First time travellers to South Africa often find themselves having to make the tough choice of choosing a wildlife conservation area to visit during their stay. The choices are endless really, Kruger Park, the private reserves adjacent to Kruger Park, Pilanesberg, Madikwe, Kgalagadi National Park and and and… The questions of “which is better, Kruger Park or Pilanesberg?” or “How does Madikwe Differ from the Kgalagadi?” are often posed to me by guests when out on some of my guided tours and in email during the planning phases of these trips.
It is also a common question raised on a number of travel forums on the web and, having guided in a number of these conservation areas over the years, one would think that it would be easy for me to provide an outright answer in favour of one area… but that is not the case.
You see, its just not that simple, each area has its own unique attractions, vegetation, climate, wildlife, lodges, operational procedures. These are just a few of the factors that contribute to the overall appeal of an area. What I can do though, is highlight the advantages and disadvantages of each of the reserves, which would make it a lot easier for you to decide which of these magnificent conservation areas would best suite your needs, expectations, and budget. I will hopefully make this a monthly post in the Destinations category over the next couple of months as I look comparing the following:
- Madikwe vs. Pilanesberg
- Kruger National Park vs. Madikwe
- South Africa vs Botswana
I have kept the areas to those which I have personal experience with but will be looking into getting guest posts from people in the Natal and Eastern Cape Regions as well. Please feel free to contact me and let me know if there are any other areas that you would like to compare and I will see what I can do.
Location & Getting There
The Madikwe Game Reserve is situated against the Botswana border, around four hours drive from both Johannesburg and Pretoria. Madikwe has two airstrips (one in the East which is currently being upgraded and tarred, and a gravel strip in the West). Access to the eastern side of the reserve is via the Molatedi or Derdepoort Gates and includes a section of approximately 30km on gravel road. Access to the West is via Abjaterskop, Wonderboom or Tau Gates and is almost exclusively on good quality tar roads via the small town of Zeerust.
Access to the Kruger National Park and the surrounding Private Game reserves is all via good quality tar road with a number of routes available depending on the location of the specific lodge. By road this can take anywhere from 5 (southern sections) to 8 hours (northern sections). Scheduled flights depart from ORT international for either Nelspruit or Eastgate Airport just outside of Hoedspruit, with the option of private charter flights which will land at lodge specific airstrips throughout the region.
A Brief History
Kruger National Park and the Associated Private Nature Reserves
At this point it is important that we differentiate between the greater Kruger National Park (KNP) and the so called Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) which are effectively fenced into Kruger National Park. Collectively, the APNR represents around 1,800 square kilometres (180,000 ha) of land dedicated to conservation. The fences between Kruger National Park and the APNR were removed in 1993 effectively increasing the size of the Kruger National Park. The majority of luxurious commercial lodges are in fact located in the APNR portion of KNP, with only a handful being located on private concessions in the greater KNP. Effectively, the area is an amalgamation of many privately owned pieces of land which vary in size. Each of the lodges in this area have specific traversing agreements with their neighbours with concessions ranging in size from just a couple of hundred hectares, to a couple of thousand hectares.
Madikwe Game Reserve was officially announced to the public in August 1991 and is now one of South Africa’s largest game reserves. Madikwe 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. The reserve consists of vast plains of open woodlands and grasslands, dissected by the rugged Rant van Tweedepoort, and bordered in the south by the Dwarsberg Mountains. The area is dotted with huge rocky hills, known as inselbergs. The entire reserve has been enclosed in a 150 km perimeter fence which has been electrified to prevent the escape of elephants and the larger predators.
In order to compare apples with apples, we will be comparing the APNR and some of the other smaller private Game Reserves in the general region of the Kruger National Park with Madikwe Game Reserve.
The wildlife experience
The lowveld region of South Africa is renowned for its sightings of the Big 5. Elephants, Buffalo, Lions and Leopard are seen regularly in this region with cheetah, white Rhino and wild dog seen less frequently. The large herds of Buffalo, numbering in the hundreds, and relaxed Elephants are definitely a highlight of this region.
