Madikwe is my happy place, my daughter likes to say. And indeed, when we arrived at our lodge at Mooifontein, the week before last, all the cares in the world seemed to just fall away. The four hour cruise up the N4 from Johannesburg, the half hour drive along dirt roads through the reserve, the welcoming committee of elephants at the waterhole, not to mention the fact that we were footloose and fancy-free and away from it all in the midst of a working week all combined to make the air seem sweeter, the daylight sparkle, the space seem endless. That the rain had stopped and the rain clouds lifted seemed a benediction and promise.
Within an hour of our arrival we were off on our first game drive, heading into the evening light, the wind in our hair and the tyres thrumming, laughter in the air, our cameras and binoculars at the ready. A clearing in the bush revealed a white rhino with her calf trotting alongside; as the light faded we came upon a pair of lions with their cubs. We followed them through the bush, crashing over stones and branches, until a pair of males, black-maned and massive, walked out in front of us. They passed within metres of the open Land Cruiser, impervious and silent, paying us as little attention as if we had been a rock or a stone ourselves. It grew darker, and the first stars appeared, and all around us were lions, the cubs playing in the gullies, the adults on all sides lifting their heads to emit that deep, thrilling chest-shattering hoarse rumbling that is utterly unmistakeable and utterly African, their warm breath lingering for a time after the sound had faded.
Victor, our guide, told us that the game viewing recently had not been as good as usual, and it is probably true that we saw less game than on previous visits, and less variety – but who was counting? You don’t go on a game drive – or a safari, as our overseas friends like to call it, with some hyperbole – to check boxes on a checklist, you go for the experience, for the element of surprise – you go to be totally taken up in the moment, taken outside of your everyday, urban, busy-making consciousness, out of the modern noise and into something larger, more spacious, impersonal and timeless.
And what we did see – lions and cheetahs with their cubs, a rhino and her calf, giraffe and antelope, elephants and birds and even a serval, leaping and pouncing over the scrub and grasses – stopped time in its tracks, and filled the moment.
And then there are the views, and the moments when you climb down from the vehicle for biltong and snacks, a glass of wine or a cup of coffee….
The number of cheetahs in Madikwe is in the single digits. There are two cheetah brothers, whose territory is in the north of the reserve – we have met them on previous visits; the south-west corner, where we were based now, was the domain of a mother cheetah and her three cubs. There had been four cubs originally, but one must have died or been killed, no-one was sure.
Over the four days we were there, we must have seen the mother and her cubs three or four times. They were hungry, looking for a kill, and one marvellous morning we saw the mother suddenly take off, flying full length into the dense bush after an impala – the cubs waited by the roadside, mewling softly, and we waited too, but she did not return. Victor thought she must have made the kill, and would call the cubs to her when she was sure it was dead, so we decided to leave her in peace and drive a way on to have our coffee and snacks, hoping to return in a while and watch her feeding with her cubs.
But it was not to be. Madikwe has very sensible and civil protocols in place, which ensure that there is no crowding of the animals and that everyone takes their turn when there is a particularly exciting sighting – but somehow, on this occasion, we were bumped from the queue, and lost our position. Victor was mad, and disappointed for us, though he hid it very well. And then – as these things do – it all turned suddenly around. The cheetah had not made her kill, after all, the impala had escaped – and one of the other guides had found a serval close by, and called us in to look.
If seeing a cheetah is rare, seeing a serval is a miracle – I have caught only one or two glimpses before, over many many years, but never a good sighting. And here it is.
We were all concerned that the cheetahs were still hungry, and there was much discussion in our group about whether our presence had disturbed them, and the ethics of following them while they hunted. Then on the final day, as we were preparing to leave, we heard that the mother had killed an impala that morning – we were all pleased, and relieved, though we hadn’t answered our question. Something to think about, and I would love to hear what the conservationists have to say about it.
We did, however, get a beautiful evening sighting, before we left – the light was perfect and the images, to my eye at least, are quite wonderful, too.
And then, as if in a final farewell, knowing that we might never be back, as Rob and I turn to preparing for the long journey home to Canada, the entire cheetah family showed up, five hundred metres short of the Abjaterskop Gate and our exit from the reserve, in plain view, by the side of the road. Not that they paid us any attention, but that wasn’t the point, was it?