- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

Earth hath not anything more fair

William Wordsworth, as quoted by a guest at Makulu Makete.

POLOKWANE, South Africa — Carolyn, hold onto your pommel. If Jack sees the young female giraffe on your left, he may shy, stop or run,” my guide said calmly. We were riding along a riverbed on a South African farm. I gently pulled on Jack’s right rein, trying to interest him in the bush veld. We moved forward slowly. The giraffe froze as she studied us, and Jack never sensed her presence.

Makulu Makete, a wildlife reserve at the end of a bumpy eight-mile dirt road, is two hours from the Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg) airport in South Africa’s Limpopo Province (formerly Northern Province). It is a remote, semiarid tropical region of thorn bushes sandwiched among South Africa’s Gauteng Province and neighboring Botswana and just three miles from Zimbabwe. Rural communities that still live as they have for centuries populate Limpopo Province.

An 8-foot, 8,000-volt pulsating fence surrounds Makulu Makete; the farm has eight miles of frontage on the Mogalakwena (Old Crocodile) River, with a mile unfenced. The farm incorporates Madia Pala Mountain (Blood of the Impala) and Kremetartkop (Baobab Hill).

It is so remote that a large grocery store is 120 miles away, and it is vast enough to be spread over four habitats: mountain, open woodland, riverine and closed woodland, in which the tree density is higher. Visitors spend up to a week at Makulu Makete on environmentally educational vacations.

Twice daily they may go on game-viewing drives (and also at night, with special permission) in open customized Land Rovers, which have no roof, no driver’s door and no windshield to block guests’ vision.

Visitors can photograph more than 40 mammal species, including vervet monkey; giraffe; impala; hyena; zebra; warthog; wildebeest; and the shy, elusive, nocturnal leopard. Guests marvel at 380 bird species.

Because none of the 1,300 larger mammals are dangerous, guests can explore the reserve on foot, if they wish. Warthogs can be dangerous because of their large incisors, the farm ecologist said, but they are more interested in eating tubers, bulbs and roots.

BIRD PARADISE

With 18 vegetation zones and no dangerous game to worry them, birds find Makulu Makete a paradise. Southern Africa has great diversity, and more birds breed there than in the United States and Canada combined. Visitors often see more than 30 species on a single outing.

Particularly interesting is the red-crested korhaan’s extraordinary courtship display of flying up into the sky, then tumbling down toward earth as if shot, only to glide off just before it hits the ground.

Like gorgeous Christmas ornaments, the Southern Carmine bee-eaters decorate their perches of dead stumps with pink, turquoise and blue plumage. Three kori bustards recently appeared on open grassland. These impressive creatures, weighing as much as 40 pounds, get airborne only with a lot of effort and usually stay on the ground a safe distance from bird-watchers.

Summer is best for bird-watching because brilliantly hued birds come from Russia, Europe and other parts of Africa. In winter, crimson-breasted shrikes, brightly colored finches, the jewel-bright violet-eared waxbills, and Meyer’s parrots light up the dry, khaki-colored veld, or bush, and iridescent green, claret and turquoise Marico sunbirds flash by.

Daily at dusk, the reddish-cheeked wheeling nightjar begins its strange purring refrain —”Good Lord deliver us.” Noisy crested francolins may wake visitors for their early breakfast and game drive.

After the 6:30 breakfast, guests attend illustrated lectures about conservation with an emphasis on Africa and the local area, plus lessons on history, archaeology, ecology, mammals, insects, birds and veld management. The able and enthusiastic resident ecologist-lecturer is Engela du Toit, 29, an excellent naturalist and keen conservationist who grew up on a nature reserve and has a master’s degree in conservation from the University of Stellenbosch.

BAOBAB TREES

An early-morning walk with Miss du Toit is to the 200-tree baobab forest, one of the largest concentrations of this ancient species in South Africa. Makulu Makete means “Great spirit of the trees,” referring to its extraordinary number of large baobabs, 70 of them.

Some of Makulu Makete’s baobabs may be 2,000 years old. The massive bulbous trunk and gnarled limbs make the baobab one of the largest tree species in the world — not because of its height, about 60 feet, but for its width and breadth, about 30 feet in diameter. The trunks are so massive, they have been used as shops, prisons, houses, storage barns and bus shelters.

Local legend explains the strange baobab shape as being God’s punishment because of the tree’s vanity. He plucked the tree from the earth, overturned it and thrust its branches into the ground, leaving the roots to dangle in the air.

Another story warns people not to eat the baobab’s huge floppy white flowers; if they do, curses will descend, and lions will devour them.

In “The Little Prince,” Antoine de St. Exupery symbolized European colonialism in Africa with the baobab tree.

Fresh baobab leaves provide an edible vegetable similar to spinach that is used for treating kidney and bladder disease, asthma and insect bites. The seeds are edible and are a coffee substitute when roasted.

The powdery white pulp surrounding the seeds is rich in vitamin C and makes a refreshing drink when mixed with water and milk. The spongy wood has been a source of rope, matting and baskets, ceiling boards, paper and clothes.

