Looking for both unbeatable adventure and romance? Check into five-star Tau Game Lodge in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve says Wersha Bharadwa.
I’ve been waiting to visit South Africa for years. And as no trip to the country is complete without venturing on safari, I make like Michelle Obama who visited in 2011 and head to the Madikwe Game Reserve – a hidden Malaria-Free gem less populated than Kruger and which was once farmland before animals were reintroduced to the local-community based wildlife conservation area.
Why Madikwe Game Reserve
As the fourth largest game reserve in South Africa, covering over 750000 hectares, it’s an easy four-hour drive from Johannesburg airport and home to the Big Five: Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Rhino and Leopard. Plus, the reserve is only open to guests staying at one of the lodges within the park so it’s ideal for reclusive honeymooners.
Checking in to Tau Game Lodge
At the five-star Tau Game Lodge, we’re greeted with the scent of wild jasmine and the infectious smiles of staff ready to carry our luggage to the suite and serve us high tea so we can catch the evening’s game drive. The two-hour time difference in South Africa means we are unaffected by jet-lag and raring to go.
As part of the conservation efforts, we’re gifted personalised metal water bottles before we hop onto our guide Mike’s open 4X4. In the summer, the lodge’s land cruisers are covered as shelter from the scorching sun, but as we’re here in the cooler months, the open air feel is a must. You’re not allowed out of the jeep – predators can be anywhere – and you’re not to stand up. Mike – whose father was a ranger too – is laidback and passionate about his work. He gives us the lowdown on all things bush. Many of Tau’s guests are repeat visitors who come back specifically for his expertise.
Mike puts his all into helping us track animals and by 4.30pm, I’m having my first of many Bond Girl moments. Our shiny 4X4 heads deep into the reserve and we spend the dusty four-hour game drive gasping in awe having encountered crocodile, elephant, rhino, buffalo, hyrax and springbok. Mike’s keen-eye leads us up-close to dozens of other birds, mammals and reptiles. Each minute on safari is like living inside a new adventure movie. We learn about scattering, tracking, stalking as Mike hands over a wildlife checklist.
The Royal Suite at Tau Game Lodge
When we’re not on safari, the animals visit us. Tau’s watering hole is famous for its proximity to the lodge and high animal population. By day, some one thousand elephants roam Madikwe. They come to us – as do warthogs, countless impala, wildebeest and zebra – courtesy of the large enticing watering hole just footsteps from our magnificent, luxury two-bedroom villa’s secluded private garden. There’s a large romantic roll top bath big enough for two in the middle of our master suite and mahogany four posters draped with white nets in both.
Décor wise, I’m in Ralph Lauren-meets-animal printed accent heaven. A mini kitchen links to the rustic-style living room which features floor-to-ceiling window style doors with views out on to the vast plains. All 30 villas are spaced apart so that the only visitors I encounter during outdoor showers are egrets and hornbills. Every morning I ritually brush my teeth whilst relishing the sight of the elephants who’ve already emerged to drink before me. That’s how up close and personal the wildlife experience is at Tau.
Game drives at Tau
We have four long game drives in total at Tau where giraffes frequently make roadside appearances, chewing off the tops of trees and strutting their stuff for selfies.
You never forget the first time you spot the golden mane of a lion gracefully moving in the savannah, or the first time you hear a lion’s roar. It is a sight and sound like no other. Especially since there are now reportedly fewer than 20,000 living in the wild. When a male begins his deep huffing, we’re humbled into pin-drop silence.
We’re regularly taken deep into remote and long golden grasslands where we view prides hunting or playing in their dens. One afternoon, Mike points out his personal favourite lion, Motsumi, who seems to know him.
“He isn’t as aggressive as the others like Kwandwe,” Mike says. I’m happy to take his word for it. We also spot Monnomogolo, a male lion named by an old Tau ranger by a tradition which states whichever game ranger sees a lion first upon its birth has the right to name it. They’re nerve-jangling expeditions to see lions, but more thrills are yet to come.
The next morning is spent in pursuit of a pair of hungry, thin-looking cheetahs searching for their next meal. They haven’t eaten in a few days and are on the hunt. As soon as Mike spots tracks on the road he drives like a bat out of hell to help locate them on a sometimes rollercoaster like ride through boulders and pink rocky sands. It is not the instant and easy feat of nature documentaries – rather a whole day of simultaneously listening out for elusive wildebeest and kudu who are even quicker to pick up on the predators than we are.
