Marataba Safari Lodge, Waterberg

Up in Limpopo province with the majestic Waterberg mountains as its backdrop is one of South Africa’s best-kept safari secrets. Now under the management of the MORE group, Marataba Safari Lodge and its new sister, Trails Lodge offer stunning value for money in a superb Big 5 setting. And it’s malaria free…

The moment you first enter the 20,000-hectare Marataba Concession, part of Marakele, you know you’re in a special place. The ancient, eroded, deep red Waterberg mountains provide a constant backdrop, it’s remote plateaus and ravines lure you closer. Once a tobacco and cattle farming area, the Concession now has a fenceless border with Marakele National Park and healthy bird and mammal populations. Best of all, you have the whole place to yourself.

Classic Waterberg view from the main safari lodge

Classic Waterberg view from the main safari lodge

 

“We are the only commercial lodges here”, manager Natashja explains as we sip our welcome drink. “Only 5 vehicles on the whole concession. It’s not uncommon to not see another vehicle on your game drive. Our guests love that.”

Such a low vehicle density is rare in South Africa – including in premier reserves such as Sabi Sand. Nor does it have the same road densities as Sabi Sand, nor such habituated game, which makes it an altogether far wilder experience. But how does this translate into actual sightings?

Boat safaris are possible along dammed-up sections of river

Boat safaris are possible along dammed-up sections of river

“We have great sightings”, our guide Adriaan explains, “Regular elephant, rhino and lion while leopard is becoming more frequent as they become habituated to vehicles”. We had fantastic lion sightings on all of our drives, and on the last evening they roared all night just metres from our luxury tent. Game numbers support remarkably high predator densities and the quality of sightings will only get better with time. And as often as not, you’ll have the sightings to yourself.

Outside one of Marataba's luxury tents

Outside one of Marataba’s luxury tents

 

The quality of hospitality at Safari Lodge is just as impressive as the reserve itself. Staff are exceptionally friendly, efficient and professional without being over-familiar and the three course plated lunches and dinners were of a very high standard. Small little details, from a welcome note to a freshly-run bubble bath after a chilly evening game drive, were always there: the standard is what we normally see in a much higher price bracket. The guiding too, is world class – dedicated and passionate, Adriaan is part of a highly professional guiding team, one of the best we’ve seen in Southern Africa.

Marataba gets all the small things right

Marataba gets all the small things right

 

Marataba is so wild and beautiful it would be a waste to see it only from a vehicle. We opted for a post-breakfast walk with Adriaan in addition to our twice-daily game drive. There’s a good chance of encountering any of the Big 5 on foot and we enjoyed a close-up white rhino sighting in addition to all the small things that make walking in bush such a pleasure. And if walking is your thing, there’s yet more.

“Some of the ravines are so inaccessible, we’re not even sure exactly what’s up there”, our Adrian explains. “But we know there are plenty of black rhino. And lion and leopard that may never have seen humans before”.

The new Trails Lodge

The new Trails Lodge

Enter the brand new Trails Lodge, with exactly this in mind – to properly explore this wilderness on foot. The setting for the Trails Lodge is superb – in a remote corner of the concession, nestled among the lower slopes of the mountains with sensational views out over the plains. The design is modern, luxurious but with nature at its centre: here you feel as though you’re part of the mountains. The concept is simple – the trails themselves may be tough, but when you return to the lodge you can expect comfort in style. Rough it during the day and live it up afterwards – this is a place of contrasts and extremes.

Just how tough the hiking is depends on the group and your preferences and the days can be tailored to your requirements. Although you can and might encounter almost anything on foot, the game is still relatively unhabituated and this combined with the experienced trails guides means you can enjoy the experience in safety.

Main lodge, Marataba

Main lodge, Marataba

 

There are few places in Africa where you can do serious walking in Big 5 territory with expert guides, and Marataba is one. Combined with a couple of days at Safari Lodge for a traditional, vehicle-based safari, this is an experience with a twist, one you’re not likely to forget.

