Join Huntington residents in South Africa’s Waterberg Biosphere and learn why safari is the trip of a lifetime
One of the coolest things about being on a safari is you actually realize where you are. After 22 hours on a plane and three more in a car, when I finally arrived at the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve, I was looking forward to a short car ride to our lodge and a long shower. Make no mistake about it; traveling halfway across the world can be tiring. After being greeted at the reserve’s gate by one of the lodge’s game rangers, my wife and I jumped in an open-topped Land Rover for what promised to be a quick run to Makweti, one of several safari lodges inside the Reserve. About five minutes into the trip, the Land Rover came to an abrupt halt, and we were advised to look to our left. Twenty yards away, an enormous male lion lay under a tree, its tail switching back and forth lazily. My first instinct was to lock the door and roll up the window, but unfortunately the Rover had neither. When I realized that the only thing separating me from this 400- pound killing machine was his temperament, I started to understand the power of a safari to amaze. I also realized that I wasn’t tired anymore. Looking at this particular lion—one of several male lions in the Reserve—really put things in perspective. Seeing an animal that powerful and magnificent up close at the zoo is a truly remarkable experience; seeing him in his own natural habitat is something else entirely. Your first thought is “Whoa, I’m not in Long Island anymore.” Your second thought is, “If he’s just hanging around here, I wonder what other highly dangerous and scary animals are also roaming around unsupervised?” When you get beyond your initial fear, amazement, and joy you really start to appreciate the fact that you are experiencing something truly unique: seeing wildlife in its real, natural habitat. Looking at that lion was like looking into the past . . . the scene we were staring at would have been the same 10,000 years ago. That’s a feeling you’re not going to get on a typical beach vacation.
QUEST FOR CONSERVATION
The trip from Long Island to South Africa’s Limpopo province is a long one, but not unfamiliar to Dawn and Alan Kisner, owners of Makweti Safari Lodge and our hosts for the trip. South African natives who now call Huntington home, the Kisners’ love of their native land inspired them to build a safari lodge. “Alan and I built Makweti with a conservation ethic in mind. The mission was to return a natural balance for wildlife and for people,” says Dawn. “We were born in South Africa, and although the United States is our home we have maintained a love for all that is wild and wanted to contribute in some way to saving this beautiful area in its pristine state for future generations to enjoy.” Located about three hours north of Johannesburg, the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve lies deep in the Waterberg Mountains. This terrain is “mountain bushveld,” which makes it unlike many other safari spots in Africa: Its high altitude and temperate climate offer both stunning views and a malaria-free environment.
The Welgevonden reserve is roughly 200,000 acres in size, and characterized by stunning rocky ravines and majestic gorges. Home to more than 50 different species of mammal, the reserve boasts a diversity of habitat that not only includes the “Big Five” (elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo, leopard) but also 300 bird species, and the largest private populations of white rhino in the world. Welgevonden is one of the most carefully managed private game reserves in the world, and is an intricate part of the Waterberg Biosphere. It is important to note that the reserve is more than just a home to high-end safari lodges; as part of the Waterberg Biosphere, the entire reserve contributes to the sustainability of the animal species within it—and the land itself. Each lodge within the Reserve is deeply committed to supporting the research, monitoring, and information exchange vital to promoting conservation, and Makweti is no exception. “Safari exposes you to nature and an environment that is extremely fragile and threatened by overpopulation, pollution, and global warming,” says Dawn. “To have the opportunity to visit and experience an area such as this creates an awareness of the world’s dwindling natural resources.” As part of the Reserve, Makweti is committed to many ongoing projects including an endangered-wildlife trust program, elephant and lion conversation projects, and leopard research led by the University of Pretoria.
Of course, the best part of being inside a real African biosphere is seeing the animals, and that is what the safari experience is all about. The fact that today’s safari hunting is done with a camera rather than a rifle and scope makes it no less exciting. The thrill of the safari is truly in the hunt, and guests get up early for their chance to spot the wildlife. A day at Makweti begins at first light, which is known as “sparrows.” There is barely enough time to get dressed, grab your camera, binoculars, and coffee, and get in the Land Rover. The first “game drive” is the perfect time to catch nocturnal animals such as leopard, buffalo, and brown hyena. The air is cool and crisp in the Land Rover, as your eyes struggle to adjust to the dark. Although we were lucky to experience a lion sighting within our first 10 minutes in the reserve, our first game sighting that morning was no less spectacular: a herd of zebra darting in front of our Land Rover, running at full speed. The drive continued across dirt tracks through the reserve, where we spotted more zebra, some bush pigs (so ugly they are kind of cute, a la Yoda), and our second of the Big Five: a beautiful herd of buffalo grazing on a plain while keeping a watchful eye out for predators. Our ranger kept up a constant stream of information on the reserve and the animals we were seeing, even stopping to pick up a gigantic bug or two from the road and pass it around. Let’s just say that even though I grew up in downtown Manhattan, the majority of the African coleopteran I witnessed could take any New York City roach in a fight. Before you know it, it’s time to find a good place to stop and have a coffee break in the bush.
