Travelogue: Safari at Madikwe Nature Reserve

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts about my experiences at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. You can read the first post, Twenty Days in South Africa for the World Cup, to get an overview of what we did while we were there and the second post is about the soccer and the third post about is five days in Durban. This post is about my safari in Madikwe Nature Reserve.

Between USA/Slovenia and USA/Algeria, we drove up to Madikwe Nature Reserve for a three day safari.  We booked online just before we left, so we didn’t really know what to expect, but all three of us were excited to see some animals.  We were happy that we’d gotten a discount from the official rates and it was about a 4 hour drive from Pretoria, so we left fairly early in the morning and drove northwest, via Rustenburg.

We arrived at Madikwe, which is about 15k from Gaborone, the capital of Botswana and entered the park.  There are three types of reserves in South Africa and three different types of safaris.  There are national parks like the famous Kruger National Park or the newer Pilanesberg, which allow anyone to drive around the reserve in their own cars in search of animals.  There are also private reserves that are generally much smaller and are owned by companies that feel that they can make a profit from safaris.  Madikwe is a public/private combination of the two, in that the land is owned by the government, but private companies were allowed to build accommodations in small areas of the park.  You also must be accompanied by a guide at all times in Madiwke, so there is much less traffic than in Kruger or Pilanesburg.

Elephants at Bush House Watering Hole

We got to the park and made our way to The Bush House, a few km inside the park, just off the main road.  We really didn’t know what to expect, but we were greeted by friendly staff and luxury accommodations.  The first day, the three of us were the only people staying at The Bush House out of a possible 12, so we basically had a private, luxury safari for a day.  The Bush House is in the wild, surrounded by electric fence to keep the animals out and guests safe.  In addition to luxury accommodation, they have a watering hole that is right outside the fence, where you can watch animals come take a drink when you’re not out in the park.

Each day, we would get up at 7am and do a 3.5 hour safari with our guide, Jason.  After about 2 hours, we would stop for coffee and tea and then cruise around for awhile longer.  When we got back, breakfast would be ready for us outside in the breezeway.  We had the next few hours to ourselves, then had “afternoon tea” which was really like a lunch at 230, before another 3.5 hour safari that included drinks at sundown and 30 minutes or so of night safari.  When we got back, dinner was ready for us.  We were there for three full days and the entire experience was completely worth it.

It is winter in South Africa, so it gets really cold at night.  During the day, it was comfortable to walk around in shorts and a tshirt, but as soon as the sun went down the temperature would drop from about 70 to about 40 in twenty minutes.  We made sure to bundle up for the morning and night safaris because it was frigid, but it was completely worth it.

Giraffe on Safari

Our first game drive started out slowly our first afternoon, but it was fun to be in the bush, looking around hoping to see the big 5 (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard).  We saw a bunch of antelope and wildebeest and continued to drive around.  Our guide got a call on his radio that there had been a sighting in another part of the park, so we drove that way.  He pulled off one of the dirt tracks and all of the sudden, we were 10 feet from two sleeping lions.  The guides use radios to share sightings between each other, but Madikwe has a cool rule that only allows 3 vehicles to be at a sighting at once.  Other parks have no limit and cars crowd around the animals, which doesn’t seem fun or safe for the animals.

20 feet from a lion

I was continually suprised at how close we could get to the animals without them running off or us being in danger.  Our guide told us that the animals view the vehicle as one big blob, which looks dangerous to them, so they do not want to attack or show interest.  He also told us that as far as he knew, there has never been a case of a lion grabbing a human off of a vehicle before.  We never really felt in any danger, but was a little disconcerting to be 30 yards from three rhinos who continued to stare us down.

Sundowner drinks/snacks in Madiwke with our vehicle

Speaking of rhinos, they look like they are from a different time and place.  They look prehistoric and you can really tell they’ve been on earth for a really long time.  They’re also incredibly wide.  I’ve seen rhinos in the zoo before, but they’re always just sitting around in their enclosure.  Seeing these huge creatures in the wild was completely different.  They are the ones in control, not you.  We also learned that the guides do not talk about rhinos over the radio because poachers have been very active in killing rhinos for their horns.  There are only about 6000 rhino left in South Africa and over 125 had been killed already in 2010.  A full grown rhino horn is worth close to $1m because mostly Asian cultures want them for either rhino horn knives, which are used in coming of age ceremonies, or to be ground up and snorted or eaten as an aphrodisiac.  On our second to last day in South Africa, there was a story in the Cape Town paper about a rhino that was brutally attacked with a chainsaw for it horn.  It’s an incredibly sad and unfortunately growing problem, even on the nature reserves.  Madikwe has not had any poacher problems yet, but they are constantly vigilant to prevent rhinos from being hunted to extinction.

