I have been thrilled to see the Covid-19 numbers in South Africa dropping rapidly and, along with this, seeing the country open up for travel. All the vital cogs in the travel industry - hotels, lodges, airlines, and more - have all worked extremely hard over the last year to make travel not only safe but also as smooth and streamlined as ever. Travelling is what fuels me and so I was delighted to be invited to Madikwe Game Reserve recently along with my colleague Marlin (photographer extraordinaire). We flew from Cape Town to Lanseria Airport and took an easy drive from there up to the reserve to spend five nights. The first night was spent at Tuningi Safari Lodge in the west of the reserve.
The “Wait a bit” bush – Reminding us to slow down
As we climbed on to the Tuningi game drive vehicle on our first afternoon drive, I could see that the clouds were rolling in. They actually hadn’t ever left since we arrived but they were preparing for another round of business. I got my down jacket out of my bag just to have it ready and I noticed Andre, our guide, smiling wryly. “Ah, good old down jackets. Many have met their match in Madikwe in the claws of the buffalo thorns''. He was clearly speaking from experience.
The western part of the reserve is particularly thick, especially after good rains like they have had over the last few months. From the looks of it, the sickle bush was going to be a threat indeed. An abundance of sickle bush is a symptom of decades of overgrazing and less than sensitive land management before Madikwe was established as a protected wildlife area. Over the last 30 or so years since the Madikwe Game Reserve was established, the ecologists have tried various things to control it but most attempts have been futile. I get the impression that they have resigned themselves to having to let nature establish the hierarchy of plant species naturally. A process that will take many years. The 30 years that the reserve has been in existence is a blink in a complex system like this, but nature is certainly resilient.
A thorn in the side for some is lunch for others
The elephants on the reserve aren’t complaining though, and the sickle bush provides a great source of food for them. As we come around the first corner (with me tucked into the middle seat away from the clutches of the thorns), Andre spots an elephant. When he slows down and stops we start noticing more of them in the bushes around us. I’ll always marvel at how they can merge so quietly with the bush. Madikwe is host to one of the highest densities of elephants in Africa and yet even here they can be surprisingly elusive.
Andre has been living and working in Madikwe for over four years. To my delight, and to the rolling eyes of a couple of other guests, he tells us that he’s a keen birder. There are a number of “specials'' that I have been hoping to see on this trip. A few seconds into our birding discussion a brilliant Crimson-breasted Shrike swoops across the road and ducks under a bush. This was one of a few species I was hoping to see whilst at Tuningi. Andre’s birding Damascus Road moment came when he was sitting with friends near a dam and he identified his first Yellow-billed Duck. That’s how it happens.
Birding as a human need
Although hidden deeply in the top of Maslow’s pyramid, birding is a naturally fulfilling pastime. I have a theory as to why people become birders. It’s echoed in some religious mythology where one of mankind’s first jobs was to name the animals. There is a more than subtle pleasure that comes with knowing what things are, being able to categorise them, and somehow bring some order to nature. When the world around us can seem so out of our control, being able to at least name things and share ideas using these names, makes it all that much less overwhelming.
As it had threatened, the rain started up. The vehicles at Tuningi have roof covers and Andre supplied us with thick waterproof ponchos so it really wasn’t an issue. We headed to the airstrip where a pride of lions had killed wildebeest a few days before and the rain began to really pelt down, streaming off the roof. It poured for a few minutes and we considered taking shelter just as it began to ease up and passed just as quickly as it had started. We could see the offending cloud moving away and even got a glimpse of sunshine on one side of the vehicle whilst it was clearly still raining on the other.
Meeting the Tuningi locals
Returning to Tuningi we were greeted by Klippies and Pebbles, the resident klipspringers that live in the lodge. Posing on top of the stone gate posts as if they knew that it was part of their job to entertain wildlife enthusiasts. Franz, the ultimate safari host, was waiting with a warm drink to welcome us back and I headed to the bar before dinner. The waterhole below the lodge is a short walk away along a raised boardwalk but they have a live video feed from the waterhole on a screen above the bar so even at night, or perhaps especially at night, you can keep an eye out for anything special coming down to drink.
The waterhole loses a lot of its appeal to the animals when it’s been raining as there is an abundance of water in puddles but the frogs were out in full chorus. I can imagine how active it must be in the dryer months. Perhaps one of the most attractive facilities at Tuningi is the underground hide where you can sit at eye-level with the animals that come down to drink. Almost within trunk’s reach.
Tuningi Safari Lodge – Something for Everyone
Other aspects of Tuningi that I enjoyed are the various spaces that are set up around the lodge so that even when it’s full of guests you can find a quiet place to sit. Not only in your rooms, which are of course very private, but in the main areas. The bar area, dining area, welcome lounge, and “children’s” lounge can stand on their own as areas to sit and relax. Then there is an impressive rim flow pool and a boardwalk that leads down to a deck boma that overlooks the waterhole.
There aren’t many lodges that suit families and couples equally well. If needs be, the entire lodge can be pretty much split into two and there is even a second pool. So a family or small group can take near exclusive use of half of the lodge.
Tuningi Safari Lodge Highlights
- Situated in the 75,000 hectare Madikwe Game Reserve (the 5th largest in South Africa)
- Huge diversity in habitats and species with some lesser-seen species like gemsbok (oryx) and brown hyena
- Great for bird watching with some special species like the Eastern Long-billed Lark, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Violet-eared Waxbill, Marico Sunbird, and +-350 others.
- Easy access with direct flights into the reserve from Johannesburg or an easy drive from Gaborone. Johannesburg is a slightly longer drive, but also an easy one.
- Lodge waterhole – always a plus
- Underground photographic hide
- No single supplement for single guests
- Malaria-free – ideal for families and pregnant travellers
Tuningi Safari Lodge is ideal for…
Although great for couples, the social potential of Tuningi lends itself to couples travelling together or family groups. One night at Tuningi was certainly not enough. If you are planning a visit, I recommend at least 3 nights. Be sure to ask our travel experts about any current specials and combination deals to help you get the most value out of a longer stay.
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