Julia Nesbitt, South Africa

Madikwe Game Reserve: Ecological Crossroads - I arrived late on my first trip to Madikwe Game Reserve due to my absolutely inept navigation. My cousin, South African born and bred, had graciously agreed to drive up to the reserve, but made the mistake of letting her American cousin handle the map. The alleged 3 hour drive north from Johannesburg turned into a 5+ hour session of family stories. Dark was imminent by the time we rolled her dusty little Renault up to the gates of Jaci's Tree Lodge. Madikwe Game Reserve has the distinction of being one of the few game reserves in the world to be proclaimed purely on the grounds of being the most appropriate and sustainable land use for an area. Madikwe represents an extension to this philosophy in that it is run as a joint venture between the State, the private sector and local communities. The success of this approach has made Madikwe the role model for the creation of similar projects elsewhere in South Africa. Physically, the reserve has vast plains of open woodlands and grasslands, dissected by the rugged Rant van Tweedepoort hills, and bordered in the south by the Dwarsberg Mountains. On the other side of the Northern border is the arid landscapes of Southern Botswana; this location is at the borderlands of the Kalahari Savannah and Mixed Acacia Woodland biomes. The range of species here is remarkably diverse. Particularly exciting for a wildlife enthusiast like myself is the opportunity to see two species of the same animal in one environment. Madikwe boasts both side-striped and black-backed jackals, black and white rhinos as well as (most exciting to me!) spotted and brown hyena. The latter beast looks more like a shaggy, coffee colored German Shepard than one of their spotted laughing cousins who have been immortalized as barmy bad guys by Disney. At breakfast the next the next morning, our incomparable guide, Zambian-born Brett Hoy, recounted a story of following two brown hyenas along the road on the way home from a night drive just a few days previously. Unfortunately we werent lucky enough to spot one; however, that afternoon brought one of the best experiences at this wonderful reserve. We had been tracking two male lions, brothers in the midst of a war for territory with another coalition of males composed of their father and an uncle. I am constantly amazed how guides can differentiate the footprints they are looking for in the myriad of prints left in the sand of the roads! Eventually we decided to leave the lions to their domestic disputes and head to a nice spot that Brett had picked out for sundowners. The "nice spot" turned out to be beautiful open grassland with scrubby bushes; perfect for the lilac-breasted rollers to sit on before taking off over our heads with their signature lavender bellies and shocking turquoise wings flashing. Twisted acacia trees provide a foil for the sunset just starting to paint the sky as the nights shadows creep out from under the bushes. Brett stopped the vehicle right on the dirt track and we climbed out to stretch and engage in that perfectly British tradition of sundowners. Of course the only sundowner accepted in the African bush remains the venerable gin and tonic, a pleasant reminder of the old days when quinine was added to the carbonated water as a prophylactic against malaria. Gin was added to the tonic water to make the whole process more enjoyable. Our sundowner spot was another perfect example of the diversity of species; facing north towards Botswana I had impalas on my right and springbok on my left. Impalas are small brown antelopes with white hindquarters. They are so prevalent throughout Eastern and Southern Africa that they are the favorite food of most of the predators. Madikwe Reserve is fortunate to have two packs of extremely endangered wild dogs and the impalas in the reserve are affectionately called dog biscuits. Springboks (besides lending their name to the South African Rugby Team) are small gazelles with an odd (and unexplained) habit of pronking which involves shooting straight up into the air in leaps up to 13 feet high! Like I always do during sundowners, I set my G&T on the bonnet of the Land Rover and crouched down, setting both hands in the dirt and smelling the sweet dry grasses, the musky scent of the springboks and the clean cold air of the approaching nightfall. Looking up I spotted a dark shape heading down the road towards us. Calling over to Brett, I expected another safari vehicle heading out on their own search for nocturnal animals like porcupines. Brett however took one look, one long pull on his glass of ginger ale and nonchalantly said, "Oh, that's one the white rhinos. Don't worry, he won't bother us." As if the prospect of a massive armored herbivore shambling down the road wasnt anything to get fussed about! I straightened up and watched as this living relic from the Miocene (roughly 14.2 million years ago) cut west across the plains, perfectly silhouetted against the pink spill of the sunset. In that moment I could visualize a life without plastic, electricity or the dubious power of instant communication offered by cell phones and Facebook. Imagined slipping off my rubber soled shoes and walking in the bush like I did when I was a child - barefoot and wholly unafraid. Turning back to the Land Rover with my (empty) glass, I see my cousin peering around the back tire. She points to the ground silently and there, not three feet away, is a little black backed jackal unconcernedly trotting along without a care in the world. Only about a foot and a half high at the shoulder, this slender little predator peered at us in mild surprise as we moved slowly around the vehicle for a better view. He was clearly curious and in no great rush. As we collectively held our breath, the jackal moved right past us and slipped under the car, through to the road on the other side. There he stopped and turned a sharp face in our direction. Seeing how relaxed the animal was, Brett silently grabbed his camera and slowly lay belly down on the sandy track, just a few feet from the jackal, who ambled around a bit and scratched in the dirt. His namesake black back was defined by a dark stripe running from his shoulders up along the body. A silvery-black fur lay like a saddle along the spine. Tiny golden paws scuffed up the dirt as Brett clicked away on his camera in the quarter-light of dusk. Unwilling to move a muscle, and still clutching my empty glass, I was astonished when Brett looked up from his camera. He slowly gestured to me whispering, Come down slowly. I sank to the ground until I was looking up at the jackal, instead of the other way around. Just out of arms reach, the jackal was calm and only glanced occasionally towards us as Bretts camera clicked or when I lifted a hand to brush the dust off my nose. After a few minutes the little creature was ready to move on and we watched with bellies in the dirt as he trotted off to the next adventure of the African night.