South Africa: Madikwe Game Reserve is a great place to see animals in Africa

I don't know what's more startling, the open-mouthed lion or the dead zebra in the grass next to him. The king of the jungle is only yawning, but he has a terrifying set of teeth and will soon be sharing his kill with his brother. Two jackals are lurking behind the bushes, hoping to snatch a piece of the unfortunate zebra when the lions' backs are turned.

It's the Circle of Life in operation, big time, but I'm surprised to see lions co-operating like this. Aren't they rivals?

"Not necessarily," says field guide Armand, who's driving our group through South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve in an open-topped Land Rover. "More lions can defend a larger territory, so two brothers might work together."

 There's more to learn as we set out on morning and afternoon safari drives each day. It's easy to become fixated on spotting the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo), but there are plenty of other interesting creatures in this relatively compact 75,000-hectare reserve near the border with Botswana.

It's a small enough territory that word spreads quickly when a guide spots a rare animal. On the second day of our stay, Armand suggests our drive start earlier than scheduled after lunch, because he's heard something on the grapevine and doesn't want us to miss out.

We tear along the reserve's tracks to a stand of bushes near its far perimeter, to discover ... dogs. But they're African wild dogs, a highly endangered species. These impressive creatures hunt in packs of 10 to 40, and are able to reach a speed of 70 kilometres an hour on the sprint. They need a lot of space to thrive,  however, and are threatened by habitat loss. Apart from being skilled hunters, they're beautiful, with big rounded ears and colourful coats of black, brown and white. On this hot day the dogs are taking a break beneath the bushes,  unconcerned about the nearby vehicles containing curious humans.

We've just added another to our tally of the Magnificent Seven, which comprises the Big Five plus wild dogs and the cheetah, but to be frank, these lists seem meaningless as we see so many impressive animals over our two days in the reserve: including wildebeest, baboons, elephants, zebra, impala, kudu, rhinos, buffalo and a lot of giraffes. On the last morning, a hyena saunters out from behind a bush and strolls casually past, catching even our guide unawares.

 There's more to our stay than animal spotting, too. At the end of each outing we gather round the vehicle for a drink, and on our last night there's a memorable banquet under the stars. 

Our accommodation, Jaci's Tree Lodge, is a clever mix of luxury and bush decor, with its rooms and dining area atop wooden stilts at treetop level, linked by wooden walkways. It's an atmospheric design and promotes a friendly vibe between guests at mealtimes.

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My room is spectacular, a big airy space with a thatched roof above a central bed. There's a large freestanding bathtub to one side, and beyond this is an external door leading to a shower. Even though it's very cold in the mornings, I make a point of using this facility for the sheer thrill of bathing outdoors, and hope the local monkeys don't come calling in the midst of my ablutions.

 There are all sorts of useful things in the room: a desk with a plank top, a tea and coffee nook with the necessaries stored in metal canisters, and a canvas-covered wooden box containing a drinks service with small bottles of spirits. It's as if the room's designer has borrowed the stylish apparatus of the old-time safari days, without any of the hunting: there's no need for grotesquely mounted heads of large creatures here. Capturing Madikwe's beautiful wildlife with our cameras provides all the thrills we need.

TRIP NOTES

Tim Richards travelled as a guest of South African Tourism.

MORE

experiencemadikwe.com

southafrica.net

FLY

South African Airways code shares with Virgin Australia to Perth, from where it flies to Johannesburg. See flysaa.com Federal Airlines flies from Johannesburg to Madikwe. See fedair.com

STAY

Jaci's Tree Lodge offers upmarket accommodation and expert-led safari tours. From ZAR7965 per person, per night. See jacislodges.co.za

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