Tonight I am staring out at the calm surface of Tlopi Dam, a faint reflection of the Waterberg Mountains hanging over the water. It’s just past sundown, and the raging fire is a slight comfort, knowing that a very wild, wild bush is just over the railing of my safari tent. A few metres away, something splashes at the water’s edge. My torch can’t reach out there. A fiery necked night jar sings not too far away. I am the only person underneath this mountain – tonight, I have Tlopi to myself. The next camp is about 10km away. It’s thrilling and frightening all at once.
Marakele is unlike any other bush escape: it is naked bush, pure drenched soil, condensed thicket and eerie night sounds. On my first and second nights I hear lions, jackal, nightjars, and many screeches and huffs I can’t quite place. The dense night air is electric and alive.
What makes this park special is that it is the meeting place of diverse vegetation and bird species. Because it hosts a diversity of biomes (Kalahari, mixed and moist bushveld, and even high-lying fynbos) it is a haven for those who want to brush up on the bird and tree lists. The chance of spotting the Big 5 – of which seeing at least three is almost always guaranteed – is just a bonus.
When I visit in March 2017, it is thick, green, and heaving with water from recent rains. A welcome respite for the park which, like others, has been experiencing the effect of the drought.
On my arrival in Bontle Camp, my hand grazes a baby python on my outside table. I feel it before I see it. He is examining my copy of “South Africa’s National Parks”. I scream and my torch goes flying. But he is barely fazed, moving slowly, awkwardly, tiresomely away over the concrete. “They struggle to move on the concrete,” guide Sidney tells me later. They move straightforward, unlike many sidewinding desert snakes.
The next morning, I notice a shadow on my stoep. Someone – or something – is lingering around the corner, lurking, waiting. I brace myself. And then, an ostrich head peaks around the window. Through the open door, we stare at each other. She bobs back and forth. I get closer for a picture, she backs away. I back away, she comes closer.
Not many people know about this national park. It is probably one of South Africa’s best kept secrets. But its reputation for sensational landscapes reaches me before I arrive. I am still in awe during every moment here.
I am visiting Marakele on SANParks Times business, meeting with the SANParks staff who keep the giant cogs of this raw land turning. I meet with the foot soldiers who live and breathe conservation, who are constantly fighting for species of special concern, ensuring that vibrant life ensues in the park for centuries to come, and still making this a place that tourist can enjoy without minimal impact. In preparation of the next issue of SPT, I walk through the bush with biodiversity and social projects teams who are rehabilitating the land, pick the park manager’s brain, and meet a few up and coming youngsters who are going places in SANParks. I hear of the community projects that SANParks People and Conservation teams are constantly pursuing and check in on the rangers who never stop fighting the fight.
Dozens upon dozens of teams are working on rehabilitating former farmlands that have been incorporated in the park to undo the churning of the earth. They slope dongas that are hundreds of metres long and pond the soil to make sure seeds can once again take to the earth and sprout. They clear bushes from overly dense areas to clear paths for grazers and browsers, and they work wetland areas to ensure the conservation of these natural sponges.
Rangers and environmental monitors in the park have been patrolling daily to ensure that Marakele’s three-year strong record of zero wildlife crimes continues. The Marakele Greater Security Cluster, in cooperation with neighbouring farms, properties and communities, has ensured this success.
I learn of the Honorary Rangers who bring kids from orphanages into the park, and of how the park members are working with the community to ensure that the children of Thabazimbi understand the importance of conservation and the effects of climate change, poaching, littering and more. I hear of the plans Marakele has to bring tourists in their hundreds to the park – but for now, my lips are sealed.
Not that they’d need to try too hard though – I’ve been in Marakele for four days and feel like I need another ten just to scratch the surface. During my time here, I manage to squeeze in a few of the musts, though don’t get around to that all important slooow loooong drive that always leads to the most spectacular sightings.
I head to the bird hide at Bollonoto Dam, where I hear the sad whooping call of the emerald spotted wood dove before I see it. I spot a terrapin and try to identify the crakes and ducks I see wading below,
In the afternoon, I head to the Ikutheng Picnic Site for an afternoon drink in the heat of the day. In the evening, I join a couple from New Caledonia on a game drive with Sidney… Sidney was recently named the top guide in the country – a fact that makes him blush. He stops alongside the road to point out the direction an elephant bull was heading, highlighting the coarse sands of the print’s front and fine sands of its lower side. He counts the toes and tells us how odd-toed herbivores have simple stomachs and even-toed have complex digestive systems. He sniffs the air for the gentle giants, and within twenty minutes we have found them.
Heading to TIopi I dodge the lone bull elephant patrolling the road up past the tunnel into the Big Five section of the park after a game of charge and reverse. On my way to Tlopi I traverse the narrow tar road to the Lenong Viewing Point. At the top, I take a slow walk along the walk alongside the cliff, and catch a few drops of rain and snaps of fynbos and lizards. Back on my deck at Tlopi, I watch as elephants head down for a dip. They swim and touch and splash in the water.
In the evening, I head out on the Lekganyane Drive, only to find I am blocking the way for the herd of elephants I had seen taking a swim before. I stop, switch off my car, and roll down the windows. The herd – over 40, I guess – trudge slowly and silently passed my car, weary of my presence. The youngsters huddle close and triple forward to get ahead of me.
After a turn at the fire, I switch off all the lights and look out. The new moon is out and there are galaxies hovering above, clear as day.
Here, a few snaps.
BSP teams take care of the rehabilitation of land in the park.
Bontle Camp is unfenced.
Tlopi provides an easy vantage point for spotting elephants heading down for a drink.
Elephants take a dip at Tlopi.
A large herd heads off before nightfall.
Tlopi is a serene setting.
Extraordinary views await atop Lenong.
Aside from camping, Bontle also offers safari tents.
Camping at Bontle.
Views are often misty from Lenong.
Sidney explains a few tracks to visitors on a game drive.