Lion Sex, 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.
The 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 Botswana border, 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.
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.)
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.
Impala are quite elegant until they walk and then they look like somebody walking in heels for the first time as they attempt drag. Guinea fowl would have fit right into the Victorian era with their colorful bustle.
While white rhinos are huge in every way (I will never unsee the fountain that was a female rhino poo-ing right in front of me) the smaller black rhino is far more dangerous, and we were fortunate to see both up close. Male dung beetles roll essentially perfectly spherical dung balls while the females chill on top doing nothing. Cheetahs are beautiful but pathetic because everybody beats up on them. The oxpecker will alert the buffalo to potential predators.
I learned I’m pretty bloodthirsty. Every skittish lone impala had me looking into the tall grass hoping for a pride of lionesses jumping out to slaughter it. On our last night we came across two male cheetahs at dusk deciding whether or not to chase down the wildebeest in the distance. I could barely contain myself with the anticipation they might.
Oh, and leopards are just everything. It was day four of our safari. We’d seen lots of lions, elephants (even been charged by one), rhinos, buffalo, kudu, hyena, cheetah, zebras, giraffes, warthogs, wildebeest, and lots of impala. But we hadn’t seen leopard.
Please, TJ, a leopard.
Working with the guides at other lodges, one of the male leopards in the park (the more relaxed one, known for not being bothered by humans) was spotted. Off we raced, and then for 25 minutes we jostled and revved and held on for dear life as we plowed through the exploding bush (it rained every night we were there) alongside a full grown male leopard as he gracefully trotted alongside. Mesmerizing would be the most apt word. They are just mesmerizing, and make you feel silly for finding a cheetah beautiful. Although... from head to tail the leopard is a magnificent creature, but I have to admit the whole car found his perky set of caramel-colored testicles jutting out above his behind a jarring break from the sleek physique.
Out of all the animals that make up prey in the park, I found the kudu the most majestic, and they also happened to be on the menu frequently. I have no idea if a kudu burger tastes all that different from a cow. My palate may be discriminating but it isn’t always discerning. But sitting on the back porch of Royal Madikwe with my sister at sunset, watching the herd of elephants slosh around in the watering hole right in front of us, made it one of the best I’ve ever had.