Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Villa Irene

Their breakfasts are jumbo

The Sunday Times, 24th February 2013


The five wild dogs are taking their siesta. They’ve found a large puddle at the edge of the airstrip and are stretching out languidly beside it in the sun.

“You can see from their full bellies that they must have killed recently,” says Justice, from behind the wheel of our Toyota Land Cruiser. “This is a small pack. Sometimes we get as many as 17.”

It’s a wonderful beginning. Barely five minutes after touching down from Johannesburg on the skinny bush runway at Makanyane Safari Lodge, we’re eye to eye with one of the most endangered animals on the planet. No more than 2,000 African wild dogs are thought to live in the bush. I’m not much of a mathematician, but I reckon we’re looking at 0.25% of the population.

South AfricaMakanyane is in Madikwe Game Reserve, one of South Africa’s largest, hard against the border with Botswana in North West Province. En route to the lodge, the ever-beaming Justice recalls the excitement that surrounded the visit of Michelle Obama in the summer of 2011.

“She came with her mother and her two kids. They drove in a great convoy across the border from Gaborone in Botswana. The US Secret Service people wanted Dillon, who was going to act as guide, to surrender his gun. But Dillon said, ‘No way.’ He took one look at the American M16s and said, ‘You need a proper gun to stop a charging elephant.’?”

It turns out I’m booked not merely in the safari lodge where the president’s wife stayed, but in the same suite. The vast bedroom window gives out onto the river, and the bathroom is so designed that you can look out onto it while taking a bath. As we drive up, nine hippopotamuses perform their own ablutions in the pool below.

Makanyane has its own 1,800-hectare reserve, plus a route into 75,000 hectares of the greater Madikwe park beyond. “None of our vehicles has a roof,” says Eugene Bothma, our guide. “You need to be able to look up as well as all around — especially as far as the birds are concerned.”

No bird is too small, nor too quick, to escape Eugene’s attention.

On that first afternoon’s drive, my notebook steadily fills with the species he’s spotted: crested francolin, fork-tailed drongo, crimson-skirted shrike, woodland kingfisher. All-time favourite in these parts, though, is the lilac-breasted roller. “If you get engaged to a girl here,” Eugene says, “you have to make an engagement ring out of the tail feathers of the roller. If the ring breaks before the wedding, that’s a sign to call off the marriage.”

Madikwe was opened in 1991. It’s malaria-free, but many of the animals, including the famous big five, had to be imported — some from as far as Zimbabwe and Namibia.

We’ve arrived in South Africa in the middle of a rhino crisis. A staggering 668 were poached across the country in 2012. With rhino horn fetching £29,000 a kilo in Southeast Asian markets, the financial incentives have proved irresistible. Officially, Madikwe has 58 white rhinos and 32 black, and we imagined we’d be lucky to catch even a glimpse. How wrong we were. Over three days in the park, we saw 17 white rhinos at close quarters, and one (distant) black one.

How long will the rhinos last here? Nobody knows. On the plane back to Johannesburg, I find myself thinking that people such as Eugene will be key to the fight, helping locals see that a live rhino in a wildlife haven such as Madikwe is worth much more than a dead one. But I was headed south towards the battleground of a very different war.

Raymond Heron, our host at SpionKop Lodge, is an expert on the Battle of Spion Kop, which took place here in 1900, during the Second Boer War. Over breakfast, he tells us how the Voortrekkers’ Great Trek began in 1834: “It was one of the most amazing journeys undertaken by modern man. The Boers had to carry their wagons piece by piece over the Drakensberg Mountains and then reassemble them. It took them four years to get here to Natal.”

The British had told the Boers they’d be left alone if they went beyond the Orange and Vaal rivers. But when diamonds were discovered at Kimberley, and gold in the Rand, Britain wanted that territory.

South AfricaHeron drives us to a hill behind the lodge, and we sit in the shade of a battlefield memorial. We’re at the very site of General Redvers Buller’s British battlefield headquarters, and Heron points to the flat-topped yellow hill ahead of us: Spion Kop. “The British force in Ladysmith had been under siege since the start of the war in October 1899. Capturing Spion Kop was vital if they wanted to relieve the town. At 10pm on January 23, 1,700 British soldiers began to climb. The aim was to get to the top and be well dug in before daybreak.”

Things went wrong. British troops started digging before they’d reached the top. As day dawned, they realised their mistake and barely had time to reposition before facing a barrage of fire.

Later that day, we head to the summit of Spion Kop. The defeated British suffered 243 fatalities here, and a further 1,250 men were wounded or captured. The Boers suffered 335 casualties, 68 of whom died. By an extraordinary coincidence, three future leaders were present that afternoon: Louis Botha, then leader of the Boers, who became the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa; Winston Churchill, a war correspondent at the time, who had escaped from confinement in Pretoria; and Mahatma Gandhi, one of several Indians who served as stretcher-bearers at the battle.

As evening creeps on, Heron walks us around the graves of the British dead. “When these young men dug themselves in that morning in their trenches,” he says, “they were digging their own graves.”

Stanley Johnson travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent and South African Airways