“If you need anything your butler’s name is Isaac.”Butler?! I have a butler?! It took me a moment to realize he wasn’t kidding. Toni Watson, my host at the Molori Safari Lodge in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve, smiled and opened the massive wooden doors (think Game of Thrones) that led to the Metsi presidential suite where I would spend the next three nights.
Welcome to My Private Villa
Stepping into the vestibule I froze. In front of me lay a huge living room larger than my New York City apartment times two. Opposite me, a wall of retractable glass doors revealed a large wrap around patio with a full-size infinity pool, jacuzzi, and outdoor shower.
When I recovered from my shock, Toni took me on a little tour. To my left stood a kitchen and a dining room for six. To my right, a small study with an iMac and every National Geographic magazine printed to date. My bedroom—which was massive—included a king-sized bed, entertainment center, sitting and dressing areas, vaulted ceiling, and a crystal chandelier.
Just when I thought he was finished, he presented the walk-in dressing room and the pièce de résistance, a huge marble bathroom with a glass-enclosed free-standing tub. The suite was so over-the-top I expected to find an A-list celebrity around the next corner.
And that, essentially, is what Molori is all about. It’s a sanctuary celebrities, politicians, and wealthy discerning travelers seek for their romantic getaways and posh family vacations.
The Molori Safari Lodge
The Molori Safari Lodge is located in northwestern South Africa within the Madikwe Game Reserve, a four-hour drive or one-hour flight from Johannesburg. Once a private family getaway now open to the public, Molori is a mountainside retreat offering unabashed luxury, five-star cuisine, and customized service.
Would you like to go on a game drive in the middle of the night? Sure. Eat all your meals in your suite? No problem, a chef is on call. But more important, Molori delivers privacy. Each of the six villas is a world unto itself, a home away from home. Literally. It provides the kind of solitude the rich and famous desire but few accommodations deliver.
For those who wish to mingle, the open-air main house provides patrons with a public venue—and I say “public” lightly considering the number of suites available. There’s a bar, another pool, various views of the countryside below from terraces strategically placed among the trees.
A few hundred feet away below the lodge is Molori’s private man-made watering hole—a favorite haunt for thirsty wildlife–not to mention the main attraction for guests who like to enjoy their sightings from a lounge chair.
Madikwe Game Reserve
The Madikwe Game Reserve has an interesting history. For decades in the late 20th century, the land where the reserve now stands was nothing but poorly performing cattle farms.
In 1991, in an effort to revitalize the area into a more productive region the government relocated over 8,000 animals and 28 species over seven years to stock the reserve. Cattle ranching may not have worked but revenue from tourism was destined to be successful.
The project, named Operation Phoenix, hit some bumps along the way. I was told a story about young bull elephants that were wreaking havoc in the reserve, destroying a lot of the trees and antagonizing other wildlife.
After a variety of ill-fated attempts to manage the mischievous males, they realized natural “deterrents” had been excluded when the elephants were transferred. As a fix, a few large, older bulls were added to the mix and they quickly taught the young whippersnappers some manners. Problem solved.
Molori Safari Lodge – Game Drive Stories
Before I arrived in South Africa, I spent eight days along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, a world that for the most part is wide open spaces and a sea of neutral colors. Madikwe was the exact opposite. Awash in pumpkin orange soil and green leaves, the scenery was strikingly vivid and almost prehistoric with its bushwillow trees and dense shrubbery.
My guide was Sean van der Merwe, a 13-year veteran who specializes in trees and is a closet bonsai lover. His degree in Dendrology aside, Sean kept us in the middle of the action when it came to sightings.
When Rhinos Collide
Thunk..Thunk.. Thunk …Thunk …
Everything was quiet except for the sound of large, heavy feet hitting the dirt. I marveled at the spectacle in front of me. Two flesh and blood tanks were engaged in a battle of will and muscle.
Against all reason, I was surprised to find the rhinos moved gracefully. Their bodies were oddly light as if they had tiny springs attached to the soles of their feet. Only the thick red puffs of Madikwe soil rising into the air belied their immense weight.
Territory is everything so the rhinos fought. The king chased the intruder in and out of the bushes. Round and round they went until the offender turned and they were face to face, eyes bulging, nostrils flaring, and for a moment everything went still.
Their horns touched. At first, it was soft like a kiss—a dueler’s handshake perhaps—though short-lived. Surging forward their faces connected with a sickening smack. I held my breath as the adversaries dug in with their back legs and thrust into the other. I imagined they were Sumo wrestlers, each determined to plow the other into submission.
Then suddenly it was over. The king was victorious. An imperceptible truce has been negotiated.
Bloodied, they began to graze. If only humans could be so agreeable.