Three rhino

After seeing the rhinos, we got back to the Bush House and dinner was waiting for us in front of a roaring fire.  It felt great to get out of the freezing cold and the meal didn’t disappoint.  We had ostrich steak and lamb chops, accompanied by potato and leak soup, which were both really good.

The next morning, we got up for another game drive.  We drove into a more mountainous region of the park and ran into a group of 8 giraffe.  Giraffe are under appreciated animals, but I think they might be my favorite.  They’re huge, but we were able to get within 10 yards of them.  I didn’t realize that they have cones on the top of their heads that they use to fight and defend themselves.  Our guide told us that the males have much bigger cones and the older ones generally have broken cones from all of the fighting they do.  During mating season, the males fight to show dominance and apparently a giraffe fight is really brutal, with the loser dying of concussions or a broken jaw from time to time.  The males also get darker as they age, mostly to show dominance.  Again, seeing giraffes in the wild is a completely different experience from seeing them in a zoo where they just sort of stand around.

Right after the giraffes, we spotted one elephant on the side of the mountain.  After stopping to take some photos, we realized that there were a ton more coming down from the hills.  Elephant go up into the hills at night and then come down to eat when the sun comes up.  We quickly found ourselves in the middle of a group of 50-60 elephant, including a bunch of babies.  The babies are pretty funny, because they can’t use their trunks yet.  They try, but they sort of just dangle there, useless.  Elephants learn to use their trunks after 6-12 months, but have trouble until then.

These elephants were huge.  They were so much bigger than the mostly Asian elephants I’d see in zoos.  We were close enough to smell them and hear their vocalizations.  The younger males, 10-12 years old, are sort of like human teenagers.  They think they’re invincible and are really interested in the opposite sex.  They start to cause trouble and then a senior male, usually 45-55 years old, disciplines them.  Once the young male learns his lesson, the older male mentors the young one, teaching him how to interact with females, other animals and how to behave.  We were told that in areas with lots of poaching, the young males miss out on this mentoring and then don’t know how to interact with females or other animals and cause trouble, many times leading to them having to be put down.  Elephants live into their 60s and their lives parallel humans.  It’s amazing how far the parallels actually go.

View from the room, the bush house

That night, more people came, so our private safari was over, but it was still really fun.  They didn’t believe us that it got cold at night, so they froze the first night.  We ended up finding a large pride of lion, with over 10 lions in it.  After watching them for awhile, we noticed the younger cubs wandering off, so we went to find them.  On the other side of the hill, we saw all four of them getting the last of the afternoon sun in what looks like a staged picture, but I can assure you is not.  After dark, we saw two lions hunting and heard the shrieks of antelopes, but the lions didn’t catch them.  The lions were huge and slinking through the tall grass.

The next day, we saw a ton of zebra and went in search of wild dog, but didn’t find them.  Instead, we stumbled on a herd of 250+ buffalo.  They were huge and their horns looked like they could do some serious damage.  Our guide told us that buffalo are the most dangerous of the big five because they are so smart.  He said that he’s heard stories of buffalo that are shot by hunters that double back and attack the hunter from the rear to kill them.  Later that day, we saw the only cheetah on the reserve.  There used to be 60 cheetah, but the lions killed them all.  The park is trying to move 15-20 of the lions and then reintroduce more cheetah.  Our guide had been in the park for 6 months or so and had never seen the cheetah, so we were fortunate.  We were also fortunate to see two male lions eating a freshly killed wildebeest from really close up.

It was amazing how much all of the animals blended into the landscape, especially the lions and cheetah.  I had always thought of lions are yellowish and probably had a bad picture of cheetahs in my mind because of the cheetos guy, but both are almost light brown and really hard to see.  I could easily imagine walking right up onto a lion without even knowing it.

I really enjoyed the three days on safari.  Besides the matches, it was the highlight of my trip to South Africa.  Seeing these huge animals in the wild is a completely different experience than seeing them in the zoo.  If you go to Africa, you must go on safari.  It’s really not that expensive.  If you do choose to do a safari, I really recommend Madikwe and the Bush House based on value for money and all of the animals we saw.


  • This is a great account of an amazing experience. Personally, I think giraffes are pretty cool – they’re my favorite animal.

    Could you reference your earlier blog post about cars, apartments, clothing, etc? It’s great to read that in relation to what you are writing about here. Clothes fall apart – experiences last a lifetime.

    Hey, you and your friends need to make a Group Story book about your trip. The site is live – somewhat in beta, but you can create and order books.


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