More game driving follows, but as the sun gets higher in the sky, most of the animals start to rest. The chilly morning has turned into a scorching hot day (yes, “Africa Hot” is for real), and it’s time to head back to Makweti to wash up and have some brunch. The lodge itself is a magnificent collection of traditional thatched “huts” that are incorporated into the hilly landscape. The main lodge stands on the precipice of a hill, and offers a view from the deck that stretches for miles. Streams pass through the camp; clans of hyena, herds of zebra and even elephant will make their way into the camp for a morning drink. Unless you are in the main lodge, or one of the five smaller thatch and- stone suites on the property (Makweti accommodates just 10 guests), you must be accompanied by a ranger at all times.
FINE DINING SAFARI STYLE
Although an afternoon naps beckons, it is time to get down to the second most important thing about a Makweti safari: the food. As Makweti is one of the few safari lodges in the world to earn the coveted Chaine des Rotisseurs designation for its cuisine, I looked forward to our daily meals at the lodge as much as the game drives. Safari food there was always light and fresh-tasting, but spiced in the tradition of South Africa, which was settled by Dutch from the world’s greatest spice traders: the Dutch East India Company. Whether the meal is local fresh game such as kudu, springbok, ostrich, impala, or eland; locally farmed beef, chicken, or duck; or a typical South African potjie stew—the flavors of cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, and nutmeg are always present. Our first brunch was bobotie, a casserole-type dish that has since become one of my favorite things to eat (see “Tasting Notes” on page 10 to find Makweti’s recipes for the complete bobotie meal).
After dining (always al fresco, weather permitting), it is time for a quick swim or (better yet) a brief siesta to gather strength for the afternoon game drive. After a 4 o’clock British-style high tea with all the trimmings, it’s back in the Land Rover. For the evening drive, our game ranger drives us to the southern end of the reserve, where the scenery offers dramatic contrasts
between valley grasslands and rolling hills where blue cranes and white rhino can be spotted. Of course, evening is the time when the big cats come out, and we were fortunate to spot a glimpse of our third of the Big Five on the evening game drive: a magnificent leopard slowly making its way down a cliff toward the sound of a wounded impala.
As if to celebrate this rare sighting, our ranger drove a short distance into an open veld and by a lone tree set up a picnic table, where a generous cheese and fruit plate was arranged, along with delicious South African wine and beer. It was time for “sundowners” as it is called—appropriate, considering that Africa is known for its legendary sunsets. As the sun set, we were greeted by a herd of elephants in the distance and spry kudu, closer by, making their way from the open field to the forested edge of the grassy plain. I have had a lot of cocktails in a lot of different places, but watching a herd of elephants meander in front of an African sunset (our fourth sighting of the Big Five!) while sipping a glass of exquisite Stellenbosch merlot is something that you just don’t forget.
After the evening’s game drive (actually kind of scary on the way back— especially when you can hear, but not see, the animals) it is time for a refreshing outdoor shower (the individual guest houses have both indoor and outdoor showers, but I only used the outdoor one) and a cocktail. This happens in the camp’s BOMA, which is another amazing African tradition
that is not to be found anywhere else. As our hosts explain, “Some believe that the origin of the term ‘BOMA’ is from the war years: British Officers Meeting Area. However, the shape of the BOMA can be traced back to the local people inhabiting areas where cattle needed to be protected from predation. A circular space surrounded by thorn scrub was created, into which animals were herded at nightfall. It is traditional on safari to eat out-of-doors and this enclosure lends itself perfectly for the task.” Makweti’s BOMA is sort of a luxurious take on the shepherd’s traditional encampment, and the food that came off the fire pit (one night a magnificent roasted bush pig; the next, a carpaccio of grilled kudu) was some of thebest barbeque I have eaten. Naturally, the food is paired with South Africa’s legendary wines and finished with—for those who have a taste for them—a delicious Cuban cigar from our host Alan Kisner’s private collection, and an excellent South African brandy, which I consider right up there with France’s best cognac. The next day, it was time to do it all over again—and look for rhino, which would make our hunt for a Africa’s Big Five complete.
[This article originally appeared in Canvas Magazine. see formatted version at www.makweti.com/news_press_articles/canvas.pdf]