1. MalaMala Game Reserve
MalaMala has become something of a byword when it comes to luxury game lodges. It has set many standards in that respect, and few can beat its Big Five wildlife sightings, thanks in part to a long, unfenced border with the Kruger National Park. Even when at full capacity, MalaMala offers hundreds of hectares of wilderness per guest.
MalaMala Game Reserve is writ large in the conservation history of South Africa. It is one of the clearest examples of the successful switch from hunting to photographic safaris. The first portents were recorded in 1960, when then-owner Wac Campbell noted that of the 130 visitors during the year, half had been women and children. From 1927 until then, MalaMala had been something of a rough, huntin’, shootin’, manly kind of place. When Campbell died in 1962, the land passed to his son, and from then until now not a solitary animal has been hunted. The only pursuit has been in the cause of fabulous wildlife sightings and photography.
MalaMala was bought in 1964 by the Rattray family, who had been neighbours since 1937, and the reserve has never looked back. It was one of the first to offer luxury game lodge accommodation, although what was luxury then (his and hers basins) has now morphed into something else entirely. MalaMala has continued to set the benchmark in many ways. Owners Michael and Norma Rattray are passionate about this wildlife haven, so although fine linen, comfort and good food are very important, the conservation of the wilderness and its animals remains their top priority. This wild Eden sprawls over 13 500ha and has a 12km-long unfenced border with the Kruger National Park. Its human infrastructure is kept to a minimum. For this and other reasons (including the Sand River and the diversity of the landscape), MalaMala offers a surer chance of seeing the Big Five than most other reserves. In fact, the rangers record the days in a year when the Big Five are NOT seen. There are no other vehicles allowed on the property, other than MalaMala’s, so you can stay as long as you like at a sighting. Not surprisingly, MalaMala has been featured in many books and wildlife documentaries. For many visitors who return year after year, MalaMala remains the ultimate wilderness destination.
2. Timbavati Private Nature Reserve
Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, situated next to the Kruger National Park, is home to a dozen of South Africa’s best luxury game lodges. Famous for the sporadic birth of rare white lions – still ongoing – the reserve was created by 50 forward-thinking individuals in 1956. With about 360 species of birds, Timbavati is an exceptional destination for twitchers.
There are some places in the world that vigorously resist human development. Timbavati Private Nature Reserve is one of these. Pressed up against the belly of the Kruger National Park, it has experienced almost nothing in the way of farming or other encroachment, even before being conserved. In fact, when parts of the land that would become the Timbavati were cleared for crops and cattle in the 1950s, it became apparent (and this in a decade that wasn’t particularly conservation-minded) that farming here was a serious mistake. So a few dozen forward-thinking people worked together, bought up the land and dedicated it back to wildlife. And so it has remained ever since.
Timbavati’s 53 000ha were named after the river that flows through them. Its riverine forest attracts elephants, as it has done for centuries. Timbavati was in the news in the 1970s, when the first white lions were spotted on the reserve. Suddenly Timbavati became a household name around the world and the lions in question (along with their discoverer, Chris McBride) became famous. Every now and then white lions are still born here or on neighbouring reserves. Every white lion in the world owes its genes to something mysterious and recessive in the DNA of Timbavati big cats. White lions are extremely rare. In 1993, the fence dividing Timbavati from the Kruger National Park was dropped, allowing the free flow of wild animals. It affords visitors to the park’s 12 famous luxury game lodges – including Tanda Tula, King’s Camp, Ngala, Motswari, Umlani and Leadwood – an incredible wildlife experience. The owners of Timbavati are about to take another step that will further protect its wilderness: there are plans to proclaim Timbavati as part of the Kruger National Park.
3. Sabi Sand Game Reserve
The Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve is renowned as a haven for the Big Five and for luxury game lodges of international standing. The reserve’s lush vegetation adjoins the Kruger National Park, and fences have been dropped. The wild animals cross back and forth, following ancient migration paths parallel to the Sabie River. The Sabi Sand is the oldest private game reserve in South Africa, formally declared in 1948.
A lioness has just finished weaning her cubs, and because she is alone for once, she is clearly relishing her own company. The sun is setting over the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve as she washes her face like a giant tabby cat, yawns, stretches and goes to look for her cubs and the rest of her pride. A group of tourists sits enthralled in an open game-viewing vehicle, breathing in the lioness’ rank scent, mingled with that of wild sage crushed beneath the wheels, listening to the ranger explaining lion behaviour in a quiet undertone. Meanwhile, the tracker scans the ground for other big-game spoor. Perhaps they’ll be lucky enough to find a leopard stashing her kill in a tree tonight; or see jackals bounce through the high grass as they pursue invisible rodents, oblivious to the ranger’s spotlight. What is certain is that later they’ll find themselves around a sheltered campfire being served a delectable dinner, with some of South Africa’s best wines to hand. At night they’ll lie down on the finest linen, hearing the eerie whoop of hyena in the distance, perhaps the child-like cry of a bush baby, and almost certainly, the roaring of lions.
