Well I would never have guessed it, but my parents were actually the first ones to visit us in Gaborone! Aside from the time they spent living in Germany when my dad was in the military and our wedding in Thailand – my parents have had very little opportunities to travel in their lives – so I was incredibly excited that we would be able to show them around southern Africa. They stayed with us in Gaborone for the first few day and we took them on their first game drive in Mokolodi Nature Reserve. Then we spent some time with the rescued cheetahs living in the park. My mom said a cheetah was the animal she was most excited to see – so it was amazing that she go to pet and walk with one up close!
We took them out to all (there’s only a handful!) of the best restaurants in town – some we hadn’t even tried yet ourselves like the Beef Baron. Garrett toured them around Gabs to try local food and visit the villages of Mochudi and Gabane. Then the most anticipated part of their visit to Gabs…… taking the No.1 Ladies Detective Tour! My parents have been avid fans of these books since I was little – they have read every single one! So a visit to Gaborone for them was like a Harry Potter fan getting to tour around Harry Potter World at Universal Studios! We always feel like there really isn’t much to do in Gabs – but surprisingly we were able to fill up 4 days without even getting to everything we wanted to show them.
Then it was time to get them out into the bush to do what everyone comes to Africa for – safari! Garrett dropped my parents off in Madikwe Game Reserve one day early so they could get an extra day of safari time. I am so glad we did because on their first game drive they saw so much great stuff – lion cubs, hyenas, huge elephant herds, buffalo, rhinos…. Garrett and I were bummed we missed out on the fun of the first day! We joined them on Friday afternoon at Mosetlha Bush Lodge which is the oldest and most rustic of the lodges in the park. We wanted them to get a mix of safari experiences while keeping to a budget so this camp was a great option. We did feel kind of bad that this was their first stop – because when I say rustic – I mean really rustic!
The camp is unfenced with raised wooden and thatched roof cabins giving it an authentic bush feel. It truly is an eco-lodge with no electricity, no running water and lights out promptly at 10. Since animals can roam into the camp, it is not recommended that you leave your raised cabin at night – so they have plastic “honey” buckets to use as chamber pots. We didn’t necessarily mind this except that when we returned from breakfast in the morning the maids had left our pots sitting uncovered and still full on the table – we were definitely caught off-guard by this. You also have to use a “donkey boiler” if you want hot water for your shower. The contraption looks like something out of the steampunk era. It is kind of fun to use…but then the hard part is hauling the water into the bucket shower system – Garrett and I opted for no showers during our stay there!
We found the meals to be pretty standard camp-style cuisine – totally expected and adequate for the price paid at this camp. The real highlight of Mosetlha is its excellent location in the middle of the park, close to the larger water holes. The guides drove hard find game and although they weren’t as friendly as some rangers we’ve had – they knew how to spot the best game and how to position the truck for optimal viewing. The camp was very efficient, clean and well run. Not the most comfortable but great for people on a budget who want efficient game viewing.
The high points of our game drives included being first on the scene to track a male leopard as he hunted. Seeing a juvenile elephant chase two cheetah brothers from a water hole. Watching 4 lionesses chewing on a zebra kill and watching a pair of white rhinos roll around in mud then run around in circles like they were totally lost!
We then moved on the highlight of the trip – surprising our parents with a 5 star luxury safari lodge called Madikwe Hills Lodge. They went from having no electricity and chamber pots to their own private villas nestled in the rock cliffs, a clawfoot soaker tub, an indoor/outdoor shower, private plunge pool and a balcony view to a private watering hole. Their eyes were about to pop out of their heads as they saw each new luxurious feature of the lodge unveiled. Garrett and I were amazed too – this place was incredible! We were so very lucky to get a last minute deal which is the only way a place like this could be in our budget!
Although Madikwe Hills Lodge had every modern amenity, it still had a rustic natural feel because the lodge was built to blend into the surrounding hills. The dining hall housed large boulders and trees that were built around instead of removed in construction. The common areas all looked out over a series of water holes that had regular visitors throughout our stay. For lunch there were four courses ranging from salads to kudu or impala steak and chips. Dinners were 4 course meals of soup, appetizer, entrée of local game meats followed by succulent desserts. If you didn’t want to interact with the 20 other guests you could enjoy your meals on the deck of your private villa – we opted for this on our second afternoon so we could eat and swim away the hot parts of the day in our private plunge pool.
This lodge definitely put more emphasis on the comfort and relaxation of guests – safari trucks were configured with less people packed in and game drives were less rushed. The game viewing was again excellent but we did find that we saw less due to the laid back attitude of the guides.
The highlights included amazing up close encounters with spotted hyena pups, finally getting to see our first wild dogs and following a pack of 14 out on the hunt. We almost hit a rhino on the drive home one night as it bolted out of the bush at the very end of a night drive. We saw an elusive brown hyena and a pair of spotted hyenas crunching on the vertebrae of a buffalo carcass. Garrett also saw his first proper male lions in the wild!
We were so glad we saved our first trip to Madikwe to share with our parents. It was very special to get to experience things together for the first time. We feel so lucky to have such a great game park within an hour of our house – we can’t wait for our next trip down there!
We also learned some really interesting stuff about the park. I was shocked to find out that Madikwe Game Reserve was not actually formed to protect the animals! In 1991 the South African government had the foresight to realize the large population in this very dry isolated area of the country with no economy to speak of was going to erupt into civil unrest if something was not done to create jobs and a sustainable source of income. Experts were called in to consider different options for economic stimulation – and it was found that the only thing that could work in the long term was wildlife based tourism. So a massive 680sq km national park was formed by buying up all of the privately owned land. Because the area had been previously covered by cattle farms – the land was degraded and all of the indigenous animals had been killed or run out (farmers are notorious for destroying any natural wildlife to maintain their land). To restore the park , the government had to figure out a way to get all the animals that were originally in the area back to their natural habitat. What followed was the largest translocation project in history – Operation Phoenix. Over 7 years, they basically created their own Noah’s Ark to move 10,000 animals of 27 different species into Madikwe. This included the first ever moving of entire breeding herds of elephant and the reintroduction of the African wild dog into a fenced preserve. Anyone who visits Madikwe today can tell you that the project was incredibly successful – animals are thriving and you would never know that just 25 years ago the area was desolate and empty. Madikwe has been so prosperous that it has even been able to start translocating excess animals to help build up other South African Parks. The park is a joint venture between the South African government, the local communities and businesses that own 24 lodges inside the park. Madikwe has also started Community Lodges which the local villages own and run and all profits are then used to uplift the local communities. I love the idea of this park and everything it has accomplished to conserve wildlife without forgetting about the importance of local communities! What an outstanding place!