A modern day Noah's Ark

Johanna Castro

An elephant in "must" is after only one thing - a woman - the game ranger says as he pulls up under a tamboti tree and jumps down from the jeep. "See here, these droplets - urine. When an ellie's in 'must' he urinates constantly."

"How old are they," someone asks and the air is drawn tight with expectation.

"Probably this morning's," says the ranger as our gaze expands into the 75,000ha of South Africa's biggest game reserve, Madikwe, in the North West Province on the border of Botswana, 360km from Johannesburg .

Nine of us pull khaki-coloured ponchos tighter around our shoulders and hug hot water bottles to our knees. Madikwe has South Africa's second biggest population of elephants, and having heard tales about the damage a rogue bull might inflict, we are bristling with anticipation on this chilly winter morning.

Madikwe is conservation-minded and malaria-free and it's home to the Big Five (leopard, lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo) and we're ticking them off rapidly. There's a sudden rustle along with a rancid smell emanating from the black thorn.

"Lion," hisses the ranger as he gently eases the jeep into first gear, just in case. As if on cue a male lion saunters into view, and then a female, to confirm my suspicion that Madikwe really is a modern day Noah's Ark.

But it hasn't always been like this.

"Not long ago, Madikwe was an economically depressed area with unproductive farmland and alien plants. In 1991, a government-sponsored program called Operation Phoenix was initiated to re-stock the area with wildlife," the ranger tells us.

He goes on to say that by 1997 more than 8000 animals had been introduced into Madikwe in, what was then, the biggest game translocation exercise in the world.

"Today, roughly 12,000 animals live in the reserve including about 66 large mammal species," explains Ross Owen, general manager of Madikwe River Lodge.

After an afternoon game drive during which we see rhinos, elephants and giraffes, it's almost dark when we begin our return journey back to the lodge. The ranger swings the spotlight from side to side as the jeep jolts through the bush. We see an African kangaroo (a bush hare), and a jackal slinks across the road. Sometimes the honey-sweet aroma of the black thorn wafts our way, while the gentle "coo-coo" of a dove hangs in the night air like a lullaby. I am dangerously lulled.

Suddenly there's a roar so loud it makes my ear-drums rattle. The ranger spins the spotlight faster from side to side and pulls up abruptly. "There," he says in a stage whisper, and there's a collective gasp as we see, not 50m away, a pride of seven lions devouring what we think is a wildebeest that isn't quite dead.

The noises the lions make as they feed are spine-chilling; deep rumbles and angry outbursts, as mesmerising as they are scary, but soon the wildebeest lies still with one spindly leg and a small black hoof raised in the air like a flag.

We feel humbled by nature as we rumble away into the night, all silent now and late for our own supper but not in the least bit hungry. The night is pitch black, there is no light pollution except for a myriad of stars.

Like a shining star, Madikwe has earned a reputation as one of South Africa's premier safari destinations. It has a lot going for it and, being malaria-free, is a big drawcard. So too are the resident packs of endangered wild dogs. The reserve is considered to be one of the best places in the world to spot these carnivorous hunting machines.

It's also of note because it's one of the few game reserves to be declared as such on the grounds of a feasibility study that showed wildlife-based tourism was the most appropriate land use for the area, and unlike the Kruger in South Africa, or Etosha in Namibia, no self-drive visitors are allowed at Madikwe. Madikwe is an area with a history that dates back to the Stone Age. These days its fame is as a modern-day conservation success story - not only because farmland was rehabilitated to a natural environment but also because of an innovative partnership between the North West Parks Board (the State), the private sector and local communities. The management of Madikwe has an underlying philosophy that if wildlife conservation is to succeed then local communities must also benefit.

Accommodation ranges from five-star luxury lodges to bush cabins without electricity. Expect to pay anything from between SAR2000 to SAR6000 (around $297-$891) per person per night, which in most cases is a fully inclusive rate that includes meals, game drives, snacks and beverages, and in some cases house wines, local beers, soft drinks and entertainment.

On arrival at Madikwe River Lodge our car is whisked away and baggage mysteriously disappears and then reappears in our chalet. The Lodge nestles unobtrusively among acacia bushveld and has 16 thatched chalets set in a riverine forest with private viewing decks overlooking the Marico River in which Ross tells us hippos live.

Riotous birdsong awakens me at dawn. Again, I'm expectant. What will we see this morning? With perfect timing a huge iguana scuttles past as I open the door, and a male bushbuck tentatively picks his way down the bank on the other side of the river to drink. The milky cream of the black thorn trees' flowers mimic silvery frost, and accentuate the icy cold of this August morning. After coffee, we are again wrapped up warm, hugging hot water bottles, talking in stage whispers and chugging out into the sunrise.

The plains of Madikwe and the faraway hills leading into Botswana stretch down before us on the morning game drive when the ranger sets up a small trestle table and produces hot drinks, muffins and biltong. I munch on some dried mango and drink honey-rooibos tea, favoured by Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith's Ladies Detective Agency series, and I look up as the heaviest of all flying birds, a kori bustard, swoops overhead; just one of over 300 recorded bird species in the park that we're ticking off at random.

At lunchtime we're entertained by the antics of about 20 banded mongeese, doing acrobatic stunts to access our brunch on the table. I'm immersed in "Africa time", enjoying every moment, though the beat of the adrenalin-charged, "What's next?" is never far away.

But it's not healthy to live always with expectation, so I choose to embark on the final game drive of the trip with an air of content, and I'm not disappointed. Nonetheless, the quantum enjoyment of being driven around Madikwe in an open jeep, by a knowledgeable game ranger as the sun sets on a dusty African horizon is hard to beat at the best of times.

For information, accommodation and maps see www.madikwe-game-reserve.co.za, www.tourismnorthwest.co.za, www.madikwe.com, www.madikwegamereserve.net, www.madikweriverlodge.com.

Park entrance fees R50 ($7.26) per person, per day apply (R20 $2.90 children). There are no self-drive facilities.