As I’ve said before, you really can’t do much wrong when picking a game lodge, so if you find a fairly decent deal for one, grab it. Jamila was recently renamed (from Martial Heights, which our host told us sounds like a row of flats and therefore didn’t attract a high enough number of guests in the past) and was offering a limited time special to promote its rebirth, so to speak. It has everything you could ask from a luxury lodge. It’s situated on top of a hill with stunning views all around and a cool breeze wafting up from the valley, the service and food are excellent, and we particularly enjoyed the hot tub right on our own private deck.
A special touch is the ramp for easy access to the game drive vehicle and the hot towels and welcome drink upon your return to the lodge. In case you can’t bear to be cut off from the world for a few days, there is WiFi in the main lodge. And Jamila welcomes families travelling with children, even small children, something you won’t find often in Welgevonden, which in general seems to cater more to the honeymoon and luxury safari crowds.
As for the reserve itself: Having been to Madikwe twice, I was eager to see something else. Welgevonden, at least on paper, is a bit closer to Joburg and has the same advantage of being malaria-free and home to the Big Five. In reality however, a series of road construction projects between Modimolle and Vaalwater (“Attention: Road construction for the next 48 km”), where the road becomes a one-laned pot-holed dirt path, makes your drive from Joburg to the West gate a four-hour affair. It’s a bit more hilly than Madikwe and the scenery is much more varied. You could be going up a rocky hill one minute and down into a lush valley with a river meandering through the next. But I have to say missed Madikwe’s packs of wild dogs and the fact that you almost cannot help yourself from stumbling over a pride of lions. I was also worried that the abundance of water in this area might have the effect of spreading out the animals too much, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem – our first game drive yielded a wonderful viewing of elephants wallowing and playing in a mud hole.
One thing about elephants: In my imagination, before moving to South Africa, I always pictured elephants walking across a wide open plain of dry grass, single file, to be seen from miles and miles away. Well, it’s not quite like that. Elephants, you see, eat trees. So where do they like to be? In between the trees, that’s right! They are usually so quiet and well hidden that you might pass them by at less than ten meters away without having any inkling that they’re there. They usually leave a pretty wide path of destruction so it’s easy to see where they’ve been, but not so easy to actually find them.
Our second evening’s game drive didn’t yield very much at all, at least initially, but it didn’t bother me. I could amuse myself endlessly watching our guide Justinus in the rear-view mirror because he resembled Barack Obama (I love being able to work our president into my blog posts).
Justinus resembled President Obama in other ways too. Here we were ambling along, not seeing much of anything, with the collective truckload of guests getting more antsy by the minute, and he was as calm as can be without any discernible sense of urgency, stopping occasionally and lecturing us about the wildlife (like the story about the black rhino always keeping its baby behind, much like black mothers carry their babies on their backs, and the white rhino keeping its baby in front, much like white mothers push their babies in a stroller in front of them – getting me to finally remember which rhino does what!). But then a radio message came in from another guide who had spotted lions, and it was as if someone had flipped a switch on Barack aka Justinus, giving him a sense of urgency we hadn’t suspected he was capable of. He calmly informed us that our sundowner drinks would maybe have to wait a bit, and to please hold on. Then he took off at breakneck speed, flying over those bumps in the road that he had previously so carefully circumnavigated for our comfort, racing against time and the setting sun, so that he could deliver the elusive goods at the eleventh hour, successfully I might add. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Maybe it was the roller-coaster ride, or maybe it was just my usual ineptitude with night photography, but the fact is that I struggled to get one single good lion picture. First I was shooting on AV when P with the flash is better at night, then I finally remembered the flash and managed to change the settings using the light from my phone (all while trying to catch a glimpse of the lions), but then it turned out the external flash was out of charge. When I finally had all the right settings, the lions were gone. I really need to get my act together sorting out my camera while it’s still light, and make sure everything is charged. Or maybe I just need to let it go and savor the moment by actually observing. It was a great viewing with several young and very playful lions.