 

Marataba can also be combined with other stunning MORE group properties in Madikwe, Kruger, Sabi Sand and Cape Town for a fantastically diverse safari circuit.

 

Lion sighting with classic Waterberg backdrop

Lion sighting with classic Waterberg backdrop

You’ll most likely fall in love with Marataba as we did, the blood-red mountains leaving a lasting impression. This is a world-class reserve with a top-notch family friendly lodge to match anything in South Africa.

Machaba Camp, Botswana

Sandwiched between Moremi and Chobe National Parks in northern Botswana, the Khwai concession boasts some of the most dense concentrations of wildlife anywhere. Among the smattering of lodges and camps here, Machaba stands out as a luxurious but understated tented camp. Jonathan and Sophie investigate.

Mention the word Khwai to any wildlife enthusiast and their eyes will light up and in all likelihood a story will ensue involving a close encounter with a lion, leopard, wild dog or all three. Khwai is infamous, and for good reason, and we were especially excited about our visit here.

Outside one of Machaba's luxury tents

Outside one of Machaba’s luxury tents

We weren’t disappointed. Machaba is located on the river Khwai, looking directly into Moremi, and its ten tented suites are strung along with generous gaps in between, with a modest swimming pool at the far end. The tents have all the comforts you need but don’t expect hair dryers: the camp is proud of its eco-credentials and hair dryers and solar power don’t mix.

Pool at Machaba

Pool at Machaba

Our game viewing during our stay was fantastic, expertly conducted by guide Moreri, who recognised us from a stay in the Delta some years ago. We saw two wild dog packs, including one on a red lechwe kill. The next day we stumbled across another pack hunting. The adrenlin was pumping as we sped alongside the frenzied dogs before watching with awe as half the pack of 16 tore into a kudu. Minutes later we heard the rest of the pack calling nearby, followed by the unmistakable groan of yet another victim.

Khwai is one of the best places in Africa to see Wild Dog

Khwai is one of the best places in Africa to see Wild Dog

“They’ve made another kill!” shouted Moreri as he threw the car in gear and we shot off through the bushes towards the sound of the frenzied dogs. Sure enough, the rest of the pack had brought down a second kudu. The dogs could hardly contain their excitement, some leaving the first kill to feed on the second, which was devoured in minutes. It was a stark illustration of the reality of predator-prey interactions. One minute a perfectly formed kudu is grazing peacefully on the lush grass; not ten minutes later the only trace of its existence is a small patch of sticky-red flattened grass.

Main tent, Machaba

Main tent, Machaba

 

While the potential game viewing at Khwai is second to none, there are a number of lodges and campsites on the concession, with subsequent lack of control of vehicle numbers at sightings. Depending on the time of year it can therefore get quite crowded, although we had no problems with this during our stay. Meanwhile, Machaba vehicles can drive off road, and you can request a night drive with your guide in addition to the usual morning and afternoon drives. Short walks can sometimes also be arranged.

Guide Moreri in action

Guide Moreri in action

 

With a capacity of 24, Machaba is not a particularly small camp but the relaxed atmosphere and easy-going staff make it feel more intimate, and communal dining at dinner allows guests to interact and share stories. Breakfast and brunch are taken at individual tables, allowing guests some privacy and we found this model worked very well. (Slow) wi-fi by satellite is available under a tree within the camp and this ensures that phones and tablets don’t intrude on the beauty of the bush.

Machaba luxury tent

Machaba luxury tent

Machaba is also one of the few lodges that allow children under six (although it’s rare that there will be any) and two of the ten tents are family tents that can sleep up to 6 people each.

 

Overall, Machaba is a very efficiently run camp and camp managers Elcke and Shaun do a fantastic job in making guests feel at ease. We certainly recommend this camp.

