It wasn’t until I watched a dead tree trunk silhouetted against the horizon move and walk away across the savannah at South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve in North West Province that I understood how a creature as big and eye-catching as a giraffe could be camouflaged. Visiting in October with the rainy season yet to arrive, the bush in various shades of brown and red gave perfect cover. It was the same with a pile of rare African wild dog puppies dozing in the dappled shade of a tree, invisible until one of them flicked a saucer-sized ear, or a herd of gentle fawn impalas grazing silently, conspicuous only when they moved off.
Elephants, on the other hand, were hard to miss, with 1,200 of them on the reserve in herds of 10 to 20, from mini to matriarch, marching to waterholes where they bathed, pausing their ablutions to haul free tubby youngsters marooned in mud. And you couldn’t fail to hear baboons bellowing from their outcrop perch, signalling the presence of a cheetah, while birds sang all around, flashing electric blues and green plumage. With sightings coming thick and fast, every day in South Africa delivered a thrill and each was better than the one before.
We had started our trip in Johannesburg after an overnight flight with Virgin Atlantic from London, being met Zandile Dhlamini of Aahaah Shuttles and Tours and Sindiswa Mlaza, Soweto born and bred, and Kgomotso Ramothea of the South African Tourist Board, an indomitable trio proud to show us their country and what it has to offer. From what to see, read (anything by Dudu Busani-Dube), eat (you must try pap, a porridge made from maize meal), listen to on a road trip (the Sarafina! soundtrack) and how to deal with “bombastic” men, they were a force and made for a fun-filled, informative trip, taking us to places we’d never have found on our own.
Less than an hour’s drive in Gauteng province led to our first night’s accommodation, Farmhouse58, with the ethos “Beauty is found in the simplicity of life, love and nature”. It offers an immersive experience of locally grown food and workshops as well as visits to the nearby NIROX Foundation sculpture park where we walked among artworks scattered across the landscape, from images of Sara Baartman, the former slave exhibited in Britain and the UK in the 19th Century, to Yoko Ono’s “wish tree”.
Rising before dawn we joined a sunrise balloon safari with Bill Harrop’s Balloon Safaris at Skeerpoort, 45km north of Johannesburg, to watch the rays appear over the Magaliesberg range (among the planet’s oldest mountains) as we floated 500 feet above the Magalies River Valley. Only the periodic blast of the burners punctuated the silence as we gazed onto a patchwork of fields and broccoli-sized trees and in the blink of an eye the hour’s flight was over and we toasted our happy landing with bubbles and breakfast.
Still on a high we drove four hours north west to the Madikwe Reserve, one of the country’s largest, where at Madikwe Safari Lodge we stayed at the most secluded Dithaba camp, comprising four hillside suites overlooking the savannah plains that sweep up to the Botswana border. My greeting from a harmless Western Bellied Sand Snake sunning itself was a taste of things to come, and I kept an eye open when using the outdoor shower (there’s one indoors too) and plunge pool, and an ear too at night.
Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to see animals and we bounced out of bed enthusiastic for twice daily safaris in the LandCruiser with Mitch Lance, our FGASA-accredited field guide and tracker who proved a source of endless knowledge and provider of tasty refreshments.
The reserve teems with bucket-list animals – elephants, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, zebras and there’s also the so-called “Ugly Five” – wildebeest, hyena, maribou stork, leopard faced vulture and warthog. Twitchers too will be in their element, while even a novice can spot the likes of a Cape Starling, their waxy sheened feathers like mini Barbour jackets, and watch male weaver birds spend hours perfecting their hanging nests to attract house proud females.
Madikwe Lodge is idyllic; exclusive use, with infinity pool, decking and lounge areas, plus quality fresh food cooked by chef Mavis and her team, including a dinner served in the bush with flaming burners to keep animals away and uninterrupted views of a dazzling Southern Cross.
With a last view of elephants splashing at a waterhole we reluctantly left Madikwe and drove back to Johannesburg, passing villages with signs announcing “cattle for sale, funeral and weddings, tombstones”, and “Stop Nonsense” walls, built by householders to stop any “nonsense” spilling into your backyard. In the jacaranda-lined streets of Jo’burg’s downtown Rosebank we checked into the Voco hotel, modern and stylish with its Proud Mary restaurant and proximity to the shopping centre opposite, where the irresistible Bebey Assamahou’s vivid African wax dyed textiles, and a favourable exchange rate, left us wondering how we’d get our printed skirts and bags in our luggage.
Next morning at the arty hub of 44Stanley among trendy eateries and shops we found The Bioscope independent cinema championing home grown (such as Lobola, A Bride’s True Price?) as well as international films, before heading to Soweto, where our guides grew up and live.
By bike is a great way to explore the vibrant township, home to three million inhabitants, on a tour with Lebo's Soweto Bicycle Tours. Impressions crowded as we snaked around streets of two-roomed houses built for miners, some roads tarmaced with cars parked outside upgraded houses as their occupants have prospered, others unsurfaced and the homes wthout drains or toilets where they have not.
Soweto is bustling with life, street stalls and shacks selling everything from fruit and veg to haircuts, and moves to a musical beat with Amapiano (South African house music) and Soweto’s own jangra sounds.
Outside Nelson Mandela’s home and museum we watch traditional dancers perform in his honour before visiting the nearby Hector Pieterson Memorial, a moving tribute to the schoolchildren killed while demonstrating against apartheid in 1976.
Our tour ends with Soweto brewed beer to wash down hearty stew and more delicious pap, cooked in huge pots in the garden in front of the Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers hostel (sowetobackpackers.com), a fitting example of the grassroots projects through which Soweto’s residents strive to help themselves, a symbol of what tourism means to South Africa and those who love it.
Plan your trip
Flights to Johannesburg with Virgin start from £622 (virginatlantic.com)
NIROX Sculpture Park (niroxarts.com)
Bill Harrop’s Balloon Safaris (balloon.co.za) Magalies Hot Air Balloon Tour Rates vary from R2990 (£142) to R3295 (£156) pp (incl VAT) depending on package, season and number booking
Dithaba Lodge, Madikwe Safari Lodge starts at 16,800 Rand per person sharing (£800 approx), based on all-inclusive including activities (madikwesafarilodge.co.za)
voco hotel Rosemount, Johannesburg (www.ihg.com)
Nelson Mandela House (mandelahouse.com)
Lebo's Soweto Bicycle Tours (sowetobicycletours.com)
Lebo's Soweto Backpackers hostel (sowetobackpackers.com) cycle tours from R550. Discounts for overnight guests at Lebo's Soweto Backpackers hostel.