In Pursuit of the Buffalo

As 2010 is coming to a close, we are finding ourselves once more in Madikwe Game Reserve. My brother and his three kids are visiting from Germany and we are eager to experience this great adventure together. Our lodge offers a little more luxury than the bush camp of my photo safari in October (though I have fond memories of the donkey boiler, the VIP bush toilet, and the rush of adrenaline you got from the knowledge that nothing separated you from a prowling lion when sitting on said toilet). This time we have settled into Jaci’s Tree Lodge.

Our rooms, which we reach on wooden walkways far above the forest floor, are built into the trees. They are huge, houses really, and easily accommodate six people each, with room to spare. A wrap-around verandah is overlooking the trees, and everything is completely private, unless you count the baboons or squirrels who might pay you a visit. You take your shower outside, under the stars, and there is no limit on the hot water. There is also air conditioning, but we have lived here long enough that we open the doors and turn on the fan instead. All in all, another great find via Bushbreaks.

Elephants at water hole

One of the things setting Jaci’s apart from other lodges is that children of all ages are welcome (quite a few lodges don’t allow children under 12 years old). There is a special children’s program featuring games and bushwalks during those hours of the day when you want to sit back and relax with a book, or hang out on the shaded deck overlooking the waterhole to perhaps catch a glimpse of bathing elephants.

Once we have unpacked and the kids have fought over and settled on their beds, we are ready for our first meal: High Tea at four o’clock. If you are on a diet, don’t go to a luxury game lodge. You will receive a delicious meal every few hours (muffins and coffee pre-morning-game-drive at 5:00, a coffee break in the bush, full breakfast at 9:00, lunch at 1:00, high tea at 4:00, sundowners and snacks in the bush, and lavish dinner at 8:00) and you will be conditioned to feel hungry every time even though you pretty much haven’t done anything all day but being driven around.

Coffee break in the bush

Right after we have eaten, we go on our first game drive. There is a bit more squabbling over seating assignments, but fortunately the promise of many more game drives (the next of which will come tomorrow morning at 5:30 am, yikes!) calms the collective nerves and we set off. Thomas, our guide for the entire stay, is absolutely wonderful, never missing an opportunity to educate us about some new fact. Altogether, we will accumulate all sorts of information on this trip:

Male dung beetle working hard

  • a group of zebras is called a dazzle
  • a group of giraffes is called a journey
  • a group of hyenas is called a clan
  • wild dogs pursue their prey up to four hours, wearing out the fastest runners in this fashion
  • impalas are called the McDonald’s of the bush because they wear a big M on their bums and are food for everyone
  • in Africa, more humans are killed by hippos than by any other animal
  • the male dung beetle does all the work of building and rolling and burying the ball of dung; not only does the female not help, she goes along for the ride
  • wildebeest like to hang out with zebras because the zebras have an earlier warning system when lions approach
  • elephants have six sets of teeth in their lifetime; when the last one wears out, they die of starvation
  • lions do scavenge and have no problem eating something that’s been dead for several days, as witnessed by the giraffe carcass that hyenas and vultures feasted on for 3 days before the lions finally discovered it and claimed as their own
  • the ant lion, one of the “Little Five” is a tiny larva that digs holes in the ground to trap and devour thousands of ants in the space of two years before maturing into a dragonfly (Thomas actually finds such a hole and digs one up that’s still clutching an ant, so tiny we have to use our binoculars as microscopes to see it)
  • a white rhino derives its name from its wide mouth, which sounds like white, which is why the other rhino, the one with the narrow mouth, is called the black rhino; black rhinos are smaller and much harder to find and hold their heads higher
  • cheetahs have no chance against the much stronger lions, which is why they have almost disappeared from Madikwe (where lions prosper so much that some of them are being sent off to other game reserves)
  • male elephants have a rounded forehead, whereas the slope of a female elephant has a distinct edge or kink
  • male giraffes can be recognized by their flat horns, worn smooth from fighting, whereas the horns of females retain their fine tufts of hair

This first afternoon we see two of the Big Five – a group of female and young lions, mostly sleeping (in fact, this is most likely the state you will find lions in, tired and stuffed and stretched out in the shade), and a troop of elephants with babies. We also come across the typical allotment of zebras, giraffes, kudu, a brown hyena, African storks (actually, in Europe they are European storks, but right now they are here, not there), even a lion stalking a wildebeest and its baby (something we didn’t discover until looking at the photo afterwards).

