For a moment, as I stand by the pool, I think I’m staring at the Australian outback: the red dirt and shrubbery is similar, the bright, southern hemisphere light the same. Then a small herd of elephants enters my line of sight and wakens me. Like I said, just for a moment.
Madikwe Hills Private Game Lodge is located within the huge, 750 square kilometre Madikwe Game Reserve in northern South Africa. A short drive from Madikwe’s eastern airstrip, the lodge makes an immediate impression. General manager Johannes and his dog Missy (who I soon learn is never far away) greet us with a smile, cool face towel and drink.
The ‘lobby’, which also houses a cool curio shop, is equally lovely, with high thatched roofs braced by columns of stone and twisty tree trunks. Beyond reception, elevated timber pathways lead guests onto their rooms. In all, there are ten private abodes, scattered amongst large boulders and Tamboti trees. In African-style, each suite is more like a small, comfortable house.
My front door opens onto a cosy lounge area complete with fireplace, espresso coffee and mini bar, all inclusive. Up a few steps from the lounge room, an open bedroom looks straight out through glass doors onto a private deck, complete with personal plunge pool and views over the park (as well as frequent visits by the cute dassie).
Behind the bedroom is a powder room while on the other side is a giant, open bathroom, which is set amongst a faux rock landscape. Guests have a choice between an outdoor or indoor shower. Other dwellings are equally nice albeit in different layouts, from the family-friendly 3 and 4 suites to the Honeymoon Suite (complete with outdoor bath).
There’s also the Little Madikwe 2-bedroom private villa, which can be combined with suites 9 and 10 to create an exclusive camp for groups (including a private chef and personal butler). Elsewhere, the resort offers a fully equipped gym and spa, games room/library and large pool, which overlooks the great expanse of Madikwe reserve.
Outside the main building, guests dine mostly around a fire (though in comfort) on an enormous deck, enjoying an array of a la carte menus that showcase the best in South African produce.
At breakfast, diners can choose between more traditional full breakfasts to specialties like French toast with coppa ham, cranberry and camembert. And then there’s the full vegetarian brekkie menu.
Lunches are more laid back affairs, with guests meandering in (after lazy naps?) for meals light on the gut but heavy in flavour like a local version of ‘smashed avo’ and cucumber on toast, or an oriental fruit salad (which isn’t that Asian, but is refreshing) that’s perfect for the balmy afternoon.
Along with dinner on the deck, in the dining room or privately in the comfort of your own lodge, Madikwe Hills offers an incredible nighttime feast around a ‘boma’ (bonfire), where guests are treated to a buffet of mostly local fare like kudu, and song and dance, where a lucky few guests are invited up to perform with the choir and troupe, which is made up exclusively of staff from the resort (who turn out to be as talented as they are friendly).
A word of warning - if you have two left feet (like myself) you’ll be made to look even worse next to these gifted singers and dancers. This was still one of the highlights of my entire trip, and like everything else around here, was truly worth singing about.
GM Johannes tells me before I leave that the resort’s philosophy is to provide guests with a home away from home, which goes a long way to explaining why this lodge attracts so many (roughly 20%) repeat visitors. I hope to join that long list.
THE DRIVES - Watching wildlife in their natural habitat is one of life’s most moving experiences. And at Madikwe, there’s no shortage of fauna to get excited about, including the African Big 5 (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo) as well as a wealth of giraffes, zebra, hyenas, and even the beautiful and rare wild dog. If you’re lucky, you may also see a hippo or two.
Perhaps best of all, at Madikwe, you’ll never see more than three vehicles at a time at any sighting, no matter how incredible it is, which speaks to the co-operation between ‘rival’ rangers as much as the size of the reserve.
Our guide for our dawn and dusk safaris is the highly knowledgable Ernst Van Gruning. Accompanied by spotter Sydney, Ernst has a good sense of humour too as we listen to him tell of the supermodels of the jungle, giraffes (for their height, slim figures, and long eye lashes), the less intelligent wildebeest (who on his first ‘kill’ sighting saw walking towards their predator), and avoid the ‘L word’.
“We don’t say the ‘L word’ around here ... all hell will break loose,” he says, referring to the difficulty of spotting a leopard on safari. Given how excited our group gets over the humble impala, that’s a good move.
HOW TO GET HERE - Federal Air operates daily scheduled flights from an exclusive terminal and lounge on the edge of Johannesburg Airport to Madikwe’s airstrips. The journey takes less than an hour. Alternatively, ground transfer options are available, but do take over four hours.
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