By DAVID ALSTON
The evening game drive started quietly enough, with a pair of Spotted Eagle Owls staring benevolently down on us as we passed a pan on our way to look for Wild Dog, always elusive because of the large areas they traverse at speed in search of prey. Near the northern fence line of the Madikwe Game Reserve, we came across a female cheetah next her impala kill, full to capacity from binge eating before other predators arrived to claim her prize.
With no Wild Dogs in evidence, we opted for sundowners some distance away, only to be rudely interrupted by the angry trumpeting of an elephant nearby – signaling clearly its dislike of a predator in the vicinity – closely followed by the yelping of Wild Dogs who had sussed out the cheetah kill. After a wild scramble through the gathering dusk, we found the forlorn cheetah unable to retain her kill, and the scant remains of the impala that had been demolished by the Wild Dogs in minutes.
With an orange-coloured sunset silhouetted by acacia trees fading as a full moon gradually gained ascendance in the night sky, we drove slowly back across the plains to our lodge. And as a barn owl swooped across our vehicle, setting off on its evening hunt, we contemplated in silence the wonders of nature and the problems faced by game reserves such as Madikwe in keeping the correct balance between all creatures great and small and the ecology needed to sustain them.
And so over to the west of the reserve a fortnight later, to see what another part of this spectacular location had to offer. Lions on our first drive almost faded into insignificance as a ‘carnival of the animals’ came to slake their thirsts at the waterhole in front of the lodge: elephant, buffalo, black rhino and to cap it all, a leopard who lingered a long while to drink in the teeth of much larger opposition. Only next morning did we realise we had seen ‘The Big Five’ in a few hours, a rare privilege indeed.
As the week unfolded, we saw more cheetah – with a couple of males weighing up their chances of making a kill on a distant herd of gemsbok – three more sightings of lion, leopard and black (as well as white) rhino, and the elusive Wild Dog, whose presence in Madikwe is always precarious but one of its main attractions. Add to that a bird-count of 183 in five days and one begins to understand what a special place this is – and a mere four hours from Johannesburg.
As we drove back to ‘The Big Smoke’ and signs of civilisation drew nearer and nearer, we reflected on how important conservation in our country is, and how fortunate we are to have such dedicated rangers on the ground in Madikwe who keep going in the face of sometimes considerable discouragement from those higher up who seem to be part of a feeding chain.
It is also critical for us citizen conservationists to play our part in preserving those parts of our troubled paradise from poachers, money grabbers, and dare we say it, a small number of elephant huggers who simply do not understand that without appropriate controls in the face of overpopulation (humans also please take note!), our wonderful wildlife reserves will one day cease to exist, with enormous loss to the tourist industry and those of us individuals who treasure this part of natural heritage.
For more information about Madikwe Game Reserve and accommodation options, go to madikwe.com.