The Jackals, A Hoof, and the Elusive Brown Hyena
In Namibia, I’d hoped to catch a glimpse of a brown hyena. I’d seen plenty of the spotted variety on numerous game drives but never the elusive brown shaggy version. It wasn’t until I was in Madikwe that I had my first sighting.
The sighting began with a pair of jackals happily chewing on remnants of an impala. Drawn by the smell, I’m assuming, two brown hyena entered the scene. At first, it looked as if the four might share the limb but at the first opportunity, the hyenas bolted with the bones, leaving the jackals impala-less except for a single gnawed hoof.
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The Jackals were distraught. One ran after the thieves but the hyenas had no intention of giving up their ill-gotten prize. The other jackal stayed with the appendage, chewing on every last morsel.
When we started the vehicle to move on, the jackals took off down a dirt road nearby, leaving the hoof behind but not for long. Despite their fear of us, one of the jackals turned around and ran straight for us, then past the jeep to grab the impala morsel. Once safely in its mouth, the jackal sprinted for its partner and they both disappeared into the bush.
The Beautiful Pride
It’s not often you’re able to visit with the same pride of lions over a period of several days on safari but in Madikwe, luck was with us.
Our first encounter was in the evening, the pride was feasting on a buffalo under a large tree. An adult female, her belly distended, lay near the head, chewing on the back of the buffalo’s neck. Sean shone a light on them in brief spurts so as not to annoy the lions or hurt their eyes. In the dark, we could hear soft satisfied growls as the lions tore into flesh.
The following days we’d come upon them here and there. One morning, they lounged in a thicket. The male sat at a distance from the brood while two cubs played with an impala leg. In the afternoon, we found the pride laying in a line along one of the dirt roads within the reserve.
The cubs were pestering their mother wanting to nurse. As one cub latched onto a teat, the female winced from being nibbled. When the second cub appeared for its share, momma had had enough, she stood up leaving her two babes wondering what happened.
The Day the Elephants Had a Party
One of the most memorable sightings took place during a raging downpour. We’d been sitting at a nearby dam waiting for animals to drink, when suddenly the wind picked up and the clouds let loose. Everything was soaked.
We decided to wait out the rain at Molori and to our surprise, there were over 60 elephants at the watering hole having a watering hole party in front of the lodge. After weeks of drought, the rain was a much-needed salve for the Madikwe Game reserve, and while experts say we shouldn’t anthropomorphize their behavior, I swear the elephants were celebrating.
In between game drives, I spent a lot of time eating (no one will ever go hungry at Molori Safari Lodge, there was more food than I could ever eat in a lifetime), editing photographs or photographing the animals around the watering hole.
Molori treated me to a massage and as is always the case, I had no idea how sore I was until the masseuse started working on me. By the time it was over my muscles were wet noodles of contentment and my soul soon followed.
A girl could really get used to the high life.
I wonder how much a butler costs?
Molori Safari Lodge Details
Who Will Love It
Families looking for quality time together. The camp is fenced and children of all ages are welcome. Honeymooners or couples that want to go all out. Solo travelers that don’t mind possibly being alone during their stay if the other guests are more reclusive.
How To Get There
From Johannesburg, Molori is a four-hour drive or a one-hour small plane ride on Federal Air. Best to let Molori handle the booking, the airline is hard to reach outside of South Africa. The lodge is a 10-minute drive once you set down in Madikwe. For those who prefer helicopters, Molori also has a helipad.
For international travelers from the United States, I recommend South African Airway‘s direct flight from JFK to Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Aiport. If you arrive too late for the flight to Madikwe, the Intercontinental Hotel at the airport is a great layover option. The Federal Air terminal is within the OR Tambo airport complex and an easy walk from the hotel.
(Full disclosure: SAA provided me with a flight for this trip but I’ve been flying SAA for years and they have no influence over what I write. )
Lots of elephants, lion, leopard, black-backed jackal, wildebeest, brown hyena, leopard tortoise, kudu, impala, warthog, giraffe, zebra, hyrax, white rhino, a black mamba snake, and a myriad of birds,
The lodge has a jeep modified for photographers. It has six seats instead of the standard nine, enabling freedom of movement throughout the vehicle and two swiveling metal bars for shooters who prefer to use gimbal heads. I particularly liked the large bin affixed to the back of the front seat that held my tripod, personal belongings, and ancillary equipment.
Other features Worth Checking Out
Check out the gym, outdoor yoga studio, and spa near the main house.
When my laundry delivered it was wrapped so beautifully in tissue paper (and a ribbon) I thought they’d given me a gift.
You Should Try
Indulge in high tea. I had mine under a lovely tent high on one of the lodge’s many terraces overlooking the bush.
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