Madikwe, Nature, Travel, Explore, Outdoors

Madikwe: of dogged design and respectful renewal

Recently revamped, the Morukuru Family Madikwe bush homes elegantly embody the reserve’s rewilding.

Pivot. Lockdown. Coronacoaster. Unprecedented times. Our vocabulary sure boomed in the Zoom times of our virus-riddled world. Of all of these, I hope one phrase remains. Building back better. 

Last year in August, The New York Times declared that regenerative travel is the new sustainable travel. In his recent documentary, ‘David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet’, the incomparable voice of conservation endorsed the same statement and plugged rewilding as the most impactful way to restore global biodiversity. 

Within these realms of wilderness rehabilitation, Madikwe Game Reserve is ahead of the game. Pretty amazing when you consider that just three decades ago, it had none at all. 

When denatured farmland proved unprofitable, the Settlement Planning Services of the Government of South Africa commissioned and conducted a comprehensive study to answer one crucial question: “how can we use 18 downtrodden cattle farming areas to increase the Northwest Province’s wealth?”

It turned out, the most efficient (and wealth-building) form of land-use for this area was wildlife-based ecotourism. The only thing required was some, er, wildlife. 

Over several years during the early 1990s, more than 8000 animals of 28 species were reintroduced to the newly established Madikwe Game Reserve, including entire elephant herds, cheetah, spotted hyena, an array of antelope, plus a pack of wild dogs. Dubbed Operation Phoenix, this grand transit would prove to be the largest wildlife relocation project of its kind in the world. 

Madikwe doesn’t allow self-drive safaris or day visitors like its nearby park, Pilanesberg. To enjoy the rewards of this rewilding, I would need to check into one of 16 lodges scattered across the restored wildlife sanctuary. And I did.

Four hours after departing Johannesburg, we excitedly entered Madikwe’s Molatedi Gate to savour a few precious days in the proverbial lap of luxury. Perched on the fringes of the desert Kalahari and bordering Botswana, walking into the recently revamped Morukuru Family Madikwe bush home was the closest I’d gotten to crossing countries in almost a year. Yet, despite standing firmly in South Africa, I was treated like an honourable international guest upon crossing the threshold into Morukuru’s Owner’s House.

Named for the dark-skinned Morukuru (the local Setswana name for Tamboti) trees prevalent in the area, Morukuru Family Madikwe is a collection of three exclusive-use villas spread over a private concession within the reserve.

Each elegant residence operates as a private villa – mine was Owner’s House – with a dedicated hospitality team. Bush outings were expertly handled by field guide Evan Vermeulen and tracker Ephraim Mathebula (“but you can call me Gummy”), while three-course meals (think: plump and flaky trout salad, bouncy honey cake and even flame-grilled frittatas served in the bush) were deftly prepared by chef Asion Mathebula.

Simultaneously, every whim was catered to by the discreet yet ever-present butler, Evanz Marope, or hostess, Ilse Vermeulen – who always looked charming in her Marion and Lindie uniform (a welcome change from safari’s typical khaki gear). 

The best part about booking your own home in the bush, I discovered, was flexibility. We traded afternoon game drives for golden-hour bubble baths and swopped sun-drenched walking safaris for an afternoon spa. We could also spend an entire day out exploring Madikwe if we wanted to, having Evan and Gummy translate the land. 

They pointed to old water reservoir ruins that signposted the reserve’s farming history and went even further back in time, outlining the Dwarsberg Hills that host ancient iron and copper mines, plus evidence of many Iron Age stone-built settlements. Madikwe, we learned, is also the site of many battles, most famously between King Mzilikazi and the Voortrekkers.

Back at our base, but only after the aforementioned candle-lit outdoor bath, a lively firepit and grilled dinner awaited within the walls of an impressive boma. 

The labyrinthine design came to life when the wind whirled, sending the wooden bars aflutter like an enormous set of bamboo wind chimes that sounded the call for bedtime.

Owner’s House and River House are connected by a wooden boardwalk that wanders below a forested cove formed by the Tamboti trees that clad the Marico River banks. It’s a markedly lush oasis setting compared to the rest of the arid plains that make up Madikwe. Structurally sound, the two 15-year-old buildings recently underwent a major interior refurbishment to the touch of Fox Browne Creative’s fantastic design wand. 

The style of River House takes its colour scheme from the verdant greenery that envelopes the shaded dwelling. The chosen palette at Owner’s House is coincidentally (or, more complimentarily, likely thanks to a head for trends) a nod to Pantone’s two selected colours of the year

Ultimate Gray and Illuminating Yellow even occupy the table in the glassware, cutlery, crockery and linen napkins. Elsewhere, I spied notable contemporary South African design pieces by the likes of Douglas and Douglas, Doktor and Misses, Tonic Design, plus custom creations sparked by the region’s rich cultural landscape. 

Contemporary, cosy and uncluttered, the redesign at both homes is chiefly modelled on the colouring and mottled coats of African Wild Dogs, whose reintroduction (and consequent tribulations in living with lions) initially made Madikwe so famous.

In my bedroom, the pride of place is granted to an enormous hand-woven headboard inspired by traditional Tswana baskets. Behind that, a ceiling-to-floor backdrop of stained-glass cupboard doors drapes the wall in mutt-like shades of mustard, biscuit and russet brown. 

Just like this furniture, each considered element at Morukuru Family’s bush homes incorporates the land. Trunks of the Tamboti tree weave through the eaves of the thatched roof. The wind is not buffered from the boma but invited in, keeping the fires aflame. Such renewal speaks to the spirit of Madikwe, of building back better.

Born, bred and based in Johannesburg, Melanie van Zyl is an adventurous travel photojournalist and destination photographer with a soft spot for responsible travel and sharing the environment sustainably with the wild world. Find her here.

Words: Melanie van Zyl
Production: Mila Crewe-Brown and Martin Jacobs
Images: Dook and Melanie van Zyl

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