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Call of the wild: getting up close and personal with the beautiful beasts of South Africa

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Elephants enjoy a drink in Madikwe Game Reserve

Elephants enjoy a drink in Madikwe Game Reserve

Patrick enjoys a beer during one of the game drives

Patrick enjoys a beer during one of the game drives

A lion cub chills out. Credit: Lee Conway.

A lion cub chills out. Credit: Lee Conway.

A lion on the prowl. Credit: Lee Conway.

A lion on the prowl. Credit: Lee Conway.

A cheetah spotted on Madikwe Game Reserve. Credit: Lee Conway.

A cheetah spotted on Madikwe Game Reserve. Credit: Lee Conway.

A leopard takes a break in a tree after making a kill. Credit: Lee Conway.

A leopard takes a break in a tree after making a kill. Credit: Lee Conway.

Elephants at the Bush House watering hole

Elephants at the Bush House watering hole

The grounds at the Bush House

The grounds at the Bush House

Patrick's son James is captivated by the elephants while gazing at them from the Bush House's underground hide

Patrick's son James is captivated by the elephants while gazing at them from the Bush House's underground hide

A giraffe on Madikwe Game Reserve

A giraffe on Madikwe Game Reserve

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Elephants enjoy a drink in Madikwe Game Reserve

"I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.”

The words of the great Ernest Hemingway echoed through my mind — and even my soul — as a long-held dream finally became reality last month.

Ever since childhood, the majesty of wildlife found only on the continent of Africa has etched a special place in my heart.

Yes, we can easily gawk at the many species in zoos, but it’s an artificial experience — always leaving a feeling of discontentment and a yearning for the real thing.

While many in Northern Ireland are content with a yearly jaunt to the Costa del Sol, Turkey or down South, I knew that gazing at beautiful beasts such as elephants, giraffes, lions and leopards in their natural habitat was something I had to do.

As a boy, I’d watch — and still do actually — the documentaries of David Attenborough and Steve Irwin and long for the day when I too could get up close and personal with wildlife that may not have much time left in this world.

Let me give you a bit more background. So here I am today, in my early 30s, a dad to a three-year-old son, and thankfully in the fortunate position that I’m able to fulfil the trip of a lifetime.

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The wheels were put in motion in the last week of November 2021. On the night of my birthday, I sat with my partner on our bed as we booked a two-week trip to South Africa, four nights of which would be spent on safari at the Madikwe Game Reserve.

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A leopard takes a break in a tree after making a kill. Credit: Lee Conway.

A leopard takes a break in a tree after making a kill. Credit: Lee Conway.

A leopard takes a break in a tree after making a kill. Credit: Lee Conway.

It felt like a bit of a risk due to the pandemic, but at that point, things appeared to be settling. All we had to do was wait. However, fast forward 12 hours, and I kid you not, the news broke that a variant of concern (later named as omicron) was discovered in South Africa and neighbouring Botswana.

All flights to southern African countries were cancelled. Bugger.

As disappointing as this was, I kept reminding myself that the health of my family was the priority as we faced another coronavirus wave and adopted a ‘what will be will be’ mentality towards the holiday.

As the weeks drifted by — we all caught Covid if you’re wondering — the time finally arrived. Through a stroke of luck, we managed to just avoid the mandatory PCR tests that were once required to enter South Africa, and instead had to show proof of vaccination on arrival.

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Patrick enjoys a beer during one of the game drives

Patrick enjoys a beer during one of the game drives

Patrick enjoys a beer during one of the game drives

Following a few days of exploring Johannesburg, my partner Cheryl, our son James and I hopped in a hired car and drove four hours to Madikwe.

An 80,000-hectare protected reserve which lies in the North West province, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, Madikwe is renowned for its stunning scenery and sightings of the ‘Big Five’ — elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo.

This wild, remote paradise is also malaria-free — a major plus for those with small children or pre-existing conditions.

As the reserve is dotted with luxury lodges, we wanted to find somewhere that was relaxed and family focused.

