Part 1, Tuningi Lodge & Madikwe Hills

By Bert Duplessis

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By June 2 2013 – after a pleasant couple of days visiting with family – Kathy and I were on our way from Pretoria to Madikwe, a massive private game reserve in the north-western area of the country, just south of the Botswana border.  In fact, it is possible to combine a visit to Madikwe with Botswana by road transfer to Gaborone from where there are regular scheduled flights to Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. 

En route we stopped over at The Grove restaurant in Swartruggens where we enjoyed a nice breakfast; it was a good break on the approximate 4.5 hr journey. Part of the main road (N4) was under construction but within the next 6 months or so it should be all good. 


From Swartruggens it was about another hour to the entrance gate to Madikwe, and then a fairly short drive to our first overnight stop at Tuning Lodge, operated by Seasons in Africa.  We were just in time for an afternoon game drive which was initially quiet, but it livened up really nicely at a water hole where we had some nice ‘action’ with several groups of elephant interacting, as well as a solitary white rhino.  We also had a look at a couple of female lions with cubs, but they were all sleeping. 

June 3 2013 – Madikwe

On the morning game drive we came across a particularly scraggly male lion whichreally looked like he had been through the wars.  Another very interesting sighting was at the carcass of a 3-month dead elephant, which was smelly beyond description.  There were several hyena active at the site, and one of them was actually right inside the body cavity, taking a snooze inside the dead elephant.  There were also several jackals around. 

The rooms at Tuningi are superb, pretty much the ideal luxury safari lodge setup:  lots of space, high degree of privacy (no line of sight to an adjacent room), a nice sized verandah which is functional – not just decorative – and a separate bathroom with a full sized bath, indoor and outdoor shower and a toilet that has a door.  This particular room had a few steps between it and the lounge but one of the others (room #5, a family room) is 100% suitable for guests in a wheelchair.  There are no steps at all in the room itself, and no steps to the lodge.  There are just 3 steps between the lodge and the outdoor boma area overlooking a small waterhole.

Tuningi impressed us on several levels. Between them Wilma and Heidi could not have been more friendly and solicitous of our every wish and request.  We enjoyed having a young family with 2 kids around – the very precious girl (around 2?) and her slightly older brother elicited quite a few smiles all-round. 

Lodges often claim the ability to make guests ‘part of the family’ but few actually manage it.  If our very short 24-hr visit could be considered a true indicator, Tuningi really gets this right. 

As far as catering goes, they had a special vegan menu printed up for us and it was excellent, with some of the highlights being a butternut casserole and a medley of beans wrapped in puff pastry.  Both were delightful. 


At just before noon this day, we hit the road for Madikwe Hills Lodge in the Eastern part of Madikwe reserve.  The rooms (suites only) and the general areas (lounge, dining area and massive deck in front of camp) were about as impressive as it gets.  Our suite was spacious and luxurious, with a separate lounge/entrance area, a sleeping area with huge king size bed, a large outdoor deck with private plunge pool, a massive tub and both an indoor shower plus a true (not enclosed) outdoor shower. 

White Rhino in Madikwe

Our afternoon game drive with Jacques started with a brief look at a couple of sleepy lionesses, but improved very quickly when we parked close to two huge white rhinos on the edge of a dam.  They were very relaxed and posed for us for an extended period of time, even edging closer to us to take a better look at the ‘invader’ parked too close to their midden.  It was an electrifying few minutes with all of our collective attention totally focused on the two behemoths.  You could literally hear a pin drop in the vehicle as we concentrated on listening to their breathing and their heavy footfall.  Another guest in the car did ask if the rhinos were in the same family as hippos.  Really?

Wild Dogs – a Madikwe ‘Special’

From the rhinos, Jacques headed out to the eastern fence-line where we were very fortunate to see a large pack of wild dogs running at quite a pace through heavily wooded area, clearly on the hunt.  We got several good looks at them as they ran past the vehicle several times, seemingly totally oblivious to the attention from us and from a couple of other cars in pursuit.  Unfortunately we rarely made a complete stop so it was very difficult to get any good photographs.  Also the light had pretty much disappeared by the time we saw the dog.  Nonetheless African Wild Dogs is a mega-sighting anywhere in Africa so we considered ourselves very fortunate to have seen them again. 

