Why you can't leave a safari disappointed

Jodie Stephens

Our guide has left the dusty road and is driving us slowly through the bush towards two male lions who sit metres apart in the long grass, guarding their kill.

They watch us approach, and I don't envy the young trainee guide perched on the front of the vehicle.

As a safari newbie, I'm a little concerned by how close we're getting to the large maned felines. We seem pretty vulnerable in our open transport, just a leap or two away.

But the lions - two brothers - are apparently quite content to sit in our company as they watch over their gutted and bloody zebra carcass in the fading afternoon light.

"They were more than happy with our presence there," our guide, Armand Steyn reflects later.

We sit in awe, taking dozens of photos and trying to absorb what's happening in front of us. It's hard to comprehend we're part of this surreal scene.

An opportunistic jackal lingers close to the ravaged zebra carcass, looking like he might risk a bite.

It's an exhilarating end to our first game drive at South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve, and just a hint of what we'll see and experience over the next few days.

The 75,000-hectare park, next to the Botswana border, is home to all large mammal species including the famed Big Five, cheetah, African Wild Dog and both brown and spotted hyenas.

As we're led each day down a seemingly endless network of dirt roads through the bushveld, we never really know what we'll see next.

Armand - the head field guide at Jaci's Lodges - compares safari to a lucky dip.

The group's excitement doesn't waver at sightings of giraffes and zebras grazing lazily among the trees, warthogs congregating at the small local airstrip, and rhinos moving across the plains.

When we pause to watch a string of elephants lumber across the road, one of them - a young bull - unexpectedly stops to face us and lift his head in an act of intimidation.

"Hey! Don't make naughty!", Armand says sternly.

The elephant turns and continues on his way while the rest of us burst into laughter.

Armand communicates with other guides, follows animal tracks and draws on his knowledge of their behaviour. We hit the jackpot one afternoon when he leads us to a pack of African Wild Dogs, who rest in the shade of some trees right on the Botswana border.

The highly-endangered animals are not always easy to find, as they can travel eight to 13 kilometres a day and disappear into mountains "like needles in a haystack", Armand says.

"You can sometimes go three weeks without seeing them, it depends on where they are," he says.

But while Armand's tracking skills deliver some unforgettable experiences, some of the best moments catch us off-guard - like when a spotted hyena appears on the road ahead and casually wanders by to check us out.

For Armand, life on safari continues to surprise and thrill, even after a decade in the job.

"There are those moments that you live for that are so unique, no matter how small or big they are," he says.

"Like new lion cubs for the first time in the park. Stuff like that makes it so wonderful to experience and be part of."

As our Madikwe adventure comes to an end and we consider the spoils of our lucky dip, a number of desired sightings - including the cheetah and lioness - have eluded us.

But the rush of spotting so many fascinating and strange creatures in the wild has gotten under our skin and I wonder if anyone could come away from safari feeling disappointed.

Our only regret is that we're leaving, and as we fly low over the landscape towards Johannesburg we keep our heads pressed up against the glass, searching Madikwe til the last.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: South African Airways and Qantas both fly direct to Johannesburg with return flights starting at about $2049 per person.

From there, Madikwe Game Reserve is roughly a three-and-a-half hour drive or a one-hour flight with Federal Air.

STAYING THERE: Jaci's Lodges offer a range of accommodation options, including tented, treehouse and family suites. All include twice-daily game drives, brunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Rates start at R 7965 ($A831) for the treehouse and tented suites during the high season, with prices rising during the January to December peak season. For more, visit https://www.jacislodges.co.za/

PLAYING THERE: Try to spot the Big Five during game drives, explore Madikwe on foot during a walking safari, or relax with a drink at one of the lodge's outdoor areas. If you're after an experience that helps make a difference, you can get involved in rhino DNA collection during a conservation safari. For more, visit ttps://www.madikwe.org.za