Looking for Lions: On Safari In Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa

The first time I meet John Richard Nott, the 20-something Johannesburg native is loading bullets into an enormous hunting rifle. At the Tau Game Lodge, he is making sure the gun is ready before taking guests on a sunrise safari looking for lions in Madikwe Game Reserve, way up north by the Botswana border where he works.

“All of the rangers here have specialities,” he says, as he finishes loading the gun and placing it on the Land Rover’s dashboard mount. “But we are all required to carry weapons, even though no one ever wants to use them,” — and rangers seldom do.

Nott has thrown rocks at a charging elephant before, rather than fire his gun.

“What’s your speciality, John?” Graham Murphy, the male half of the Canadian couple on safari with me asks as we climb into the open-sided vehicle and get to take off in the brisk morning air.

“Me? Well I like dangerous animals. Big cats,” Knott replies.

“So does that mean we’ll see some lions today?” Murphy teases.

“I can only hope,” Knott says.

I feel the same way. This is my fifth trip to South Africa, and despite more than half -dozen safaris in as many different parks, I have seen nary a lion, cheetah or leopard in any of them – although I’ve witnessed all three of these cats in other African countries. So I am quite desperate for Nott to deliver the dangerous animals, preferably at very close range.

We take off down a red clay road in South Africa’s most underappreciated wildlife reserve, Madikwe. Although it is closer to Johannesburg than Kruger and offers Big Five wildlife viewing, it still sees fewer visitors than most South African parks. Never mind the fact that it has dreamy lodging in striking (and malaria free) red sand environs, and is packed with so many lions that the provincial parks department has had to remove some.

“We just took out four of the more dominant male lions (recently),” Nott says. “At one time we had some 85 lions, which was too many. A park of this size can only sustain around 60 before the natural animal balance is upset.”

What’s crazy about these numbers is Madikwe isn’t exactly small. In fact, at 760 sq km, it is South Africa’s fourth largest reserve, encompassing a distinct eco-system of bushveld, savanna grassland, and riverine forest on the Kalahari desert’s edge.

The park was formed in 1991 under a dual mandate to protect endangered wildlife and to use sustainable tourism initiatives to create permanent jobs for the indigenous people. These citizens long served as the province’s poorest and most remotely located residents. A massive trans-location operation, called Operation Phoenix, brought more than 10,000 once-indigenous animals back into the area, after their numbers were depleted due to decades hunting and farming. The operation took over seven years to complete, and included flying or driving in entire herds of elephants from other South African reserves.

Just over 20 years later, Madikwe can only be called a magnificent success. Run as a joint venture between the North West Parks Board, the private sector, and local communities, it has provided many promised jobs. On the conservation level, it has also provided a home to a flourishing number of highly endangered African wild dogs (found only in a few African nations these days). Currently, more than 350 species of birds and all of the Big Five, including its prolific lion population, inhabit the park.

Nott spends the beginning of our safari drive ignoring us. His eyes are glued to the red dirt road and periodically he stops, opens the door and stares down more intensely. I ask the Canadians what he is doing.

“He’s tracking,” Raija Murphy tells me. This is her second day on safari with John. “Looking for paw prints. Do you see anything John?”

“That female lioness from yesterday,” Nott grunts.

I think to myself, paw prints? Is she for real? Wow, that’s quite impressive. And accurate: within five minutes we’ve found the lioness and quite a few of her relatives, dozing underneath a thorn tree. I’m more than a little speechless. I ask Nott on how he got us to this very special moment.

“Well, we do have more than 80 lions here right now,” he says with a bit of a smirk. He’s got a sense of humour, Ranger Nott. “But seriously, I look for tracks. After tracks, I look for shapes. Never look at the green grass; it’s distracting. Instead search in the shadows. Besides, the big cats are not in the grass, they are in the shade under the trees.”

Again, I’m impressed. Especially considering our location and how quickly Nott found it. Over the next two days, I pick Nott’s brain on all things natural — from the weight and length of a giraffe at birth (100kg, 1.5m), to the scariest snakes in Madikwe.

“I’m most afraid of puffadders because they don’t move away when you get near them,” he says. “Their hunting style is to sit in perfect stillness, so if you are in their path and move your foot too close, they’ll bite in defense. The venom is really nasty. It causes your skin cells to die and rot, and the only way to stop it is to amputate. Then there’s the black mamba. If one of those gets you, you go ahead and find a nice shady spot, get your mate to bring you a few beers, and take out your phone and ring your mum to say ‘I love you and good-bye’ because that’s about all the time you’ve got with that snake. Some people have survived a mamba bite, but not many.”

Not only does Nott know his animal trivia, he also speaks passionately about conservation.

“I think overall Africa is becoming more conscious of conservation, and that’s particularly true with my generation,” he says on our last morning. “My classmates and I, we are a new age of kids who are more content with living in the bush and experiencing it and learning about it, than with making loads of money. I think conservation is so important. I want my kids to be able to experience something like this. If each person makes a small contribution, I believe it will amount to something. So that’s why I’m here, making my contribution.”

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