Where mirages are miracles

2012-01-13 13:51

Exactly 20 years – give or take a couple of months – since the

formal establishment of the magnificent Madikwe Game Reserve, the transformation

of the area from farming disaster to safari heaven is complete. And, incredibly,

everyone is a winner.

Madikwe’s boundaries have been demarcated around a territory of

natural transition. A geological twilight zone surrounded by lowveld bushveld on

one side and Kalahari thornveld on the other.

The result is a near-unique region where two ecosystems combine to

host a remarkable diversity of species.

Giant protrusions of volcanic rock are squeezed from the ground,

safeguarding wide and open savannah. The Dwarsberg mountains shadow the south

and the Marico River features in the east. There are some spaces in Africa that

feel as if the original producers of Tarzan conceived them; so perfect in

their “African-ness” they could surely only exist in a fertile imagination.

Madikwe falls into this category.

It is these conditions that make this part of the world absolutely

terrible for farming. So, it is to the game viewers’ eternal gratitude, that in

1991 the triumvirate of the national parks board, private business and the local

community came together as a “partnership in conservation” and turned it into a

“big five” game reserve.

Subsistence farms were broken down and residents moved on, but,

unlike many similar programmes, not forgotten. Madikwe as a game reserve, has

been proclaimed an extremely sustainable and appropriate use of land. One of

only a few national parks in the world that has that honour.

Prime plots are leased as concessions to private firms, where

predominantly four- and five-star lodges are built. Whenever possible, local

companies and workers are hired to build, maintain and service the tourist


In the case of the five-star safari lodge Buffalo Ridge, investment

in the local community has gone a lot further. Buffalo Ridge is the only

facility of its kind that is entirely owned by a local rural community.

This community is the village of Lekgophung, situated west of where

Madikwe now stands. Populated by a clan of Setswana speakers known as Balete.

Dispossessed and moved around during the apartheid era, they are now the

benefactors and beneficiaries of a thriving and excellent business in this

beautifully harsh and arid land.

The term “community tourism” often jars in the minds of

well-heeled travellers, especially those accustomed to and expectant
of a

high level of service and comfort. The expectation is usually of

well-intentioned programmes that fall drastically, and occasionally comically,

short of what they were earmarked for.

Buffalo Ridge is different, a five-star experience (including

the bill) from start to finish. Built in harmony with its surroundings,

well-kept paths lead from isolated bungalow rooms along a bridged crevasse to

the main lodge. Views from the reception, bar, dining room, extensive decking

and pool are phenomenal. Perched as they are on the edge of a tall rocky

outcrop, they would be.

The staff have mastered the difficult skill of hitting the right

blend of being professional, helpful, attentive but not too deferential.

Occasionally, employees can be drilled to such an extent they become automatons

terrified of giving the wrong response. Here, and perhaps it is due to the sense

of communal ownership, the atmosphere is relaxed and chatty.

Full board includes early morning and evening game drives, more

meals than you can count, and a huge bed in free-standing and very private

chalets. Walls are decorated with insightful black and white photographs of

Lekgophung village. The stoic elders, adults, children and animals that provide,

and benefit from the service, silently bid guests goodnight.

Food is as would be expected: sumptuous, decadent and far too much

for a normal human being to consume. The local songbirds and weaver birds are

fat in these parts. Alcohol choice is wide-ranging and expensive. At every

corner, European honeymooners gaze into each other’s eyes, ecstatic for being

pampered by such high-class service in the midst of pristine beauty.

The lodge has managed to achieve its high standards because the

Balete have entered into a partnership with an operating company, which has the

expertise to make their new business work.

Staff training programmes from chef to cleaner are rigorous, and,

more importantly, designed to ensure the Balete learn the requisite skills to

manage the lodge.

High standards of professionalism are clearly evident in the

quality of the game drives.

Guides are lucid and knowledgeable, but it is the game itself that

does the main talking. Elephants are numerous, birdlife is extraordinary,

resident lions languidly roam their territory and ungulates gather in healthy


The game viewing highlight, however, is the possibility of seeing a

pack or two of wild dogs. Madikwe is one of the few habitats left in the world,

where these feral cousins of “man’s best friend” can be seen roaming free.

It is in Madikwe that genuine “community tourism” has broken into

the stratosphere of high-class tourism. More impressive still, is the

metamorphosis from broken desert to land of plenty.

»? General Motors (GM) kindly offered a Chevrolet Captiva for the


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