General game sightings however are somewhat different to those experienced in other parts of the country. Impala occur in large numbers and along with buffalo, form the main prey base for predators in this region. In general, sightings of Zebra and Wildebeest are restricted to the larger open areas and are not seen regularly whilst out on drive.
It is interesting to note that as a result of the concessions and traversing agreements between lodges in the APNR that sometimes you might find yourself in a sighting following a pride of lions down a road until you reach a point where your guide will no longer be able to stick with the animals as they have moved onto property where he is not allowed to traverse! Always enquire about the total area that a lodge has traversing rights with to avoid this sort of situation from happening.
Madikwe’s game viewing is of a very high standard, aided by the fact that all guides are in radio contact with one another, and provides regular sightings of zebra, Impala, wildebeest, giraffe, warthog, white rhino, lion, wild dog, elephant, white rhino, brown hyena, and spotted hyena. Leopard sightings in Madikwe have always been a topic of discussion but the sightings are becoming a lot more frequent as individuals are becoming more relaxed with the presence of vehicles in the area. Along with Buffalo and Black Rhino, Leopard are now seen fairly regularly in the reserve.
Sightings in both areas are generally limited to a maximum of 3 vehicles in order to maintain the feeling of exclusivity and to ensure the animals’ well being. Overall, and this is a personal opinion, I would say that Madikwe offers far better general game viewing (and is probably one of the best reserves to view white rhino); with differences in sighting frequency for elephants, and lions being negligible; whilst the APNR definitely dominates in the frequency and quality of Leopard and Buffalo sightings.
Accommodation options in this region range from small intimate bush camps with no electricty, to luxury lodges of varying size, right through to the much larger hotel type establishments. Rates range from around R 1 500.00 pp/night sharing to in excess of R 8 000.00 pp/night sharing. These rates usually include two guided game activities (walks or drives) per day, accommodation, all meals, and depending on the lodge, all local beverages and house wines.
Some examples of lodges:
Accommodation options in Madikwe are dominated by luxurious private lodges ranging in size from 10 to 60 beds, including a very comfortable bush camp (with no electricity or running water). Prices range from around R 1 500.00 pp/night sharing for the bush camp, right up to in excess of R 8 000.00 pp/night sharing for some of the more exclusive camps. These rates usually include two guided game activities (walks or drives) per day, accommodation, all meals, and depending on the lodge, all local beverages and house wines.
Some examples of lodges:
How long should I stay for?
Due to the sheer size of the Kruger National Park region one could easily start with a camp located in the northern section of the KNP for 2/3 nights and then move down the one of the lodges in APNR for another 3/4 nights. The size of the area and diversity of vegetation and habitat types ensures that you wouldn’t get bored in this region over the period of several days. The distance from JHB makes it very difficult to justify spending less than 3 nights (2 nights at a push) in this region though.
Madikwe on the other hand is much smaller and less diverse then KNP and the APNR. Its proximity to JHB makes it ideal for a quick 2 night getaway but ideally I would recommend 3 or 4 nights to really relax and appreciate the stark beauty of this region.
Which one should I choose?
Essentially, the two biggest factors in deciding which of these conservation areas is best suited for you will boil down to your budget and time that you have available. The standard of lodges in both Madikwe and the APNR are great and I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed with the overall experience. Both areas are great for first time visitors with Madikwe being my choice for those interested in seeing large numbers of general game, lions, elephant and rhino. The APNR on the other hand would be the preferred option for those seeking big game such as Lion, Buffalo, Elephant and Leopard.
From a Photography perspective, both areas provide excellent photographic opportunities. My choice would be the APNR as the vegetation in Madikwe (and again, this is a generalisation) makes it pretty difficult to compose an image that does not contain any visual distractions behind your subject.
If you have any additional words of wisdom to add, please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the post. Also, if you require additionall information or would like assistance with putting together a tailormade itinerary to either of these parks, please contact me directly.