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Today we're kicking off a new series of recommendations for ultimate honeymoon escapes in Virgin Atlantic destinations. First up, an unforgettable and truly romantic safari adventure at Madikwe Hills Private Game Lodge in South Africa...
Where in the world
Madikwe Game Reserve is 75,000 hectares of untamed African bushveld, nudging up against the border with Botswana in North West Province. Teeming with wildlife, it's home to the Big Five and dozens of other mammals including black and white rhino and the extremely rare African wild dog, as well as more than 300 species of bird.
Despite being one of the nation's largest reserves, development has been closely monitored. Guests of Madikwe's high-end lodges have the place to themselves; day visitors are largely absent due to the distance from any major population centre, and the relative remoteness and sense of escape is a huge part of Madikwe's appeal.
Madikwe Hills is built upon a rocky outcrop with sweeping views over miles of open plain. The lodge was discreetly designed to blend almost imperceptibly into the surroundings - huge granite boulders are a major feature of the property, all of which were left completely undisturbed, even if it meant having to build around them as was the case in the double-height bar and some of the bathrooms.
Vast, well-spaced and utterly private glass-fronted suites are scattered across the hillside, camouflaged by tamboti-beamed thatch roofs. Wooden walkways lit by hurricane lamps criss-cross the grounds and connect the secluded suites to the central open-plan lounge, bar, wine cellar, library and dining area up the slope, where cooling fans make slow rotations and the giant twisted trunks of leadwood trees hold up the vaulted ceiling.
This is the beating heart of the lodge, selectively decked out with paintings and pottery, maps and magazines, telescopes, textiles, tea chests and travel trunks. Calabash-shaped lanterns hang from the rafters over the bar and low-lit table lamps brighten corner nooks. It's where we gather for turbo-charged coffees in the pre-dawn light before setting out on the early morning game drive, and reconvene for laid-back cooked breakfasts afterwards.
A few steps below, a large shady verandah looks out over the nearby watering hole. After a lazy morning we're back here for lunch, accompanied by bright yellow weaverbirds who swoop low over the small infinity pool and land in the trees above us. Elephants lift their trunks and blow sand across their scorching backs just a few dozen feet beyond our table. Later in the day we're back again, for a wine-fuelled, post-sunset dinner illuminated by nothing other than candelight and the stars above.
Accommodating just 24 guests, the lodge feels both exclusive and intimate; service is friendly rather than fawning, staff address you by name and you can be as sociable or as cut-off as you wish. The morning and evening game drives are the highlight of most people's stay at Madikwe but if you choose to stay rooted to your suite for the day, no-one will bat an eyelid. This is your honeymoon, after all.
What makes it special?
We love the suites, which are all supremely spacious and very hard to leave. A cosy living room with huge slate-clad chimney (snuggle up in front of an open fire on cooler nights) leads into a peaceful bedroom with gigantic pillow-strewn four-poster bed draped in generous layers of muslin, from where it's possible to lie and gaze in wonder as herds of wandering animals make their way to the watering hole.
Better still, throw open all the floor-to-ceiling windows and retreat to a sunbed in the shade of an acacia tree, or grab a towel and jump into your own personal plunge pool for the ultimate in relaxed game viewing - you'll be amazed at what passes by just a hundred feet or so from your deck; in the space of an hour we watched large groups of wildebeest, elephants and zebra come and go.
The candle-filled, cathedral-like bathrooms are ultra luxurious. A large deep tub takes centre stage in front of fold-back windows that reveal the same wilderness views and a cavernous step-up circular rain shower is built into the opposite wall - but that's not all. Just outside the far door is an open-air extension with a private, bamboo-enclosed outdoor shower (with hot water) perfect after prolonged plunge pool dips.
As the sun goes down, there's nothing better than a candelit bath open to the elements, accompanied by a soundtrack of whirring cicadas and the plaintive call of some unfamiliar bush bird. Some nights, you may even find a freshly run bath when you return to your room, a trail of rose petals leading the way. If you manage to nab Madikwe's honeymoon suite, there's an extra special treat in store - a claw-foot bath tub built into a well-concealed outdoor corner for secluded soaks under African skies. There is absolute privacy here, and it really is quite a feat to tear yourself away for the game drives...
Beyond the lodge
Aside from the pleasures of the lodge itself, the game drives are the undisputed highlight of any visit to Madikwe Hills. Even being woken at 4.30am can't quell the enthusiasm and anticipation. Jumping into the back of the 4 x 4 and heading out the gates as the first streaks of pale pink appear on the horizon is a magical experience, made even more exciting by sudden stops and off-road turns when your ranger or tracker spots something interesting.
If you're lucky you'll see everything you came here to see, and your ranger and tracker will go out of their way to make it happen. Close to the end of our drive one morning, we got word of a leopard far away on the other side of the reserve. Did we want to go for it? Of course we did, and moments later we were pelting through the bush in hot pursuit, bumping over rocks and leaning inwards to avoid thorn trees, hanging on for dear life.
As the sun set on another drive we sat, spellbound, as a lioness lazed in the fading light with her five cubs playing around her. We saw a four-hour old elephant cross its first road and pursued a pack of wild dogs on a kill. We watched a pack of vultures attack the remains of a recently-deceased hippo, learned about the complexities of a termite mound and discovered why red-billed oxpeckers feed off the ticks on a kudu. This is the real deal; no-holds-barred safari country where nothing is laid on - or taken away - for tourists. Because of this, just being here is an incredibly stirring, moving experience.
Madikwe Game Reserve is a straightforward 4-hour drive from Johannesburg, though many opt for the quick domestic flight to Madikwe's airstrip, where you'll be met and escorted to the lodge. Madikwe is a malaria-free reserve so there's no need for pills.
All meals are included in your stay, as are two game drives per day and the services and expertise of a designated ranger and tracker.
Evening meals are generally taken as a group with your ranger and tracker, though you are welcome to dine in private on your deck. Prices start at around £360 pp per night in low season, though various free night offers are available - contact Virgin Holidays for details.
And don't miss our interview with Madikwe Hills ranger Jacques Snyman for the lowdown on life in the bush.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.