chef” cooking challenge between us, and one of the challenges was to make a local dish representing whatever country we drew. He drew South Africa, and introduced both of us to the notion of bobotie, so we chuckled when we actually got a chance to try what it was supposed to taste like. Another perk of staying at Makweti – they received the exclusive “Chaine de Rotisseurs” culinary distinction, so we would feast like kings here.

Bobotie. Fried egg topped with a curried minced beef/raisin/pine nut mixture topped with rice topped with more beef mixture. Did we need to eat this much? No! Was it delicious? Yes!!
Lemon meringue tart. Always save room for dessert when on safari.

Out on our drive, Neil stopped and showed us a lot of the things we would’ve normally never noticed, like different types of vegetation, tracks, and poop. Even by looking at poop, Neil illustrated to us the different territorial habits of various animals which helped us better understand how these animals lived, and where we could best find them.  We very early on came across a – not herd, not pack, but CRASH – of rhinos grazing in a field.  Here at Welgevonden, these beautiful, prehistoric-looking creatures thrived in a protected environment, safe from poachers.  Poaching has become a serious problem for rhinos as their horns have become coveted in the black market as status symbols and medicinal cures alike, going for upwards of half a million dollars each. Sadly, poachers continue to outsmart conservationists.  They would shoot rhinos only for circling vultures to tip rangers off to the dying animal, so they’ve evolved into shooting poisonous darts and flying away with their horns via helicopter to avoid being caught.  By the last count, there are roughly 25,000 black and white rhino in Africa, mostly concentrated in just 4 countries.  The beautiful thing was that we got to see so many of these rhino thriving in both reserves (especially Welgevonden), and so many babies, so they are slowly making a comeback! More on rhino conservation here

Mama and baby rhino. We saw and watched them eat grass, uninterrupted, hardly even lifting their heads to see what was around them.
Rhino family crossing

After a calm afternoon viewing wildebeest, zebra, and rhino, we stopped for our sundowner in a beautiful field within a valley before we headed back for the night. Along the way, Neil pointed out a carcass of an old buffalo that they had previously found. Normally traveling in herds, buffalo usually break off from the pack after they get too old, so this poor guy was on his own when a lion took him down by clamping on his snout to asphyxiate him. The lion started feeding on him when amazingly, the buffalo came back to life! Unfortunately, because he’d already been ripped open, he suffered organ failure during the process and that was the end of him. How they pieced together that story is beyond me!

A few stray wildebeest.  Usually traveling in large herds, wildebeest rely on safety in numbers from the many predators that call them “food.”

Dinner was inside the restaurant, and by now, we expected to sit with everyone from the game drive. The only other guests who accompanied us on the game drive were a couple from Belgium, Arne and Greet, who we actually got along with splendidly. But because it was just the two couples, they decided to set up two separate candlelit tables so we could have some privacy. It was a little bit of a surprise after the group dinners we got accustomed to, but we embraced having a nice romantic dinner tonight. Ironically, this was the couple we got along with best so we joked about coming to visit each others’ tables when the hotel managers weren’t looking. The managers even joked that we had to remember not to visit each others’ rooms later because we required a guide to escort us anywhere at night. Um…we liked them but not like that!

Course #1, Corn Leek Soup.  Followed by chicken ballantine and dark chocolate tart.

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