Dinner at Madikwe Hills on the deck was quite memorable – in every respect.  It was a beautiful setting, the food was of gourmet quality – yet the service was on the slow side. 

I was happy to find out that the WIFI at Madikwe Hills was working, having struck out at both Mashatu and at Tuningi.  It is better not to have WIFI at all than to promise it and then not be able to deliver.  Unfortunately the latter (promising it and not delivering) would happen all over the place.

A Lion Kill at Madikwe

The next morning we headed out quite early – before sunrise – towards a very open area of the park, where we spotted a gorgeous adult male lion walking from west to east, our left to our right.  With excellent morning light, we make several good captures as it slowly walked towards us, crossed the road behind the vehicle and continued walking east.

There was a large group of wildebeest on that side of the road and the lion headed in their general direction.  None of us anticipated what would happen next.   The lion suddenly started charging towards the wildebeest and managed to create some confusion with some of the wildebeest breaking to the left, and others to the right.  In the middle of all this a young wildbeest somehow blundered too close to the lion: all we heard was the death scream of the unfortunate victim.  A minute or so later we could see the lion dragging its prey in a northerly direction. 

Interestingly, our guide Jacques had just talked about the fact that male lions do in fact hunt and successfully so.  Many guests are under the wrong impression that the female lions do all the hunting.  As we experienced in a very personal and memorable way, that is definitely not the case.

Madikwe Hills not suitable for all guests

We would certainly be happy to recommend Madikwe Hills as a good choice for our clients, but there are some issues of concern.  For one thing the camp is not at all suitable for physically handicapped individuals.  In fact it would probably the worst choice of any for a person with impaired mobility – there are just way too many steps on the paths between the rooms and all the facilities, and even in the rooms themselves.  This is because of the nature of the terrain: the camp was constructed right on top of a series of massive boulders so the architect and the builders had to be very creative in blending some of the natural features into the rooms and other areas. Our suite had one side of a boulder inside the bathroom.  The visual effect is stunning and it works wonderfully as a design element.  It is just not very practical – or at least not for people who are not fairly strong on their feet.

The service at Madikwe Hills was way too slow, particularly at breakfast.  At first there was simply nobody there (early one morning); and when someone finally did show up, it was near impossible to get them to take a food order, and equally slow to get whatever you wanted. We suspect that it has something to do with the management team not putting in much of an appearance in the lodge itself (at least not when we were there), seemingly content to stay in their office suite which is part of the reception building. 

Vehicle seating policy at Madikwe Hills not ideal

More importantly though, we were surprised and dismayed to find out that Madikwe Hills has a policy of taking up to 8 guests in the same vehicle on game drives. Inclusive of the seat next to the driver there are 10 seats altogether on the vehicles, so with 8 guest the seating works out to be one (in front); two rows with 2 persons (plus an empty seat in each of those rows) and then one row with all 3 seats occupied. 

This means that some unfortunate person travel possibly halfway around the world and pays a hefty daily tariff at this superb and decidedly upmarket lodge, only to be stuck in the middle seat between two other persons, on a game drive.  This is unacceptable at a lodge in this price category, in our opinion.  At moderately priced or ‘cheap’ safari lodges this may be a more common occurrence and given the lower cost, possibly an acceptable trade-off.  Just not at a property such as Madikwe Hills. 

I know that there are private vehicles available and I would always recommend their use for really serious photographers or for family groups or others who are concerned about being in the same vehicle with someone who may have a completely different idea of the pace and ‘focus’ of a game drive.  Such as having serious birders – who want to stop at and identify literally every different species of bird they encounter – in the same car with people who are only interested in big cats.  If your interests are widely divergent from the ‘average’  game drive which focuses mostly on mammals but not to the exclusion of everything else – and which stops at a sighting long enough for everyone to get multiple photographs if they wish – then you should be in a private vehicle. 

For ‘regular’ guests who just want to take some good photographs and/or video, and who don’t insist (for example) that the guide stays with any particular species for an inordinately long period of time –  a personal vehicle is redundant and the additional cost is not justifiable.

Continue to Part 2

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