Johannesburg & Madikwe, South Africa

We landed at Johannesburg International Airport at 6PM, about 45 minutes late due to our delayed departure from Washington Dulles. The anticipation of getting off the plane after a 16 hour flight one would think would be my sole determination for a quick exit. However, with each subsequent trip to South Africa, my eagerness is driven more by an ever growing sense of home about this place and a comfort that is similar to that of someone else entering their vacation home at the beach, lake or in the mountains. South Africa feels that way to me. It feels much like a second home. So, I exit the plane with no angst about where I am arriving; only the feelings of “did I get everything done in Atlanta before I left?”.

I must also admit to one other driving force behind getting into Johannesburg: the weather. I boarded the plane in Dulles in 90 degree heat and close to 100% humidity. Once I cleared customs and entered the fresh air of Johannesburg I was breathing in crisp, clean 70 degree air under a cloudless sky and no humidity. That feeling alone was worth the flight.

South Africa boasts some of the best weather in the world. While maintaining seasons, the weather remains in a comfortable setting for most of the year. I’ve been to South Africa in almost every month of the year and I’ve yet to arrive without taking note of pleasant weather immediately or within a few hours. I can think that in the US, only southern California boasts as favorable weather. The Western Cape can get cold and rainy for a few days in winter but nothing like the temperatures we take on day to day in the US. The lack of humidity makes it a wonderful summer destinations, as well. Spring seems to stay in South Africa for 6-8 months.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Johannesburg, The Wescliffe Hotel, CC Africa, Madikwe Game Reserve, Madikwe Safari Lodge

I was so deep in sleep that I did not know if the phone was ringing, the alarm clock was sounding or I had left the television on. I managed to roll over and see that the clock read 6AM, too early for my wake up call but nonetheless, the phone was ringing. The friendly voice at the other end of the phone asked me if I had mistakenly left my breakfast request at the front desk the prior evening without an accompanying room number. When I said I did not leave a breakfast request, the front desk attendant said thank you, hung up and left me to work through the strange idea of his calling. Was he planning on waking up each guest in the hotel to ask the same question? I was not sure if his action could be termed as poor customer service or excellent customer service gone a bit off track. As with most issues of customer service in South Africa, I opted for the latter choice as the hospitality industry in this country has always shown an eagerness to please that is hard to find in the US unless staying in or eating at the more expensive options.

As I was to have woken up at 7AM anyway, I went ahead and began my first full day on South African soil and jumped into the shower at The Westcliffe Hotel in Johannesburg. My hosts for the first 10 days of my journey, CC Africa ( , had offered to put me up in this fine establishment prior to touring a few of their game reserves. The Westcliffe sits on the edge of an urban deeply inclined hill, one floor looming on the cliff side above the next. The topography resembles that of a hotel one might find on the hills of San Francisco.

The shower I took was long and welcome. Packing my bags, I was out the door on the way to meet my driver, Natasha, who drove me the 30 minutes through Monday morning traffic to meet my Federal Air charter flight departing from the Johannesburg Airport at 10:30AM.

Despite numerous trips to South Africa and using Johannesburg as an entry and exit point on perhaps 75% of those trips, I have spent little time in the biggest city in South Africa and the center of commerce for the continent. This choice has never been made due to a disinterest in the city, but rather a strong desire/need to be somewhere else in this fine country.

The one hour flight to Madikwe Game Reserve on the Botswana border was easy and care free as the two young South African pilots delivered me and two other couples into the dirt landing strip, passing a herd of wildebeest and zebra during the descent. As we departed the plane, the Italian honeymooner asked the pilot if he could use the facilities. The five men in the crowd panned the horizon and headed to our respective self chosen trees and bushes for the initial call of the wild.

Brian, the head ranger at Madikwe Safari Lodge ( keyword Madikwe), picked me up and shuttled me over to the lodge where I would be staying the next two nights. Upon arrival I was met by some of the staff who are members of the local Tswana community. Maria, Shirley and Pamela greeted me with a warm washcloth and a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade. As the smiles came across their faces, I was met by 3 sets of gleaming white teeth, all with a strategically place gold tooth somewhere in the front. Pamela’s effort stole the show as she chose to adorn her front tooth with a gold star.

Escorted to my room, I was one again shown the unique combination of safari wilderness and comfort in South Africa as the room looked out over an endless, unencumbered panorama of nature while combined with a king sized bed, clawfoot bathtub, interior and exterior showers, fireplace, den, stocked mini fridge and private plunge pool. Yes, once again this was going to be a time when I knew that the decision to turn my hobby into a profession was going to be reinforced as one of the better choices in my life.

A lunch of boiboitie (a South African meat pie type specialty), green beans, mushrooms and salad overlooking miles of valley and hills leading into the Botswana border in the Madikwe Game Reserve was a nice start to shaking off a bit of jet lag. Once again, that wonderful weather came into play as the lunch was served on an open veranda, with birds abounding in the trees and francolin making nests below my feet. All this is being done on a day which is the equivalent to February 4th in the northern hemisphere. How many of you fellow northern hemisphere dwellers are able to enjoy a lunch on your deck in midwinter in your short pants? Yes, that’s what I thought.

