A Wild Ride

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Words & Photography

by Stuart Johnston 

There’s a peace to be found as you head west into Herman Charles Bosman-land—towards what once was known as the Bechuanaland Protectorate, now known as Botswana. The flat-topped withaak trees offer only a modicum of shade, and they’re more spread out as you near the Groot Marico River. Ideal country for meditating on the unchanging, yet always changing, nature of life away from taxis, traffic lights, and radio DJs with facsimile personalities. A place where everything and nothing stays the same. Where the promise of the unknown, always unfolding, is somehow so much easier to understand.

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Such a place is the Makanyane Safari Lodge, situated some 70km southeast of the Botswana border—a privately-owned and -managed luxury establishment located in the greater Madikwe Game Reserve. To get there from Joburg by road takes a bit of navigation, with a capital N. The message we have is don’t trust TomTom too far, and it’s true, the little box wants to route us via Gaberone, which will add about four hours to a three-hour journey.

Doing the trip in the Suzuki Kizashi 2,4 SDLX is pure pleasure. Here is a quality sedan unadorned with frills, but rich in essence. Road noise is minimal, whatever the surface. On the run into Makanyane we have plenty of opportunity to test the build-quality of the Kizashi’s body shell—it’s rock-like—and the suppleness of its suspension over dirt roads peppered with flint-like rocks every few metres of the way.

The electronic stability programme that’s standard on the Kizashi makes nonsense of dirt-road sandy build-ups that can so easily veer a lesser-equipped car off course. We are able to maintain a solid average speed over the final 70km stretch—having cruised at heady speeds in sixth gear on the reassuringly open stretch of tarmac leading off from the Sun City-Rustenburg road.

Makanyane is the Tswana name for African Wild Dog. Later that afternoon we are able to see these wonderful, rare, endangered creatures at play. Fortuitously, a pack of Wild Dogs has made a den on the Makanyane concession grounds, just a few kilometres away from the lodge. Watching them cavort and nip and pirouette, it is easy to see how they relate to our common and suburban canines. But as ranger Dylan Marriner tells us, the unusual thing about the African Wild Dog is it never barks. Instead, it emits a strange mewing, squealing sort of noise. While the den mother stays behind to guard her new pups, the rest of the pack set off on a hunting mission. The older dogs will eat more than they need of their prey and regurgitate the ‘leftovers’ for the pups to enjoy upon their return home.

We don’t eat more than we need at Makanyane, but we eat well. In fact, both my partner and I order the kingklip for dinner and it is done to perfection. Juicy and buoyant, with a sauce that contains some lemon and various other herbs, augmented by rice and veg. This is courtesy of Vanessa Koorbanally, one of three chefs at the lodge. 

Simple food, but good. That is also the keynote recipe for the Suzuki’s unqualified success as a sophisticated sedan that remains a cut above the rest in its class. The Kizashi was one of the finalists in the prestigious 2012 Car of the Year competition. Driving it on the back roads, or indeed, en route through the city of Rustenburg—for it has indeed become a real, sprawling city now—one can revel in the fluidity of the six-speed manual gearbox, the quality of the dashboard and upholstery materials, the fuss-free nature of the climate controls, and the capacious boot.

We tote more than enough luggage to Makanyane for what turns out to be too short a stay. But we are glad we’ve packed jackets and beanies for our game drive, during which we spot the aforementioned Wild Dogs. Temperatures plummet out there in the desert—or near desert—when the sun goes down, and an open game-viewing vehicle can be purgatory if you arrive in shorts and a T-shirt.

Our suite lacks nothing in the way of warmth or creature comforts. There is a fireplace next to our luxuriously sprung double bed and the fire is lit when we return from dinner. We immediately turn out the lights so we can gaze out of the glass frontage of our bedroom which, in the daytime, affords a splendid view of animals as they come to drink at the waters of the Groot Marico River, which runs just a few metres in front of each of the eight suites.

Lying there in the darkness, we are startled to hear a voluminous, grunting, yawing noise that seems to come from our balcony. We squint into the darkness but then decide to lay low and enjoy the warmth of the fire, the duvet and the electric blankets, rather than go and investigate. Our guide tells us the next morning it was a hippo that’d come down for a nightcap at the river.

A home from home. That’s what General Manager Lynette Greeff says is the underscoring philosophy at Makanyane. This extends to the style of the suites, the relaxed, non-gushing but warm attitude of the staff members, and the discreet approach to dining. Your ranger will join you for a meal if you specifically ask him to, but he’s not going to impose himself.

“We have a range of rangers, if you’d like to put it that way. With different personalities, and we try and match the guests with the ones that suit them the best,” says Lynette. 

Indeed, our head ranger, Dylan Marriner, is of the laid-back variety, content to let the wild dogs go off on their hunt without chasing them. This pays dividends when we later come upon a pair of white rhinos after night has fallen and we can spend lots of time observing them from close quarters.

“We have two unique attractions at Makanyane,” says Lynette, who is married to the Executive Chef, Maritz Greef. “The one is the whole of the Madikwe Reserve is malaria-free, and the other is our river frontage. You can view the river from behind glass in your suite or out on the open balcony from a lounger.”

Indeed, if wide-open space is your thing rather than watching animals drink, there are lounging decks facing the bushveld behind each suite, which is where we photograph the Suzuki Kizashi at first light. Manoeuvring the Suzuki around, I am struck by the effortlessness of the steering at parking speeds, in contrast to the crisp sense of control it imparts on our journey back to The Big Smoke.

Talking of journeys, despite some 120km covered on dirt roads and some cruising of the rather swift variety, the car averages just over 9,1 litres/100km for the round trip.

It is a sad moment when we unpack our luggage and say goodbye to the memories of Makanyane and, soon, to the Suzuki. But we are revitalised for the Return to Reality, as some of us city-folk call it.