This week we were lucky enough to spend two nights in Marakele National Park near Thabazimbi, South Africa. We heard about it from a friend who has been there recently and he highly recommended it saying it is a beautiful area. He mentioned game spotting was scarce however the idea of staying in a Big 4 park (they don’t have buffalo at this stage) in an unfenced camp was very appealing to us.
The park is divided into two sections by a public road that goes straight down the middle and getting from one side to the other is done via an automatic gate and driving through a small tunnel (they call it the subway) under the road. As I understand it, the western part has no large game with the exception of white rhino which likes to visit the camp site and graze on the grass around the tents, mindless of the campers.
The rates weren’t bad at all, it worked out to about R450(ZAR) per person/night in the Tlopi tented camp. This excludes conservation fees which were R80(ZAR) for both of us for the three days.
Because Jenece worked that morning, I headed out to Pilanesburg Airport to pick her up before driving up to Thabazimbi for our mini holiday. The road was an absolute pleasure to drive on. Being a Sunday, there was no traffic to speak of and the road itself was very well maintained.
Arriving at Marakele, the check-in was quick and very professional. The friendly staff answered all our questions, provided the map we asked for and booked us on a game drive for the following night.
The first thirty minutes in the park made for incredible game spotting with multiple herds of Impala, Zebra, Kudu and even a White Rhino and her calf grazing not far from the road. The rest of the drive to the Subway had many more spotting opportunities and after noticing a gentle waft (actually it outright stank!) of decay, we surveyed the bush a bit more and discovered a Kudu carcass. It was too far away to work out what had happened to the animal.
Once through the Subway we started the climb up into the moutains. Some of the road was tar while the rest was dirt road. We hardly saw anything in this part of the park on that first day. That side is about 66,000 hectares and there are very few roads (one or two loops and a handful of 4×4 only tracks).
We arrived at the Tlopi camp and were pleasantly surprised. We stayed in Dabchick which is the fourth or fifth tent into the camp. All tents rested on a raised deck right at the waters edge of a small dam. We had a seperate kitchen which was fully equipped and the living part of the tent had a shower, toilet, basin and mirror. The beds were firm and very comfortable. For some reason, our large fridge was in the bedroom and not in the kitchen where you’d expect it to be but we made that work for us. The built-in braai is large and comes with a grill which is cleaned every morning by the camp staff.
We lit the fire for our evening braai and sat on the deck, listening to the thousands of frogs and watching the sun set. The view from our camp was truly amazing.
The wind picked up quite a bit in the evening so although it was a comfortable sleep, the canvas sides did make a fair bit of noise and woke me up several times thinking there was a herd of something running around. Talk about imagination!
We rose before sunrise the next day as we wanted to take a drive up the mountain to see some of their eight hundred breeding pairs of various vultures. There was some low cloud around but we decided to chance it anyway.
Again there wasn’t much game to be seen until we started our ascent when we saw lots of Klipspringer and even a Mountain Reedbuck. It was an interesting drive upwards, the hill is quite steep and the road very narrow. If there had been another car travelling in the opposite direction, one of us would have had to navigate the hill backwards for a good couple hundred meters until reaching on of the overtake spots.
I dont do well with heights at all, so I kept my eyes on the road and the road only. We made it up safely! We couldn’t see far at all once on the top so there were no vultures to be seen or view to be appreciated due to the cloud. As luck would have it, the cloud had moved off by the time we got to the bottom again. Due to the location of that peak, there are quite a few radio masts up there that you need to navigate through to get to the parking area. There is a foot path that takes you off, I’m assuming, to where the vultures can be seen, unfortunately due to the weather we didn’t follow it too far.
The rest of that day, which we spent driving around game spotting was fairly uneventful. When I say uneventful, we did have some nice sightings, however they were few and far between. We spent most of our drive talking about places we’d been, places we wanted to go and admiring the breath taking scenery around us. I have always wanted to visit the Waterberg Mountains and on this, my first trip, they certainly didn’t disappoint.
