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South Africa

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Step out at Marataba in the Marakele National Park Waterberg

Guest wait for the release of Two Cheetahs from the white pickup on the far right.
Guests wait for the release of two Cheetahs from the white pickup on the far right.
Marataba’s elusive location in a hidden section of Marakele National Park makes it one of the most desirable safari destinations in Africa. Go totally off track to find nirvana in its Mountain Lodge and Thabametsi Treehouse. By Romi Boom
The released cheetahs wear collars so that they can be monitored.
The released cheetahs wear collars so that they can be monitored.

We have ringside seats, a fleet of Marataba safari vehicles lined up against the towering backdrop of the Waterberg. Half a dozen guides volunteer to offload two metal crates from a white pickup. When the humans are safely back in the vehicles, the felines’ release is imminent, the tension tangible. Growls and moans from the crates intensify. Some unhappy cats in there!

Two years ago, I was in almost the same spot, witness to another wildlife event that few visitors experiences. Dusk was upon us and André Uys, wildlife veterinarian and general manager of the Marataba section of Marakele National Park, had to move quickly. He had just arrived at the sighting of two male lions, one of which sported a magnificent dark mane.

Within minutes both lions were darted, their reactions to the vaccination procedure similar: standing up when the pickup got close, charging half-heartedly, then yelping as they felt the sting of the dart, and finally running off, nothing but their egos wounded. Their inoculation was proactive, following an outbreak of canine distemper at neighbouring Welgevonden.

Led by armed rangers, guided walks allows guests to to get that much closer to nature.
Led by armed rangers, guided walks allows guests to to get that much closer to nature.

Today, mid-afternoon, once again André’s white pickup, which looks nothing like the safari vehicle the animals have come to know and tolerate, pulled up, this time with a precious cargo of two cheetahs, about to be released on the plains in front of the main camp, Marataba Safari Lodge. Earlier I had been revelling in the sanctuary of my eco-suite, one of only five at the remote Mountain Lodge, following a guided morning walk along the Matlabas River, when the unexpected invitation came via our guide Roxanne Baker.

“Two cheetahs that have been kept in a boma on the property are being released at three. Do you want to watch?” The pair had been rescued from a farm in the area following a phone call that they had been trapped and were not welcome. By now they were sufficiently accustomed to their new environs to fend for themselves. The territory of the reserve’s other cheetahs was some distance away in the far northern section, so hopefully, these two would establish themselves without incident. All the cheetahs are GPS-collared and monitored for their own safety; a precaution in the event of breakouts.

Mountain Lodge has just five eco-suites, ensuring privacy and tranqullity.
Mountain Lodge has just five eco-suites, ensuring privacy and tranquillity.

And then it’s showtime! Both grids are lifted simultaneously and, within a flash, the first spotted pelt emerges. Seconds later it’s joined by another graceful outline. Two metres out, stealth in their every move, they stop dead in their tracks, scanning the surroundings. Barely a minute expires before they have summed up the state of affairs. With stray impala ahead, the stalk starts. A lightning charge, a missed opportunity, a separation, heart-rending wails and whimpers from a cheetah that’s lost its mate. “I’ve never heard anything like it,” whispers Roxy, an alumnus of the Marataba-based NJ More Field Guide College, quick to record the keening on her cellphone.

With a sigh of relief, we look on as they reunite, then lie down to rest. It’s time for us to resume our game drive, which turns out to be astonishingly productive. A breeding herd of elephant including the teeniest baby with hilarious attitude, white as well as black rhino, three lion cubs battling their hearts out to feast on a wildebeest carcass, grazing buffalo almost hidden in bleached grass, a lone lioness alongside the road, hoarding her meal, the remains to be handed down to a clan of hyenas, trying to hold their own against an entourage of black-backed jackals. And these were just the highlights!

“This weekend was a surprise for me,” says fellow guest Jacquie back at Mountain Lodge that evening. Their retreat had been blessed with such amazing sightings that she and partner Itumeleng declined both the afternoon game drive and the morning walk, opting to simply chill and bask in serenity before reconnecting with the thousand details of worldly things in Jozi.

The vast deck offers views in all directions.
The vast deck offers views in all directions.

Over three days in the lee of the mountains, travellers sync to a different drumbeat. It is easy to lose oneself in the diversity of ecosystems, landscapes, activities and conservation experiences, in the powerful presence of life itself. To use George Eliot’s phrase from Middlemarch, the “roar which lies on the other side of silence”.

“A safari is not only about the animals,” enthuses Yolandi Grobler, general manager. “It is also about simply being in a purely beautiful natural environment, and connecting to something far greater than yourself. You have to spend a night under the stars.”

Which was how I find myself checking into Thabametsi with nothing but an overnight bag. The treehouse is a space where you feel close to a universal power, with knockout accommodation. Visualise a six-metre-long deck for the dining and lounge area, a king size canopy bed, plus a lower level with full shower-room facilities. Yummy dining comes courtesy of a gourmet picnic basket, a hot meal and a lavish drinks trolley. Attention to detail, here as throughout the two lodges, is flawless.

“This is probably the furthest we’ve been from another human being,” avows prior guests, Cassandra and Nico from the United Kingdom. (Fear not: as a safety feature, there is radio contact with the lodge.) My mind flattens out, smoothed by stillness and privacy, the closest company a troupe of baboons cavorting against the sandstone cliffs. Chilled sundowners enhance the 360-degree view, hues of green morphed leisurely into purple until finally, the sunset flaunts a crimson cloak.

The next morning we heard that the cheetahs had been spotted at first light. Newcomers to these baked savanna and bushveld plains, they had successfully dodged the resident lions. Long may they play their role in the ecology of the park.

More info on the area of Waterberg More info on the Limpopo area


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