This is the allure of 0 Content-Disposition: form-datoins the south-western boundary of the Kruger National Park, and is therefore also part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. The 50km fence that once divided the Sabi Sand from the Kruger is long gone, and wild animals, including the Big Five, move back and forth along their old migration routes. The origins of the reserve (now about 65 000ha) date back to the 1920s, when a number of people held hunting concessions there in the dry winter months. Later on, this became an association of freehold landowners. The fact that two perennial rivers (after which the reserve is named) flow through it means that the area offers excellent wildlife viewing all year round. Some of South Africa’s finest luxury game lodges are found here – some of the the best known include Sabi Sabi, Mala Mala, Singita, Londolozi, Ulusaba, Chitwa Chitwa, Idube, Lion Sands, Exeter and Djuma. They all offer individual attention, privacy, outstanding cuisine and luxurious accommodation, while the décor is often breathtaking. Some of the lodges offer spas with masseurs, aromatherapy and reflexology.
In addition, the guides at the lodges know every inch of their areas. They can often take you right to rare leopard sightings or to where wild dogs have hidden their pups in dens. Incidentally, the only hunting these days is done with a camera…
4. Madikwe Game Reserve
Madikwe Game Reserve, one of South Africa’s foremost Big Five malaria-free reserves, was envisaged not by conservationists, but by economists. They found conservation would create more income and jobs than the existing land-use, which was cattle-farming. This successful reserve is now a model that has inspired South African conservation. A conservation corridor is envisaged, that will eventually join the Madikwe and Pilanesberg game reserves.
Madikwe Game Reserve, right up against the Botswana border in the North West province, is a strange anomaly in the world of conservation. It was transformed from a number of low-yield cattle farms to a high yield conservation area. This was not land chosen by ecologists for its rare vegetation or animals. It was chosen by economists because they found that a game reserve here would generate more jobs and money than any other land use option. Madikwe is now a model of the way conservation can benefit communities. Another remarkable factor is that this was pioneered in 1991, within one of South Africa’s apartheid-era Bantustans – Bophuthatswana – which was reintegrated into the country in 1994. Bop Parks, as it was then called, created an initiative where the state would manage the land and wildlife, the private sector would profit through game lodges, and the surrounding community would benefit through sustainable jobs and income. On paper it seemed idealistic. Yet in practice it worked. Bop Parks launched Operation Phoenix in 1991. By 1997, it had brought in more than 8 000 individual animals, the largest translocation of its kind in the world. Several private companies set up very successful bush lodges within the 75 000 hectare park. And the three villages around Madikwe – Supingstad, Lekgophung and Molatedi – are doing very well. Women are particularly empowered – a high proportion of them are employed in the park. Social and financial upliftment aside, Madikwe is now better known as one of the best places to see the Big Five, and it also has the advantage of being malaria free. Madikwe is seen as a model of the benefits conservation can bring. You may not be in an exclusive private game reserve (it’s actually a provincial game reserve), but you’ll feel as if you are – the experience is almost indistinguishable. The only difference is that you might catch a special sense of pride from some of the people you encounter in and around the park.
5. Welgevonden Private Game Reserve
The Welgevonden Private Game Reserve is a 37 500ha stretch of exceptionally beautiful scenery amid river ravines and mountains in the Waterberg. Set within it are 13 luxury bush lodges. It is malaria-free and has the Big Five. Writer and naturalist Eugene Marais wrote most of his important works in the Waterberg. Only about 3-hours’ drive north of Johannesburg, the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve offers the Big Five along with the advantage of being malaria-free.
The Waterberg area, where Welgevonden is situated, is a high-altitude wilderness, where several rivers and tributaries rise. It is a rare pleasure to traverse the grassy uplands, with their spectacular views, golden cliff tops and secretive ravines. Welgevonden means ‘well-founded’, while the Waterberg is named for the many springs that appear to bubble out of dry rock after summer rains. The pristine watercourses are full of life, the clean water clucking and gurgling over the river-smoothed rocks. If you’re interested in botany, ask your field guide about the resurrection bush. If it’s winter or a dry summer, he or she will show you a small twiggy plant that looks dead. Cut off a little section and put it in water. Within hours, it will have revived and the leaves will be moss green.
This is a land of milkplums, wild syringas, silver cluster-leaf trees, marulas, large-fruited and velvet-leaf bushwillow, round leafed teaks and common wild pears. Insect fanatics will be intrigued by the ‘Schwarzenegger’ termite, which builds nests under large boulders, gradually lifting them up half a metre above the ground – grain of sand by grain of sand. And various ant-eaters are plentiful.
You stand an excellent chance of seeing aardvark and aardwolf here – which, along with the meerkat, the porcupine and the bat-eared fox, are part of the Shy 5 – alongside other interesting nocturnal creatures like civets and brown hyenas. With 13 game lodges scattered about the 37 500ha property, you’re spoilt for choice. Yet if you stumble across a fabulous wildlife sighting, it’s likely your game-viewing vehicle will be able to enjoy it undisturbed by others. The Welgevonden Private Game Reserve is a peculiarly restful place and you’ll leave feeling revived and restored.
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