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Lions, Leopards, and the Safari of a Lifetime at Madikwe

If you want to get away from the crowds and see the Big Five, there’s no place more stunning for a South African safari than the malaria-free Madikwe.

he young male lion with an already-impressive mane lowers himself onto his female companion, a powerfully built lioness nearly as big as him. Then he begins, thrusting away as a dozen cameras shutter and whir, sometimes clawing her back if the female is not in the right position. Each paroxysm of pleasure elicits roars in miniature, creating a series of noises akin to those of an over-enthusiastic and congested frat bro. And the lion lasts just about as long.

Out of the myriad reasons in my life that I’ve sprung out of bed at 5 a.m., watching lions have sex over and over again was not one I could have predicted. Yet here I was.

It’s on my second day of game drives, in Madikwe Game Reserve on the Botswanaborder, that this “do it how they do it on the Discovery Channel” moment occurs. When I began planning my South Africa trip this winter, I asked the folks at Go2Africa (one of the region’s best-rated travel companies) to find me a Kruger alternative for a safari. One of our main goals at The Daily Beast is getting our readers away from the crowds, and their suggestion of Madikwe (which is also malaria-free) could not have been better.

The landscape is beautiful, the park’s roads uncrowded, and the animals are plentiful (I saw all of the Big Five: lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo, and rhino). Plus, the lodge they recommended, Royal Madikwe, ended up being a magical and intimate place.

Gavin Tonkinson

My journey began in Cape Town, or rather our journey, as I was with my sister. After a painless flight to Johannesburg (I flew Safair throughout the country) we picked up our car and hit the road for the three-and-a-half hour drive to the game park. (Note to readers: you can take the more convenient but pricey charter flight from the airport directly into Madikwe. You can also fly into Gaborone in Botswana, which is only 30 minutes away from Madikwe. So long as it's during the daytime, the border is painless.)

It was my first trip with my sister—a stress test of tenuous bonds we had built up as adults after a childhood at loggerheads. (I’m the oldest of five, a place in birth order that proved an intractable source of tension.)

While being excessively deferential, as neither wanted to be the party that escalated any stressful moment, we learned that South Africa has endless numbers of speed cameras, and their tolls don’t take foreign credit cards. Also never trust Google Maps here if it takes you off the main highway.

Thanks to one of those “shortcuts,” after racing a rainstorm on cratered backroads (we did not want to be caught in a deluge on dirt roads in our Toyota Corolla)—and realizing that the trucks that kept circling back to peer into our car as they drove by were anti-poaching units—we arrived at Madikwe, greeted by a handful of zebra who felt no need to move quickly to let us by.

While it’s the fifth-largest game reserve in South Africa, Madikwe remains one of its lesser known ones (only having roughly 30 lodges). Clocking in at roughly 750 square kilometers, it’s bush as far as one can see, broken by solitary mountains and trees that have somehow survived elephants and lightning. Created in the early 1990s, the park is famous not only for being an under-the-radar spot to see African wildlife, but also for its unique position as a transition zone as it borders the Kalahari Desert.

My home in the park was Royal Madikwe, a charming stucco luxury eco-lodge with a thatched roof that has its own watering hole, which guarantees you’ll see any number of species without ever leaving your room or dining table.

When I asked other guests of the lodge why they chose it, they all answered along the same lines. They wanted something luxurious but intimate, and everything they had read led them right to Royal Madikwe. The staff was incredible. Every meal was delicious, and when we checked out, one of the workers had changed out a flat tire we hadn’t noticed, without us even asking. The guests were also keen on finding a place that was malaria-free and had a reputation for ensuring you see all the major species. (Prices are roughly $800-1,1000 a night, which includes food, drink, and the game drives.)

Royal MadikweCourtsey of Go2Africa

And the lodge’s driver, TJ, was our enthusiastic sure-bet and a godsend for a nerd like me who loved every bit of animal trivia.

Lions, for instance, have sex every 15-20 minutes for a period of three to four days and each session lasts less than a minute. When the male pulls out, his penis has barbs that catch the female each time, and thus occasionally female lions will take a swipe at him because of the pain. Sadly, for the lions we were watching, the female lioness was too old to get pregnant, so was going through this painful cycle over and over for no purpose. (She would even roll onto her back after he pulled out to increase chances of fertilization.)

Other fun facts: While a kudu’s horns are magnificent, experienced lionesses will drive them into a thicket because their horns get caught.

Elephants are wanton destroyers of trees (and for humans, they are sometimes the most dangerous creatures on safari). Oh, and even from 50 yards away, a male elephant in must smells like the combination of a hockey locker room and adult theater. Big male lions will go for the testicles of a giraffe because then they can overpower it. Cape buffalo are mean creatures (their nickname among hunters is Widowmaker) and are known to seek out and kill lion cubs to prevent future predators.