The Perfect Place To Stay in South Africa’s Madikwe Park – Thakadu River Camp
Written by Jaillan Yehia
I stayed at Thakadu River Camp, one of the area’s most exclusive lodges.
“Here comes the McDonalds of the bush, showing us his ‘M’” says my guide, Patience, and with that a herd of impala trot into view. These beautiful Southern African antelopes, whose markings include a black letter M painted on their sandy rear ends, are in plentiful supply and represent the perfect snack for the park’s predatory animals, including lions.
So far on my three-day summer safari at Thakadu River Camp, the only tented lodge in this 75,000 hectare reserve, I’ve been scarily close to lions twice, but am yet to witness a kill – something that I’m quietly grateful for, even though I know I should be disappointed.
Nestled in the far Northern corner of South Africa by the Botswana border, Madikwe National Park is not in most brochures and it’s barely featured in the guidebooks, but it offers malaria-free game viewing for guests at the 30 private lodges within its borders.
And unlike most game reserves Madikwe doesn’t accept day visitors, so all that elusive Big 5 wildlife is exclusively for guests’ eyes only.
Each lodge is staffed by knowledgeable rangers taking up to 10 guests out on private safaris in open-topped Land Cruisers but Thakadu River Camp is a very special community lodge, part-owned by the nearby Molatedi village and combines luxurious accommodation and facilities with a friendly ambience and real people-based conservation.
Thakadu River Camp is staffed by incredibly warm and welcoming local people who also work the land or share their knowledge – like Patience, my game guide and driver – who I soon learn is a formidable character and a lynchpin in the success of the project as well as being the most sought-after guide in the entire reserve.
“Tourist guides are like teachers;” she explains, “while a ranger deals more with the animals, guides deal more with people.” I can’t help wonder which is harder.
Patience makes it look effortless, expertly handling the Land Cruiser on rough terrain to get closer to a herd of buffalo while simultaneously spotting snakes and dung beetles on the ground and colourful birds in the treetops. She tells me that “guides are always learning and every guide has their own way of interpreting the bush – you have to find your own style.”
Whatever Patience’s style is, it’s working.
After nine years in the field (half that time spent cutting her teeth as an animal tracker) and as one of the only women in a very male dominated industry she has guests at Thakadu River Camp requesting her, other guides deferring to her and everyone falling under her spell.
Despite an understated charm and a self-effacing demeanour, she is shrewd enough to know that her clients are well-travelled so she cultivates an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bush, the 306 bird species and the 66 types of mammal that inhabit it, and even the stars that shine over it during your evening drive back to camp.
Once back at the homestead the charming and fantastically attentive general manager Anton is also on hand, as always, eager to hear news of your sightings and share his infinite experience, knowledge of the bush, as well as a few stories.
Thakadu River Camp gives you the feeling of being welcomed into an extended family home, albeit a luxurious one, and little touches here make a huge difference; turndown service includes not just a chocolate but a handmade bookmark on your pillow featuring Zulu stories, like The Day The Baboon Outwitted The Leopard.
You quickly embrace the routine of the bush: If the squawking and screeching of the dawn chorus doesn’t wake you then a call from Patience at 5.30am will – it’s a quick coffee and a rusk then you’re jumping on the jeep for the first thrilling game drive of the day just as the sun is starting to warm the air.
Once aboard it’s time to dish out the coveted ‘spotting seats’ high up at the back of the tank-like vehicle, and best occupied by those with trained eyes, while the comfort-seekers in the group take the more stable lower benches or ride up front with Patience.
We listen-in to the crackle of the radio, over which the park rangers call in animal activity, and alert each other to major sightings at evocative place names in the park such as Guinea Fowl South.
The reserve is known particularly for the elusive Wild Dog; they may look like your pet pooch, but they’ll rip their prey limb from limb without taking the trouble to kill it first meaning the poor animal, Patience informs us in one of her typically salient sound bites, usually dies from shock.
During the winter months game drives can be all day affairs but in summer the scorching hot sun dictates a combination of early morning and late afternoon forays punctuated by a slap-up late-morning breakfast, high tea with home-made cakes and a three-course lunch.
From the lodge’s wooden deck you can cool off in in the plunge pool while watching elephants doing some more cumbersome, muddier bathing of their own in the Marico River. Or back in your suite under the canvas you can take a siesta in camping-goes-luxe surroundings lulled to sleep by the sound of the reserve in which you are gently cocooned.
Late-afternoon drives begin around 4pm, with a stop at dusk for decadent sundowners then its home in time for dinner, which often comes in the shape of a braai – a South African barbeque – served under the stars.
The lodge at Thakadu River Camp has a varied clientele including couples and groups but is a child friendly choice too with cutely named Bumble Tours, which are mini-safaris for the little ones avoiding any dangerous animals and keeping the duration to an hour to prevent boredom setting in. It’s Little 5, not Big 5 for the kids – ant lions instead of real lions to the relief of the parents.
And if the adults here are in search of serious game viewing then unlike Kruger Park or other safaris they’re almost guaranteed a bumper crop of animal activity.
The system of guides radioing in the sightings and working together to track and spot animals makes your chances of seeing the Big 5 incredibly high even if you only have a couple of days to play with, so the irony is that here at Thakadu River Camp, patience is one virtue you don’t really need.
Thakadu River Camp – Getting There & Staying There
Flight Centre (0844 800 8628) offers flights to South Africa on numerous airlines in all classes. Fares to Cape Town from £522; fares to Johannesburg from £499
Federal Air (+27 (0)11 395-9000,) flies twice-daily 45-minute shuttle services between Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport and Madikwe National Park’s airstrips, from around £330 return. They also operate a private helicopter transfer for the ultimate luxury transfer.
Driving: Thakadu is a four hour drive from Johannesburg. The legendary ‘African Las Vegas’ of Sun City is halfway making it an ideal stop-off point.
Thakadu River Camp (+27 (0)11 676-3123) offers accommodation in twelve tented suites, each with its own private viewing deck and luxurious bathroom. Costs from £245 per person per night based on a minimum of 2 sharing on an all-inclusive basis and with two game drives per day.
Savoir There was a guest of Thakadu River Camp, Madikwe.
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