Baobabs provide homes for bees, snakes and leopards. Their bark and leaves provide elephants with food and moisture.

The succulent baobab is 80 percent water; giraffes eat baobab leaves, and so did Miss du Toit and I. They tasted like fresh peas, we thought. These leaves had passed Miss du Toit’s rule of thumb in the veld: “Press the leaf, and if it is milky — probably with latex — or hairy, it’s probably not good for you,” she said.

Lunch in the thatched brick lodge, which has wildlife reference books, follows the lectures and game drives. The lodge’s large front door is of locally carved wood depicting zebra, warthogs and the gentle, majestic giraffe. Giraffes are so tall, a local name for them is ndlulamiti, meaning taller than the trees.

Leadwood tree trunks support the lodge’s thatched bar, where guests congregate after their game drives for drinks and reminiscences about their day’s animal sightings.

Almost all drives result in multiple sightings of graceful kudus, known as the “ghosts of the bush.” Their pale vertical stripes break the outline of a sand-and-gray body; and if they step in the shadow of a tree, they seem to vanish.

Guests also may take a cooling plunge in the small pool.

Afternoons are free until tea at 3, after which guests can choose an afternoon game drive with a bush picnic, a two-hour bush walk around the base of a large koppie (a rocky outcrop covered with basalt boulders), a mountain climb, or riding horses.

CANDLELIGHT DINNERS

Guests eat dinner family style by candlelight with the owner; his Australian girlfriend, who is the farm’s administrative manager; Miss du Toit, the ecologist; and the farm’s manager and ranger.

After dinner, guests can relax in front of the fireplace or sit around the lapa (an area with a hearth) with a South African beer or wine and newfound friends.

South African wineries excel with the country’s varied weather conditions, from hot inland regions to cool coastal and mountain areas. Cape Town vineyards offer 21,000 wines; 5,000 grape farmers cultivate about 250,000 acres of South African vineyards.

The menus at Makulu Makete feature some South African dishes, including barbecued game.

Hunting is not allowed on the reserve, but the owner sometimes shoots kudu and impala for consumption at the farm. South Africans call impala a quick food because of this antelope’s three black stripes on the rear, resembling McDonald’s arches.

Some of the farm meals focus on stiff grain porridge made from sorghum or maize, which the Portuguese introduced to South Africa in the 15th century. It is similar to Italian polenta and accompanied by meat- or vegetable-based sauces.

Breakfasts and dinner barbecues (called braaivieis, shortened to braai) frequently have boerewors (farmer’s sausage), a juicy sausage filled with coarsely chopped beef, pork, herbs and spices or with more exotic cuts of springbok, kudu, bush pig or impala.

Another popular food is potjiekos (pot food), which includes layers of pork, beef, lamb and different vegetables. They are simmered in a three-legged cast-iron cauldron for four or five hours to blend the flavors and make the meat tender.

Luxury Accommodations

Makulu Makete can accommodate a maximum of 12 guests in six large luxury tents. Each tent is on stilts and not visible from the others. The tents are so upscale they have international direct-dial telephones. Guests can drink their early morning coffee or tea on the tent’s game-viewing balcony and watch the animals at the nearby water hole. Lighted, spacious and modern bathrooms with showers adjoin the tents.

Old fence posts and twisting branches from the native termite-resistant mopane tree make up the balustrades around the showers and balconies, adding to the camp’s rustic charm.

Lighted pathways lead to all tents; guests are warned never to walk barefoot outside their tents — and certainly not at night without a flashlight, because of snakes and tarantulas. Miss du Toit says tarantulas are shy and stay underground most of the time.

BLACK MAMBA

In Africa, the black mamba is the most feared snake because of its size, agility and speed. If one bit a guest, “I’d radio for a helicopter,” Miss du Toit said as she pointed to snakes on a large poster. Its venom is neurotoxic, attacking the heart and lungs, she said. Doctors, she thought, would put patients on a ventilator.

Another snake, the Mozambique spitting cobra, can blind a person. This shy tree snake’s venom prevents the blood from clotting, so the victim hemorrhages.

The common puff adder is responsible for the majority of snakebites because of its habit of freezing in the grass when approached and attacking after being stepped on. Its venom is cytotoxic. “It rots the skin tissue and damages the kidneys,” Miss du Toit said. She had prepared me well for snake sightings and for safety, but I never spotted one.

VELD PROJECT

Peter Philip, 72, the owner of Makulu Makete, is carrying out one of Africa’s largest private veld rejuvenation programs on his farm. He is trying to overcome the effects of successive droughts and 100 years of overgrazing by cattle, goats and sheep. In the program’s three years, he has spent more than $2 million.

“In nature, pasture management was self-correcting, predators and migration being the major forces,” Mr. Philip said. “Then man removed the predators, erected fences, introduced bulk feeders (cattle) and cultural influences encouraged overgrazing,” said Mr. Philip, a South African-born naturalized American.