 

 

Jack’s Camp, Botswana

Sophie and Jonathan visit this historic luxury camp, perched on the fringes of Botswana’s vast Makgadikgadi Pans

Bigger than Denmark, the remnant of vast lakes thousands of years of ago, the Makgadikgadi Pans are one of Botswana’s most striking, and fascinating natural features. High salt concentrations on the pans themselves limit vegetation to grass cover, which turns a lush green after rains, attracting thousands of antelope and other game. The fringes support a diversity of woodland; together they combine into a mesmerising landscape unlike anything you’re likely to have seen before.

Jack's luxury tents blend into the landscape

Jack’s luxury tents blend into the landscape

The scale is vast – distant palm trees shimmer in the heat haze and the sky swallows you up. And right here is Jack’s camp, a collection of dark green tents so unobtrusive they’re almost invisible.

Most guests fly the short distance from Maun to Jack’s but as always we drove in – usually a simple affair but as luck would have it, when we visited, half a year’s worth of rainfall had fallen in just three days, so much of the route was under water. March/April is a fantastic time to visit the pans, which are often filled with a thin layer of water, attracting yet more wildlife.

The  main tent doubles up as a museum

The main tent doubles up as a museum

Jack’s Camp is unusual in a lot of ways. One of Botswana’s (and Africa’s) most expensive safari lodges, it combines elements that range from quaint (wooden toilet thrones) to bizarre (a vast, macabre collection of animal skulls displayed in the dining/lounge tent).

Jack’s attempts to fuse rustic, 1920s Campaign-era décor with a sense of family history that ultimately defines the camp. The philosophy is unashamedly old-school. There’s no electricity (except for a charging station) and no wi-fi. All meals are communal, and while the food is not the main highlight here, a lively dinner in this remote place, in a museum tent of skulls lit with hurricane lamps to the sound of jackals howling is not something you’ll ever experience again!

Walks with Bushmen are a popular activity

Walks with Bushmen are a popular activity

The Makgadikgadi is not about the Big 5. The camp itself is not inside a national park and with a number of cattle posts nearby, don’t be surprised to see the odd cow or dog interspersed with the antelope on your game drive. Makgadikgadi National Park is nearby however and depending on the time of year you may see large antelope herds, lion, jackal and many of the small things that make the Makgadikgadi, and the Kalahari such a special place. This is a good place to see bat-eared fox and aardwolf, and we had a fantastic African Wild Cat sighting under the spotlight one night.

Close-up meerkat encounters are one of the highlights

Close-up meerkat encounters are one of the highlights

Jack’s offers a number of unusual activities. Several colonies of meerkats have been painstakingly habituated, allowing guests spectacular close-up encounters with these fascinating animals. We followed them as they foraged, scouted for danger and fed their young, just centimetres away. It’s not uncommon to even have them climb on you. Needless to say, the photographic opportunities here are incredible.

Walks with a resident group of Bushmen, clad in traditional gear, are another popular activity where you can tap into their vast knowledge of the bush and see demonstrations of making traps and fire. Although these events can at first appear patronizing, with the Bushmen as exhibits, once you get over this it’s a genuinely rare opportunity to learn from them and understand the challenges facing their communities. It’s also a mechanism for skills to be passed on to a new generation – skills that may otherwise be lost forever.

Old-school dining tent

Old-school dining tent

In the dry season, quad biking on the Pans is also offered.

Two nearby, less expensive camps – San Camp and Camp Kalahari complete the Uncharted Africa collection here and enjoy the same activities and share guides with Jack’s. All three camps are best combined with more ‘traditional’ game viewing destinations in Botswana – the Okavango for example. For a different face of Botswana, and to better understand it – this is a good place to come.

Experiencing the vastness of the Pans is what Jack's is all about

Experiencing the vastness of the Pans is what Jack’s is all about

Jack’s gave us a fantastic welcome – hospitality staff Sheila and O’Girl as well as the rest of the team really make you feel at home. If you’re looking for something truly different and unique, Jack’s is it.

Note: Jack’s Camp is due for major refurbishment in 2016