Written by: Andy Skillen
The waters of the Marico River idle their way along beneath crimson tamboti leaves. Walking beside the river, I pause to listen to babblers gossiping, and to smile as an over-dressed barbet flits through the shade. Far above me, an azure sky peeks through the gaps in the canopy, and I realise that I can only be in one place: Jaci’s Safari Lodge in the magical Madikwe Game Reserve.
This thriving corner in the northwest of South Africa is one of the greatest conservation success stories ever told. Its Kalahari sands and cotton soils, kopjes and inselbergs, forests and bushveld provide a startling diversity of habitats, which in turn makes it one of the most rewarding safari and photographic experiences anywhere in Southern Africa.
On this occasion, I had come to the reserve to seek out some of the specialities that such environments can provide – with a focus on den activity as winter was setting in and hyenas were giving birth to their young. After arriving from the UK to spend ten days at Jaci’s, I set out on my first morning, lenses primed, in the hope of bumping into some of the more elusive denizens and capturing them on camera.
The wind may have been biting as we headed north but spirits were high as we had heard of hyena den activity in a couple of places. We eventually tracked down one of the sites as the sun started to creep over the eastern mountains and illuminate the sand like a floodlight fills a stadium. As we bushwhacked our way through the scrub, looking intently for the den itself, we caught sight of a pair of pointed ears; backlit and unidentifiable, but definitely mammalian.
We repositioned our vehicle so as to keep a discreet distance and not cause any disturbance. I lay flat, peered through the viewfinder and there, staring back down the barrel of a 600mm lens was not the brown hyena we had hoped for, but something far, far rarer: an aardwolf. I took my head away, stared at my guide, Obi, who had an equally dumbstruck look on his face, and then remembered to take photos!
I think I must have repeated, “I can’t believe it!” for the next hour as we watched this elusive insectivore warm itself on top of its den after a busy night of termite collecting. To see an aardwolf is normally the holy grail, and usually occurs fleetingly – at a distance and at the edge of a night-drive spotlight. To see one relaxed on a den site, allowing me a couple of changes of camera angle, was nothing short of miraculous.
When we finally left the site, you would have needed a hammer and chisel to remove the grin from my face. Magical Madikwe indeed…