Chris Harvie travels to the Waterberg for some lessons from a thought-provoking ranger.
The real Bushveld begins at Vaalwater, or so I was told by the helpful manager of The Black Mamba, one of the world’s greatest shops. Jock was thus not really from the Bushveld at all. In fact, for the purist, the Bushveld and the Lowveld don’t even coincide.
We were on our way to the 38000ha Welgevonden Private Game Reserve, for an experience quite unlike any Lowveld game adventure. For example, the reserve has 16 species of antelope among them tsessebe, nyala, springbok, impala, waterbuck, gemsbok, eland and blesbok. Those are possibly not combinations you had thought to see together, but this part of South Africa is unusual in many ways.
A refreshing approach to conservation, land regeneration and sustainability has led to the creation of this magnificent biosphere from a range of abused and heavily grazed farms and hunting concessions. Research has been carried out and tests continue to establish how best to continue to link the various habitats and to restore the conservancy to maximum levels of healthy eco- diversity by re-establishing the populations and balances of yesteryear.
“What is the fastest antelope in Africa?” asks Jacques van Wijk, the ranger, as we drive back to the camp. We all guess incorrectly. It is the Damaliscus lunatus of the family Bovidae, he tells us. Well, of course. As John Buchan wrote in Prester John: ‘Home old man, as if you were running down a tsessebe.’ They can travel at 70km per hour, which is pretty damned quick. Arguably, the springbok is quite fast too but, as we know, Bryan Habana can’t outrun a cheetah.
We were staying at Makweti Safari Lodge in the central part of the reserve, where the bushveld is at its most colourful. Bright, lime-green leaves sprout on trees that push purposefully out of rust-brown, rocky mountainsides and gravel-strewn glades. The view past the krans and through the candelabras of the euphorbia trees to the river valley below gives the lodge a position as impressive as any I have seen.
But what makes Makweti really different is the shared insight of its staff and particularly its rangers. How could I have lived and travelled in the bush for so long without it ever having crossed my mind that the tsessebe might be the fastest antelope on the continent?
I know how to tell a female giraffe from a male by looking at its horns (in case it is hiding its nether regions ). I know all the jokes about male zebras having black stripes on white and females having white stripes on black, and warthogs using their tails as aerials. I know all the corny stuff.
But from Jacques at Makweti, I was to learn more interesting and more thought- provoking facts than I have in hundreds of game drives elsewhere. We saw everything, of course, but that wasn’t what it was all about. We saw scores of rhinos, two magnificently-maned lions, endless elephants, giraffes and zebras.
We watched a water monitor for 20 minutes in total silence as he dug deep into the earth behind us.
We watched a small herd of waterbuck on the far side of a bubbling stream and, as we were doing so, through the binoculars, counted five species of antelope in one sighting. And nobody rushed us on in pursuit of something Big Five-ish. It was such a refreshing change.
Our fellow guests included a couple from London who had come out for the weekend to get away from their jobs in financial PR, crisis, what crisis?, and a German woman was due the following Friday for the weekend because her husband had said it was his favourite place on Earth. He wanted her to see it and flew her out for a couple of days.
And let’s face it, we don’t have to fly for 13 hours to see this majestic place. It’s only a couple of hours drive from Johannesburg and, especially in the winter, Makweti offers a number of good deals for the local market.
But, unlike rugby, it’s not all about the game. Makweti’s rooms are huge and light and airy with cavernous bathrooms, inside showers, outside showers and baths that allow two large people to luxuriate with ease. The beds are so comfortable that once you succumb to the piles of cotton linen it is very hard to escape, especially at 6am.
And the food is a high point. So often game lodges buy their clients’ approval with intrusively good lion sightings and then palm them off afterwards with outdated devils on horseback, boring soup and gristly buffalo stew. At Makweti, we had citrus and vegetable spring rolls followed by a rack of lamb with spring onion mashed potatoes, which would have done a Michelin-star chef proud. The pudding was equally delicious although we had been nervous of its name, the chef has now decided that he will no longer call it a Monkey Berry Surprise for fear of breaking out a spoeg-kompetisie at the lodge’s elegant dining tables.
And they feed you well all day, not just in the evening. There are muffins on the deck overlooking, almost in, the waterhole at dawn, a scrumptious breakfast after the game drive and then lunch and high tea.
The lodge is not fenced off from the surrounding bush, which makes for some interesting pawprints in the mornings and keeps the dassies on their toes. On our last morning, Jacques hiked us out into the mountains, down cliffs and along riverbeds, through baboon encampments and buchu bushes, in an attempt to shed some of the sloth and growth of the previous few days.
A lion was known to be patrolling the area, adding a certain edge. Even Jacques was showing signs of tension when he pointed out that, had we been tsessebe, we’d have been alright in the event of a lion attack because lions can’t run at 70km per hour. He cast a worried eye over his mangy gaggle of guests. We didn’t look a bit like tsessebe. We just had to hope that we would be the only creatures to eat like kings when that walk came to an end.
If you go …
Where it is: Makweti is accessed though the main gate of the Welgevonden Game Reserve in Limpopo province, 25km west of Vaalwater on the R33.
Rates: Rack rate from January 1 from R3850 per person per night sharing. ( May-Aug from R2350). Includes accommodation, all meals, game drives and VAT. Excludes drinks, items of a personal nature and R52 conservation levy.
Last-minute rate: Book and travel within seven days from R2100 ( May-Aug from R1730)