Madikwe Private Game Reserve is a 76,000 hectare reserve in the Northwest of South Africa, practically at the Botswanan border (at the edge of the Kalahari).
It is a comparatively young reserve, transformed about 25 years ago in 1991 from farmland. When you are driving around the reserve you can still see it is recovering from its farmland days, with plenty of open bushland, lots of sickle bush forests, red soil, dead trees (a legacy from a severe drought decades ago) and stretching grass lands. If, like us, you have spent a bit of time in the lowveld in places like Kruger, Sabi Sands, Timbavati or Klaserie, you may find it to be quite an adjustment. It perhaps doesn’t feel quite as ‘bush-like’ as the Greater Kruger area, but if it’s your first safari you wouldn’t know the difference (plus there are definitely some benefits to the much more open terrain). However, one of the biggest selling points of Madikwe is the fact it is malaria-free. This means unlike the Kruger and Greater Kruger area, you do not need to worry about taking any malaria medication! (Note there are still mosquitos, they just do not carry the disease).
There are about 31 lodges currently at Madikwe, and they all traverse on the entire reserve (except for I believe two lodges that have their own private property). This is both a good and a bad thing – nice to have much less politics and better access to good sightings, but it also means you may be exposed to a lot more vehicle traffic and have to leave your sighting earlier than you would like to make room for other lodges.
From a wildlife perspective, Madikwe has the Big 5 as well as cheetah and wild dogs – plus of course almost all the ‘African’ animals you would want to find on a safari. The only notable exception to this would be hippos, as the waterways in the reserve don’t suit them. While they have both spotted and brown hyenas, these are perhaps not as common to see as in other reserves we have been to (or at least the spotted hyenas are not) – we didn’t see any hyenas after 7 nights on the reserve (though admittedly some guests on a different vehicle saw hyenas on a kill while we were seeing cheetahs, lions and a leopard in one drive!)
The game viewing here had been hyped up by many people prior to our arrival – even being described as ‘unparalleled’. Did it live up to expectations? Honestly I wasn’t overwhelmed. Madikwe offers good game viewing, but we wouldn’t rate it higher than reserves like Sabi Sands or Timbavati. If you are desperate to see wild dogs then this is probably a good place to go as there is a very good chance you will see them (if you tell your guide that’s what you want). It is not a great reserve for leopard sightings, though we did see three leopards in our seven nights (but we were perhaps luckier than others). If you are looking for leopard, I would go to reserves like Sabi Sands, Thornybush, Klaserie or Timbavati.
It is very good for the rest of the Big 5 though, and in particular probably the best reserve we have visited to see elephants (rivalling Kruger itself). They are seen daily at lodge waterholes and on just about every game drive you go on. Cheetahs are probably also a bit more frequently found when compared to many Greater Kruger lodges, and you will almost definitely see the usual plains game suspects – zebra, giraffe, kudu, impala etc.
During our best drive in the reserve we saw two male cheetahs who attempted to hunt impala and then posed nicely on a tree, a male leopard on a mission, a pride of lions being lazy (including two big males), rhinos, elephants and zebras. During our worst drive (incidentally the drive directly before our best), we didn’t see any of the Big 5 or any predators – just kudu and perhaps some plains game. Out of seven nights (13 drives), we had 4 or 5 drives where we didn’t see any predators (lion, leopard or wild dogs). All except one of these we did at least see one of the big 5 (usually elephants and perhaps a rhino or two).
While the game viewing is still quite good, the thing that did turn us off Madikwe a little is the guiding culture in the reserve. Too many times did we spend way too much time sitting in a stationary vehicle waiting on standby to go into a sighting (there are only allowed to be three vehicles per sighting at one time – two for leopards). While in other reserves guides tend to keep driving in the vicinity of the sighting to keep things interesting for guests, here at Madikwe for whatever reason many guides simply stop near the sighting and switch off their vehicle and sit there. This is not a good experience for guests, particularly as there is also a culture of hogging sightings and so often you are sitting there for up to (and beyond) 15-20 minutes waiting. On various occasions our guide had to prompt lodges to leave the sighting to give us a chance to view the animal, but there is obviously no clear guidelines or policing because most of the time there would be certain lodges simply staying there for even up to half an hour or more and not moving out to give others a go. This type of behaviour ruined our experience numerous times, because it meant we not only wasted so much time sitting and waiting but also in one or two instances we missed being able to see the animal in good light (and take nice photos). On one occasion (cheetah sighting), we got so tired of waiting we ended up leaving and coming back about half an hour later (which turned out to be a good thing in the end as we saw an attempted hunt on our return).
On the plus side, it should be a good reserve for photography, particularly in the dry season (and when there hasn’t been as much rain as there was this year) because there are so many open spaces. Lodges on the reserve are in general a bit cheaper than in Greater Kruger reserves, perhaps because the reserve is a bit younger and thus not as famous as places like Sabi Sands.
Below I have put a list of what we believe to be the Pros and Cons of Madikwe – please feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly if you have any feedback or want to know more information. The lodges we stayed at were Tau Game Lodge, Jaci’s Tree Lodge, Rhulani, Impodimo and The Bush House. I will be posting specific reviews of each lodge soon as well. I am also happy to provide more information on how each of these compares and/or help you book the best safari suited to your needs if you want to get in touch with me directly!
Madikwe Private Game Reserve Pros:
- Good for photography as lots of open spaces, dead trees, red soil and waterholes
- Good for lion and cheetah sightings
- Excellent for elephants
- Good for plains game – zebra, giraffe, antelope etc
- No malaria!
- Closer to Johannesburg than Greater Kruger area (by 1-2 hours)
- More affordable for 5* than places like Sabi Sands
- Easier to spot animals due to being quite open
- Later wake up in winter due to being more to the west vs greater kruger
- Huge traversing area for all lodges
- Has healthy Big 5 population as well as cheetahs and wild dogs
- Jaci’s Tree Lodge and The Bush House both have awesome hides that are great for photographers (or just avid wildlife watchers)
Madikwe Private Game Reserve Cons:
- No hippos
- Not as good for leopard, though we saw three sightings in 6 nights (perhaps luckier than others)
- Does not feel like proper African bush – but this may be just because we are used to the lowveld (Kruger area) – not nearly as many nice trees around and less biodiversity
- Not great for hyena
- Landscape is a little monotonous when staying for more than 2-3 nights
- Guiding culture not as polished as Greater Kruger – we experienced infighting, hogging sightings, stopping and waiting on standby to get into a sighting for up to 20 or 30 minutes waiting for others to leave.
Vehicle concentration can be very high as lodges can traverse everywhere (except for two private lodges that have own property) – this means if there is a leopard sighting up to 30 or more vehicles may come past in one day. Can be frustrating waiting for your turn, and also you see a lot of other vehicles.
- Very dusty.
- Lots of fences / lodges and sightings often within sight of fences – many sightings have fences in the background or close by (you lose the bush/wild feeling)
- Most lodges do not have trackers, which means the guides have to double as trackers and sometimes leave guests in a stationary vehicle to go out and track
- Not open to Kruger, so perhaps less diversity or intrigue compared to Sabi Sands, Timbavati etc. High degree of wildlife management.
- City lights and major traffic visible / audible (losing the bush/wild feeling)
Would we recommend Madikwe Private Game Reserve? The short answer is yes, but we still prefer Greater Kruger reserves for a more authentic safari/bush/wild experience. There are still lots of reasons why Madikwe could be a good option based on your needs – shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us via our contact form if you’d like tailored advice based on your specific circumstances!