See the lion approaching?
Thus we are spending the next three days. Getting up early (woken by Thomas precisely at 5:00 every morning, if not already awake from the racket the francolins make), game drive, lounging by the pool or waterhole, reading, another game drive, and food, food, food! We see: More lions and elephants, a pack of wild dogs, dung beetles (quite fascinating, I assure you), white rhinos and, to my delight, two black rhinos, thus enabling us to check off number three on the Big Five checklist, hippos, jackals, spotted hyenas, a mongoose cracking an egg, a python, a crocodile (newly resident in Jaci’s water hole), a giant water monitor that looks almost like the crocodile, two baby warthogs, and a whole bunch of birds such as yellow and red-billed hornbills, bee eaters, and a lilac-breasted roller, not to mention about a hundred vultures guarding a dead giraffe.
However, what continues to elude us is the remainder of the Big Five: buffalo and leopard. I find this surprising. Ok, leopards are hard to find, they don’t even keep to a particular game reserve but rather come and go as they please, and they mostly hunt at night and are hidden in trees during the day, making any sighting of them a stroke of luck. (Although, with close to 40 hours worth of game drives under my belt, one would think I should have been due a leopard!) But the buffalo? After all, it’s really just a cow. In fact, I have always considered the buffalo a bit boring and wondered why it was placed in such auspicious company in the first place, rather than, say, the cheetah. Supposedly, there are over 500 buffaloes in Madikwe. Yet we continue not to see a single one of them. Thomas promises that he will find one.
Maasai greeting
First, though, we have other matters to attend to. It is our privilege to be here for New Year’s, and we are treated to a very special evening: All the guides are dressed up as Maasai warriors, all the girls (plus Jabulani) got their hair braided, and in lieu of our regular evening sundowner we are gathering somewhere on the savannah with all the other guests from Jaci’s (both Tree and Safari Lodge) for some drinks and snacks. Each new arrival is greeted by cheering and jumping Maasai clutching their spears. It is a sight to behold. An even better treat is an impromptu a capella performance of African songs. If you’ve ever heard this singing, you will know how beautiful and haunting it sounds. After a spectacular sunset we return to the lodge, freshen up, and proceed to our New Year’s dinner, again together with all other guests in an open field under the stars. The Milky Way is brilliant as it can only be in the Southern Hemisphere, Orion is above us, the Southern Cross hovers at the horizon. Most of our kids have opted to stay back at the lodge and go to bed, which leaves us to a nice leisurely dinner joined by our guide Thomas, who continues to amaze us with his knowledge, this time pointing out the constellations of the Southern night sky. There is more singing and dancing and a delicious meal of oxtail potjie (a kind of stew) cooked over the open fire. As beautiful as it all is, we practically fall asleep at our tables after days of crack-of-dawn game drives, and so we retire at 11:00 pm without waiting for 2011 to arrive.
Beautiful kudu buck
By the last evening game drive, Thomas is on a mission. He will get us our buffalo. We drive and drive, off the road and winding through brush, but there is absolutely nothing to be seen. Instead, the wind picks up and dark clouds are mounting on the horizon, prompting Thomas to stop and hand out ponchos. We look completely ridiculous but are quite happy, especially when it starts raining and those ponchos are keeping us nice and dry as we continue our quest for the buffalo. But when it starts pouring and the roads are disappearing, we are forced to concede defeat and turn around. We have never made it back to the lodge so fast before! The rain becomes harder and harder, now coming sideways in sheets, revealing the flaw of the ponchos: They keep out the rain from above, but not all the water running from them onto the seats. Our bums are very soaked, and I am protecting my camera as best I can. We are practically flying over the plains, seeing absolutely nothing, except a brief glimpse of elephants standing in the rain, apparently not in the least disturbed. I am praying that none of them are standing on the road, because in that case we’d barrel into them full force. But we make it back safely to the lodge, where our welcoming committee (a nice touch, being greeted upon arrival every single time) is waiting with towels to pummel us dry.
As close as we could get to a buffalo
The day of departure has arrived, and with it our last morning game drive. Thomas takes us right back to where we left off during the rain, ignoring all radio traffic advertising wild dog and lion sightings. He will not let us depart without our buffalo! It is no longer raining but everything is soaked. Nothing seems to be up except a few birds. We drive through a grassy area with many clusters of bushes and trees. Once in a while we do see something moving, but it always turns out to be wildebeest. Finally, Thomas comes to a stop and studies a spoor. He announces it is a buffalo that passed not too long ago. So far so good – looking at tracks seems to be something that can be learned. But what follows next shows Thomas’ brilliance as a tracker. Quite randomly he stops, reverses the truck, and peers into the trees. We see nothing but dark branches, even with our binoculars. But Thomas insists he has seen a buffalo sitting way back in those bushes. We strain our eyes, peer this way and that, but still can’t see a thing. So Thomas gets up and out of the vehicle, determined to show us it’s really there. And lo and behold, as he approaches the trees, we see movement, and all of a sudden not one but two huge buffaloes come charging out of the trees and run past us, eager to find a new hiding place. All we can get is a few blurry pictures and then they’ve disappeared again, this time for good. Amazing! They are as big as the black rhinos we saw earlier, and the bulk of the head alone makes us understand why these majestic and elusive animals were considered prize trophies amongst the game hunters of the past.
Wild dogs resting after the hunt
So, all in all a very successful safari, proving once again that Madikwe is THE place to go for game viewing in South Africa. It’s fairly close to Joburg, there is absolutely no Malaria, and it is the best spot to find wild dogs, a highly endangered and fascinating species. It is also a completely private game reserve, which keeps the crowds to a minimum, as opposed to Kruger National Park, where everybody can and does drive through.
And yet our adventure is not quite done. We are in the last stages of packing up while the kids are jumping around on the bed and chasing each other. I chastise them about five times, sending them on various errands to pack this and look for that and clean up such, but still they continue to be absolutely wild, heard throughout the entire camp, I’m sure. I opt to pack more quickly instead of taking time to separate them, even though I’m the one who always tells them that someone will get hurt. As we’re zipping up the last bag, Jabulani flings Sunshine across the bed with a giant shove, there is a loud crack, followed by silence, then wailing. She has hit her head on the corner of the night stand, and it does not look pretty. Needless to say, the rest of the packing goes swiftly. While I sit with sunshine to stop the blood, everyone else is suddenly busy. I’ve never seen such solicitous boys who follow my every command! Amazing what guilt can do, and I admit I plan to milk it as long as possible, though I hate that sweet Sunshine has to be the source of this lesson. Who would have thought that we’ll be seeing an emergency room on the second day of the year? This definitely puts a damper on our Madikwe experience (Noisette is known to ban locations of past accidents such as Whistler and Banff from our vacation list) as we’re speeding back to Joburg and Life Fourways hospital.  But I’m sure a few stitches will do the trick, and I can once again highly recommend Madikwe Game Reserve and especially Jaci’s Tree Lodge, as long as you beware of night stands!