“The result is irreversible without man’s intervention,” he said. “The grass can no longer grow because nutrients, water and light have been removed or restricted.

“Our goal is to return the veld to its original condition. Then the carrying capacity of the veld’s animals could be doubled. Doubling the capacity could mean double the food production of the same piece of land.”

In 2001, he conducted an aerial census of game on the property, which revealed an abundance of animals in good condition, but too many for the farm. In 2002, he oversaw an eight-month, 500-acre program of bush and tree cutting, followed by herbicide treatments that removed 160,000 bushes and trees. His work crews have continued to reclaim the land by removing much of the thick veld and planting more than a ton of grass seed.

Machines called bosvreters (literally bush eaters) cut the bushes to a few inches above the ground. They are similar to large lawn mowers but with vicious horizontal rotating circular blades.

Next, workers raked or plowed areas cleared of invading bush and packed protective layers of dry branches over the stumps to prevent any new growth. These provide a microclimate conducive to the germination and growth of grass seed that will be sown before hoped-for rain. Fortunately, there were tons of branches from the bush-cutting efforts. Nothing goes to waste in the bush.

Mr. Philip concentrated on the overstocking of animals. A helicopter corralled animals, and then he captured and sold 800 wild animals, including eland, kudu, impala and zebra, to other properties. Once the veld recovers, the numbers of animals can be increased again to manageable levels that approximate those of 150 years ago, he said.

THE VELD

The veld has made a lasting impression on Mr. Philip because he grew up “independent, free and barefoot” in his native South Africa, spending much time in a wild area with his father, a malaria-control officer. “There were no roads whatsoever, no access between two points and plenty of wild game,” Mr. Philip said.

“I grew to love the entire ambience: habitat, animals, birds and sounds. They are what I missed and longed for while living in America.” A graduate of the University of Arizona, he became a metallurgical engineer and lived in the Untied States for 40 years.

He retired in 1994 as president of a large mining company, making Business Week’s list of top American executives for his success in taking his company public — but he couldn’t get the veld out of his system. “If I let my mind fly, I could hear the francolins and a woodland kingfisher. I could even smell the bush,” he said.

So he returned to South Africa and bought and restocked Makulu Makete with previously endemic game species: giraffe, zebra, oryx, hartebeest, wildebeest, waterbuck and eland. More leopards and cheetahs are being reintroduced as the perimeter fence is upgraded.

He thinks that in five years he will finish the entire bush clearing and that in 10 years, “What were grasslands before will be so again, and we will once again be able to gallop a horse through the bush veld — something quite impossible today. And the wild animal numbers will be double or triple what they are today because the veld will again be luxuriant and verdant.

“We are slowly returning a beautiful piece of African bush veld to its former pristine glory.

“What a legacy to have the Makulu Makete wildlife reserve be the finest example of veld rehabilitation in South Africa.”

On the road to Makulu Makete

For more information on Makulu Makete, send e-mail to Peter Philip (peter@makulumakete.com); write Makulu Makete Wildlife Reserve, Box 227, Alldays 0909, South Africa; or go to www.makulumakete.com. Only children older than 12 can be accommodated at the lodge.

South African Airways, 866/722-2476, flies to Johannesburg from Washington Dulles International Airport. It is a six-hour drive from the airport to the farm, or South African Airways flies from Johannesburg to Polokwane in Limpopo Province.

The cost — about $800 weekly per person for a twin tent or about $1,200 weekly for single occupancy — includes transfers to and from Polokwane airport, game drives, hiking with a ranger, lectures, deluxe accommodations, food and laundry. Not included are telephone calls and drinks. The hosts want guests to stay a week to benefit from the farm’s program.

U.S. citizens do not need visas for South Africa.

Recommendations include bringing malaria prophylaxis; binoculars for game viewing and birding; a camera with telephoto lens (300 mm for animals and 500 mm for birds); an animal reference book and a bird reference book.

Makulu Makete offers a day safari across the border into Botswana to track elephants and other game in an unfenced environment, plus an afternoon excursion to visit the Art and Craft Centre on the grounds of the Mogalakwena River Lodge. There visitors can watch the local Pedi women produce colorful and intricately beaded animals and jewelry, and embroidery depicting lively bush scenes.

For travelers staying in Johannesburg before going to Makulu Makete, Ten Bompas is in a garden setting in the city’s Dunkeld West, about 25 minutes from the international airport; it has 10 suites with a separate lounge, fax machine, a complimentary minibar, fireplace, bath, complimentary laundry service and breakfast. For information, send e-mail to tenbomp@global. co.za or visit www.tenbompas.com. Eat at the hotel’s Sides Restaurant or at Johannesburg’s Moyo restaurant in Melrose Arch, a shopping and office complex. Moyo offers a mix of Moroccan, Ethiopian, Senegalese and South African cuisines.

Johannesburg’s Michelangelo Hotel, on West Street, Nelson Mandela Square, Sandton is a large, opulent five-star hotel on top of one of the city’s most upscale shopping malls. E-mail hrmichel@legacyhotels.co.za.

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