As they move further away, finding the cheetah get harder. And then suddenly, across the yellow grasses we see a herd of deer and behind them, the cheetah stalking silently come into our view.
During evening games drives, as the light passes through baobab trees and we’re sunk into darkness, the savannah feels even more sacred. We look up at the stars and see the Orion, Gemini and Scorpio constellations.
In between game drives, hours are usually whiled away by sunbathing, spa-ing and pottering around in our private bush-facing garden. Joyce in guest relations makes us feel like royalty by showering us with attention (she also runs the kids club if you’re on a familymoon) over breakfasts of smoothies with chia and linseed sprinkle es and omelettes.
There’s a state-of-the-art function room situated at the rear of the lodge with a private kitchen and bar as well as pool so it’s perfect for destination weddings and honeymoons too.
Bush walks at Tau Game Lodge
By far the most exhilarating and unique experienced offered at Tau is the Bush Walk with Mike. Only a handful of game guides are qualified in hiking the savannah and only the fittest of guests can participate (you’ve got to be quick to run, basically).
There are rules, Mike tells us. We are not to speak since he needs to listen out for sounds to keep us safe. If we must say something, we’re to signal by patting on our thighs. We’re never to run because prey animals run, and that sets off the ‘ooh food’ I must catch it!’ natural instinct in predators. Mike has a rifle and eases us by saying he’s never had to use it. We soak in the wilderness with all our senses.
So, how to avoid an elephant attack. Elephants can and do attack: Mike guides us to crouch down beside a nearby bush as a young male walks towards us. Young bulls are often grumpy and mostly arrogant. This one is also territorial but will not threaten us as long as we stay low and don’t approach him. The midday sun casts his huge shadow on the floor as he continues approaching. The elephant eventually decides we aren’t worth the bother and walks off, but with our nerves still on edge we all let out deep, synchronised exhales of relief.
Food at Tau Game Lodge
On the first night we are hosted at the Boma (South African BBQ) by Mike for communal dining with the other guests – it’s a warm, laid-back and super-friendly vibe. The main restaurant is earthy with a huge deck from which you can experience a constant close-up show of elephants, chattering monkeys, deer and birds going about their day. We love the afternoon high teas, served just before our evening game drives where piles of freshly baked cookies and cakes are served as fuel. For lunch we’re served sirloin, chicken wings, salads and pasta.
Most nights, dinner is an under-the-stars affair consisting of springbok carpaccio, medium-rare Eland or bobotie (a South African speciality similar to moussaka) by chefs Solomon and Obakeng Kgoleng who cook to perfection. Chef Jade is accommodating of all our needs (dairy-free, gluten-free) with wonderful cakes and desserts made with soya. The malva pudding, crème brûlée and frangipane tarts are mouth-watering.
We’re kept entertained by the incredible wildlife sightings as we swim and sip cocktails in the bath-water temperature infinity pool over by the game viewing lounge area. A second pool with its own bar is super secluded and perfect for soaking up the rays.
Getting to and from Madikwe
South African Airways flies daily from Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport. On the way out check in is easy and we head over the beautifully designed Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge at Heathrow Terminal 2 for some pre-flight champers where it’s bright, airy with plenty of usb sockets to charge laptops and phones. There’s a chef on a fresh waffle and pancake station for breakfast and table service for lunch which includes hot options, a salad and sandwich bar along with cold cuts, soups and cheeses.
The exceptionally polite and friendly air crew aboard our South African Airways direct flight from London Heathrow to Cape Town help make our overnight flight seamless and swift. Our seats in the middle of the plane have ample legroom space, an adjustable headrest and a comfortable seat recline which make for a decent night’s sleep. Dinner options include an impressive, generously-portioned gluten-free beef bourginon washed down with wine. There’s a perfect selection of the latest films and box sets. I settle down with inflight snacks (happily topped by staff), a Bloody Mary and watch Invictus – about Mandela’s relationship with The Springboks. Breakfast includes very agreeable omelettes, croissants and fresh fruit with coffee.
The next leg of the journey is on to Madikwe and Tau Game Lodge. Our return transfers from OR Tambo Airport in Johannesberg to Madikwe Game Reserve were provided by the amazing Mayibongwe Travels – a registered transfer service. Driver, Charles, is reliable, knowledgeable and works closely with the South African Tourism Board.
Tau provides the best value for money along with a serious safari experience. It’s a phenomenal stay and we find it hard to leave.