Text Leigh Robertson Photographs Nick Stanbridge
When deep bush yearn sets in, there’s nothing to quell it but get there. And so, a little more than three hours after leaving Johannesburg, heading north and watching the urban landscape blur into farmland, mine-scarred hills, then suddenly nothing but stark bushveld stretching ahead, I’m spread out barefoot on a large white blanket propped against heaps of cushions, adjusting the focus on a pair of binoculars while balancing a glass of sparkling wine on one knee.
The air is warm, dry and dead still, bar the steadily intensifying crack of branches coming from the other side of the river burbling metres away: just like that, a herd of ellies emerges, putting on something of a show as they drink and splash about in the water for the better part of an hour, before casually moving on. It is utterly surreal; there’s been barely a moment to cast off ‘city eyes’ and put on ‘bush eyes’. But that’s how it is here in this lesser known of national parks set in Limpopo’s mystically beautiful Waterberg range. The immersion into this wild place is immediate; there’s no changing into your khaki gear and waiting for the next game drive.
This sets the tone for the next few days at Marataba Safari Lodge in the Marakele National Park, where, when the sun has barely risen, we have a close encounter with a pack of five spotted hyena, who take an unnervingly keen interest in the vehicle, splitting up, circling, approaching from the rear. That same night a return visit to the site of a kill rewards with an electric episode in the dark (with occasional torch intervention) watching a one-eyed leopard protect the carcass she’s stashed high up in the branches from motley opportunists – a jackal, a pair of brown hyena – whose beady eyes flash from within the undergrowth. The next day we hear a lion far, far away, and our ranger Michelle uses her inner bush radar, for it’s that effective, to track down the ageing creature, whose time in this reserve is fast waning now that a pair of young males has been introduced.
Marakele lives up to its Tswana name as a ‘place of sanctuary’; 23 000 hectares of magnificent wild terrain characterised by plains and forests, magical streams and waterfalls, and the red-hued mountains that dominate the scene, provide your bearings, form the magnetic backdrop to all the days’ – and evenings’ – activities, a hot glowing beacon come dawn and dusk.
As the sole property of its sort here, Marataba Safari Lodge (Marataba meaning, appropriately, ‘place of the mountains’) is luxurious beyond the obvious sense befitting a five-star establishment – with its lodgings comprising only 15 private tented suites set discreetly on the river bank and all but hidden in the bush, it’s glamping on steroids for privacy-seekers. At any given time, there’ll only be around 30 of you, excluding a troop of various delightful and attentive members of staff.
To be honest, it’s hard to pull yourself away from your spacious, stylishly appointed tent, where beanbags on the patio overlooking the river are a choice spot to read or nap, although the chic open-sided lounge and library area becomes especially inviting around afternoon tea, when cakes and savoury treats are brought out. Meals are all thoroughly engaging affairs, from the post dawn-drive brunches at the stylish central lodge area to picnic spreads under the trees at the poolside, where we (feigning bush-wise nonchalance) spot a bright green snake disappearing into the leaves above our heads.
Since taking over operations in September last year, the MORE group has expanded Marataba’s activity offering, with future plans including walking safaris. In the meantime, a chilled-out sunset cruise makes a change from the more eventful night drives. We see not a single animal, but the slow chug on a barge-like vessel as the copper mountains burn in the dying light is hypnotically relaxing, helped along by gin tonics on tap.
A two-hour drive away, up against the Botswana border in North West Province, is the 60 000 hectare Madikwe Game Reserve, where the MORE group-run Madikwe Safari Lodge provides guests with the same level of experiential, conservation-geared tourism – with a tell-tale edge of easy, pared-back glamour – as its other properties.
The terrain is markedly different here, echoed in the striking architecture with its undulating organic shapes and towers (which bring to mind the impressive termite mounds you see under virtually every tree in this reserve), natural rock, thatch and earthy palette. Set in a vast and dramatic expanse of thornveld, at the base of a koppie, are the three separate lodges that comprise this luxe retreat.
While the same striking design language connects them, each has unique elements in decor touches as well as facilities. Families are best accommodated at Lelapa, which has 12 suites with triple rooms, lively communal areas geared for both play-time for kids and time-out for parents, and an eco-house for fun and educational escapades. With its four suites, as well as elegant communal library, dining and lounge areas, Kopano is ideally suited to tranquility seeking couples and honeymooners. A little higher up the koppie is the exclusive-use, and very private, Dithaba ‘mountain’ lodge. With four suites all leading off a generous central lounge and dining space, and with a star-gazing deck with a matchless view over the plains, it’s every bit a villa worthy of rock royalty.
While they might not have star-gazing decks of their own, Kopano and Dithaba hold their own when it comes to being connected to the natural surrounds – whether lunching in the communal area or cooling down in your own private splash pool (a popular place to while away the time generally), you’re exposed to the great open wilds in the best possible way. You’ll have at least one dinner in the boma, where a soundtrack of creature calls and the lick of flames from the fire create a mesemerising effect.
Because Madikwe Safari Lodge shares the reserve with several other lodges, you’ll occasionally be in the company of a few other game viewing vehicles when coming across a sighting that’s particularly special, but the degree of professionalism and care for the animals first means rangers work extremely well together so there’s never a sense of crowding. Most of the time while out on the drives you could be the only humans alive it feels so deliciously remote, notably when the motor’s switched off and you’re watching the sun rise while dunking your rusk in a mug of good flask coffee.
In the hands of ranger Martin, we’re privy to some startling moments: a pride of lion hidden in a shady thicket, exhausted and stuffed after reducing their kill – a collosal wildebeest – to a fly-studded skeleton, with the three cubs sussing us out between bouts of playful fisticuffs. The early evening drive where we take a route along the airstrip, the tar still warm from the day’s heat proving a lure for zebra and buck, and then come across a pack of 14 wild dogs in full play mode, carousing with high-pitched yelps as the sky darkens.
Later that night, back at our suite and lying under blankets out on the deck, it’s the dizzyingly bright starry display that steals the show, just one of many such points in time where life as you know it feels more like a million miles away than a matter of mere hours.
This article originally featured in the September 2014 issue of House and Leisure.