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The Inside Track With Vee Thompson

It’s hard to keep up with Vee Thompson, Founder of Game Plan Africa, a division of Extraordinary Journeys. We were finally able to pin her down between journeys to get the low down on her recent journey leading a group of wonderful travelers through South Africa as well as her inspections of Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa and Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana.

Madikwe Game Reserve

Madikwe is a beautiful reserve in the northwest portion of South Africa, running up against the Botswana border. Created from some 300 square miles of former farmland, it acts as a transition zone between Lowveld bushveld and the Kalahari thornveld. This creates a magnificent diversity of wildlife in a single area, with over 60 different mammalian species – including the Big 5 – and more than 300 resident and migrant bird species. As the fourth largest reserve in Africa, Madikwe offers prime game viewing and is one of the best locations to see wild dogs and is home to the second largest population of elephants in the country. It is also one of South Africa’s few malaria-free reserves, making it particularly nice for families wanting to take younger children on safari.

Summer in the southern hemisphere is a lush time when resources are abundant.

We began with a warm welcome at Makanyane Lodge, which is situated right on the Marico River, surrounded by lush vegetation. The dense foliage also ensures that each of the eight rooms feel like they’re in their own private wilderness sanctuary with stunning, floor-to-ceiling windows. The rooms are serene and the fireplace makes a cozy addition, especially for chilly nights after a long day out. What I loved most about Makanyane though was the afternoon and morning game drives on their private property. We had several sightings of elephant and watched three sub adult bulls frolicking in a waterhole dam for at least 30 minutes with no other vehicles in sight, plus a wonderful private viewing of two male lions. The privacy of this lodge is exceptional, and makes a big difference in getting a more “wild” experience.

The elephants here were red-hued from showering themselves with Madikwe's red soil.

More centrally situated in the reserve is Madikwe Hills, a beautiful option with spacious lounge, floor-to-ceiling windows throughout, and private bedroom views overlooking the property’s waterhole. I cannot say enough about how wonderful the rooms were with every convenience imaginable, including Wi-Fi in both the common areas and suites. Scattered across the hillside and built around rocky outcroppings and Tamboti trees, this lodge exudes privacy. The winding walkways and stairs between suites, the outdoor boma, spa and gym are beautifully crafted and create that extra bit of enchantment. The way Madikwe Hills has been designed around, and to incorporate, its natural environment is one of my favorite aspects of this lodge.

While a major storm during our stay limited some activities, our wonderful guide Francois still managed to keep us away from other vehicles on the reserve, driving us to more unusual areas, which were fascinating. We saw rhinos three times, giraffe, a herd of buffalo, two male lions and more besides – the game viewing left nothing to be desired. Francois’ superior guidance also made a big difference; not only was he able to take us to these excellent spots where we could maintain our sense of seclusion, his passion and dedication to please clients never wavered. He was extremely knowledgeable and went the extra mile to educate us on all aspects of the bush. He made each drive special, highlighting the history and geology of the area as well as the animal and birds found there. A great personality and easy company!

We were fortunate to have several rhino sightings, and are grateful for Madikwe's conservation efforts.

Continuing a little further south is Mateya Lodge where their delightfully down-to-earth staff made us feel like absolute royalty. Susan, the owner, takes excellent care of her staff and it shows through for guests. The head chef, for instance, was originally one of the men hired to dig out the foundations for the lodge. When asked what he’d like to do in the future, he said he dreamed of becoming chef. Despite little formal education, Susan went the extra mile and ensured he received full training and he now heads up Mateya’s kitchen (which, not surprisingly, has the best food of every place I visited). This is just one example of the care and attentiveness shared between staff and owners here, and that warmth really shines through.

Every room is also full of original art from all over Africa that Susan has collected over the years: beautiful paintings, stone art, sculptures, Ardmore pottery and everything from table linen to bone china crockery was of the best quality. For anyone interested in art, this lodge is a paradise. Dark, antique furnishings throughout are truly exquisite and add to the trademark opulence of this particular lodge. It’s perfect for travelers looking for an older, more traditional style but may overwhelm if light and minimalistic is more your taste.

Traveling in summer treated us not only to the bush at its greenest, but also to the newest baby zebra, wildebeest, and antelope.

Venturing southeast, our final stop in Madikwe was Jamala Royal Safari Camp, which is spread out in a long line to offer continual views of the watering hole. The five rooms are aptly named villas as they seemed to be the largest we stayed at in Madikwe, with lovely stylish décor, four poster beds, rich woods and private decks. The elegance here is perfect for honeymooners and you can dine privately in the “watchtower” that sits on a separate second-story deck above the main lodge. Even if you choose to relax at camp rather than going out for every game drive, you still may get some great viewing. One early morning, a lion walked right past camp in clear view. On another occasion, a large herd of zebra with some impala grazed lazily right outside my room.

Mashatu Game Reserve

While it was time to depart South Africa, my exploration wasn’t complete yet. I spent my last nights abroad in Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve at Mashatu Main Lodge. Known as the “Land of Giants,” Mashatu Game Reserve is vast. From the gaping sky to the endless plains on the fringes of the Kalahari, towering trees and elephantine footsteps, everything here feels expansive. The warmth and kindness of Mashatu’s Main Camp is as expansive as the natural surroundings. As soon as we arrived, every staff member introduced themselves to us and they all remembered each of our names throughout the stay. The peaceful setup and the wonderful staff really made me fall in love with this place. The camp itself is very traditional; I felt like I had gone back 40 years when I lived and worked in camps and lodges like this one.

While at Mashatu, we had several lion sightings. This pride of two adult females and five cubs were in excellent condition.

Our guide and tracker here made an incredible team and made for an excellent game viewing experience. They were positive, knowledgeable and very focused on guests. Keniso knows exactly how to position the vehicle for best photos, which not all guides remember to keep in consideration. It was also wonderful feeling like the only vehicle out and about on the property. Even though there may be many game drives going on, guides know all the best spots in the 25,000 hectares of surrounding wilderness to ensure guests get a very private-feeling experience. In the two days we were there, we saw cheetah twice, lion twice, leopard twice, great elephant sightings and wonderful game viewing all around. The outstanding part about Mashatu really is the terrain though: wide open spaces with riverine forest and huge Mashatu trees. Our guide took perfect advantage of the many hillocks by driving to the top, allowing 360 degree, panoramic views – picture perfect!

*All photos courtesy of David Thompson.

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Jamie Mehrotra