The afternoon game drive started with tea/coffee and snacks at 3PM and an introduction to the other travelers who would be sharing my game viewing vehicle for the next two days. I always enjoy this part of the safari experience as usually, I am introduced to people from all over the globe, and this time was not to be an exception.

Madikwe Game Reserve:

Madikwe Game Reserve covers 74,000 hectares or about 185,000 acres. The park is only about 18 years old and is a part of the South African National Parks (SANP). The area was used for cattle grazing and hunting prior to becoming a game viewing area.

My game ranger was Brian de Gaverchy, a South African of French Heugenot descent. Brian serves as the head ranger over 12 other rangers and grew up in the bustling city of Johannesburg. Most all of the rangers come from South Africa are between the ages of about 20-30. The job as a ranger serves to initiate those entering into the safari industry as a career, as well as those young men wanting to take a few years to explore the wilds of the African bush before heading back into another career. I, myself, took the time to work on a boat and work in Wyoming prior to taking my first 9-5 job after college. My adventures were fun filled and fulfilling but if I could roll the clock back 20 years I would be here as a safari guide.

Brian gave our group the safety rules and we took off into the reserve. I was accompanied by an Italian couple (Patricia and Enzo) from outside Florence and a family from London. The husband/father was Martin Black, a native Scotsman, and his German wife, Annette and their 3 children, Constance (16), Megan (11) and Miran (6). Many private game reserves do not take families but this one does.

Given we are in South Africa’s winter season, this is a prime time to see animals as 1) the cooler temperatures have the game moving more freely, 2) the dry winter keeps the animals moving towards the easily found watering holes and 3) the limited foliage on the trees allows for unobstructed long vistas to see the game. Winter is my favorite season fro game viewing for all these reasons, as well it being South Africa’s slow time of year for tourism. “Winter” and “Low Season” are misplaced words to describe South Africa in winter. In the north of the country where most of the game viewing is conducted, overnight temperatures can be 50 degrees, but once the sun breaks the horizon you can count of the temperature to gradually rise to close to 75 degrees. It is as if spring stays in South Africa for about 6 months of the year.

We wasted little time and headed out to a watering hole nearby that covered some 10-15 acres. On the way to the watering hole, we stopped at a few tracks in the sand to allow Brian, our ranger, to see what animals had been in the area recently. Once we reached the watering hole we were met by a group of 6 elephants including 2 young ones less than 3 years old. Seeing elephants in the wild is nothing like watching them from the confines of the zoo. It takes no time to realize these animals are highly social and family oriented. The mothers (cows) were protective of their offspring and the offspring hugged the sides and tummies of their mothers. They spent time sucking gallons of water up their trunks and spraying themselves with a quick bath. Their interaction with one another showed their enthusiasm, and my opinion, their need to remain in the wild.

After 30 minutes or so, we headed out to see what else the reserve could offer. We were off to a rousing success with our early sighting of the elephants. We drove through brush scrub and came upon a lone hyena, feeding on the last remnants of a wildebeest which had been taken by lions the night before. The hyena can crush bone and digest it and the marrow, so often they will arrive on the scene and take in portions of the kill that other predators cannot eat. The hyena worked on one large bone for the 20 minutes we watched him.

We were fortunate to see lion tracks that evening and anticipated a possible sighting the next morning. We saw some of my favorite birds such as the lilac breasted roller and the yellow billed hornbill during the setting sun. South Africa’s bird population is prolific and the variety covers those that radiate bright colors. The lilac breasted roller has 3 or 4 bright colors on its body.

Our next stop was a preplanned 30 minute break for coffee/tea/beer break to watch the sun set and eat a bit of a snack before heading back to the lodge. An African sunset is like nothing I have ever seen. The sky is void of humidity and the sun often sets in a blaze orange/red/purple color that is brilliant enough to consider naming it something other than orange. Drinking “sundowners” as they are called, serve as a great time to meet your fellow safari travelers. The group is intimate enough to enjoy substantive conversation. I find the international flair of most safari travelers to be another draw to my interest here. Martin is originally from Scotland, but grew up in the West Indies and Australia as his father was a petroleum engineer. His wife, Annette, hails from what used to be East Germany. Her family was divided by the Berlin Wall and she had to escape to West Germany in the mid 80’s through being smuggled out the Hungarian border. All safari drives seem to yield interesting people and interesting stories.

We arrived back at the lodge about 7PM, went to our rooms and returned to a dinner under the stars in the outdoor BOMA. Multiple fires were lit and lanterns hung as we feasted on native South African dishes such as impala (antelope species), pop (a sort of South Africa corn based food with the consistency of mashed potatoes and butternut (squash) soup. All of the food was exceptional and plentiful. Other guests from Holland and Australia provided good conversation throughout the night.

I headed to my room and was eager to get to sleep after a long day’s “work”.