After extensive research, we booked in at the Bush House — an old farming property that has been transformed into the absolute picture of relaxation with its lush, immaculately-maintained grounds, run by husband and wife Gordon and Sue Morrison.

On arrival, we were greeted by the smiling faces of three members of staff — Damian, Jon and Jodi — who took our bags to our room and provided refreshments.

Unlike some of the larger lodges, the Bush House can accommodate only up to 10 guests in six rooms, priding itself on an atmosphere where people feel comfortable and as though they’re a member of the family.

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A lion on the prowl. Credit: Lee Conway.

A lion on the prowl. Credit: Lee Conway.

A lion on the prowl. Credit: Lee Conway.

We were given the beautiful zvakanaka (family) room, which was decorated with pictures of cheetahs, painted dogs and other wildlife, and included a king-sized bed and a single for James.

The house also overlooks a water-hole that attracts an array of game and has an underground hide next to it which offers close-up views of the animals.

Shortly after arrival, I was walking from our room to the main part of the lodge and couldn’t believe my eyes to suddenly see a herd of elephants drinking from the water. You’d think being the largest land mammal on the planet you’d hear elephants coming, but they just seem to glide in from the bush seamlessly, not creating a sound. Over the course of our stay, we also spotted giraffes, wildebeest, zebra, warthogs, buffalo, impala, kudu, baboons and even some lions coming in to quench their thirst.

There’s also a swimming pool, gym, well-stocked bar and walking trails to enjoy as you unwind and leave the stresses and strains of the real world behind.

The lodge offers two three-hour game drives a day — one at 6am and the other at 4pm, as well as a ‘bumble drive’ at 10.30am, which is a short trip for kids.

Our field guide, the eagle-eyed Jodi, was a fountain of knowledge on all things at the reserve as she navigated us through the dirt roads of the bushveld. Everywhere you turned there was wildlife.

I was happy simply being there and didn’t have a list of any specific species that I wanted to see. However, after just two days, I had ticked off the Big Five, which is no mean feat considering how notoriously difficult it is to find a leopard.

They’re solitary, non-social cats, always quick to get out of the way of humans. So, when Jodi pointed one out lazing in a tree — complete with a kill — less than an hour into a morning drive, it was the perfect way to blow off the fatigue that comes with rising so early.

Towards the end of the evening drives, we’d stop and have a drink as the sun went down. As I stood there, beer in hand, watching a zebra and warthog tod along just metres away, I had to pinch myself to make sure this was really happening.

With such joys, though, comes the reminders of the hardships conservationists face in this part of the world. During our drives, we came across the carcasses of two poached rhinos, which is a very rare occurrence in Madikwe.

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Elephants at the Bush House watering hole

Elephants at the Bush House watering hole

Elephants at the Bush House watering hole

It was heartbreaking to witness and reinforces how vital it is to support the battle against the illegal wildlife trade.

A shot of sherry was always on hand as we returned to the lodge at 7pm, with a three-course meal served after we freshened up.

The grub was delectable and varied over the course of our stay. I couldn’t get enough of bobotie, which is the national dish of South Africa, consisting of spiced minced meat baked with an egg-based topping. For kids, the Bush House will cater to fussy eaters and are more than happy to take requests from parents.

I’ve definitely been bitten by the safari bug and I’m already itching to do another, be it back at Madikwe or in the likes of Botswana, Kenya or Zimbabwe. It’s not cheap, but it beats lounging by a smelly pool for two weeks on a half-board holiday in Benidorm.

Had it not been for nearly three years of saving, and being forced to stay in Ireland, then it’s unlikely that we would have made it to South Africa.

Times are tough as the cost-of-living increases and venturing to Africa is something people wouldn’t even be thinking about right now. But it’s not often you get the opportunity to do something on your bucket list, and if you do, then grab it with both hands.

Factfile:

Patrick stayed at the four-star Bush House lodge at Madikwe Game Reserve. Four nights cost 49,400 ZAR (£2,500) for a family of three. The price included accommodation, two daily game drives and all meals. Visit bushhouse.co.za for details.


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