We got back to the camp at about four to get ready and wait for our game driver who was going to fetch us at the camp. He arrived ten minutes early and politely waited with the vehicle just out of site until we were ready.
Tinyiko introduced himself, briefed us on the drive and we set off. We followed one of the loops we’d driven during the day however it was by far one of the most informative drives I have been on in years. After having travelled only a few kilometres we had stopped a number of times and spoken about various specific trees and plants. We spotted a tiny Leopard Tortoise which he spoke about and also tested our knowledge on various aspects. Tinkyo didn’t just explain things to us, he taught us and for that I am truely grateful. He became aware of what we did know and worked with that, expanding our knowledge. He made us a small rope out of bark, explained the various herbal remedies of the plants we saw and of each bush or tree, gave us a souvenir of some sort. Unfortunately the monkeys the following morning ran off with all of them!
We came across a herd of Zebra and not far behind it was a large herd of Eland too. We couldn’t see them too clearly so we drove a little further and our guide allowed us to get off the vehicle and he walked us through the bush to try and get a closer look. I can honestly say there is nothing better than three people walking together through the bush as the sun is setting on the horizon. Thank you Tanyiko!
Unfortunately the herds stampeded off before we got to see them, so we spoke about a dry wallow we came across and made our way back to the vehicle. When we got back, not 200 metres away was a White Rhino and her calf grazing next to the road. We were allowed to quietly sit on the rocks opposite our vehicle and watch as they crossed the road and grazed closer to us.
This was where our trip took a heart breaking turn. On closer inspection and making use of the 400mm lens, our guide informed us that the mother had in fact been shot. We could see the wound nor far behind her right eye and the blood running down her face. He informed us that the poachers were now using .22 rifles as they were quieter and a well placed shot could bring down a rhino. She was still walking around fine but was clearly not happy. By this stage they had not only noticed us, but were also becoming agitated so we made our way back to the vehicle. Tanyiko phoned one of the rangers, reported our position and what we’d seen so they could come and take a look, then we continued on our drive.
Later during the drive we came to an area we had been earlier where there was the stink of a rotting carcass. On our own we had tried to find it but had no luck. Tanyiko had no trouble, once again, letting us off the vehicle to try and find and identify the carcass. It took us a good fifteen minutes covering a small area before we actually found the dead Eland stuck away in a dense thicket. The smell was something out of this world! I couldn’t get close enough to even look at it and had to rely on the pictures Jenece took.
We made our way back to the vehicle, stopping briefly to talk about the Spotted Hyena tracks we found and continued on our drive. From there on we didn’t spot much of anything else, however, when our guide spotted some Leopard tracks we took a slight detour to try and find it. No luck there.
Tanyiko, I would like to extend a personal thank you for a very informative and exciting drive. That is the best drive I’ve been on in many years. Thank you very much!
The next morning we had some fun with a raiding troop of Vervet Monkeys. Now, when I say “we”, I mean I was having good fun taking photos and watching Jenece swear at them for stealing our sugar and chasing them out of the kitchen. You couldn’t turn your back on them for a second before they were darting in and licking the remains of the sugar off the floor and railing. Unfortunately there was no way to keep them out of the kitchen as the structure itself had many gaps for them. I even found a little monkey in our bathroom who dashed into the living area, stole a bread roll and high-tailed it out of there.
After that little adventure we packed our things, loaded the car and took a slow drive back to the main gate.
While our sightings were few and far between, we definitely saw quite a bit. The area is beautiful, the staff friendly and we’ve decided we’ll definitely be back (in January in fact).
I wouldn’t recommend going to Marakele if you have young children. The camps have the potential to be dangerous, as they are not fenced, and they dont really cater for children. For a romantic (self-catered) getaway I would highly recommend the Tlopi Tented Camp, both beautiful and peaceful.