Motswari – The First 24 Hours

Editor’s Note: Life got in the way. These last few posts of our trip have been in draft for a while, waiting for me to find the time to whip them into shape. I apologize for their lateness, but you know… life…

As a grand finale on our trip, we booked a safari in the Timbavati in South Africa. Monsieur grew up in South Africa and the game park is his happy place so this was a must do. We were also lucky enough to tag along on to Auntie T’s Covid-delayed birthday party with her family and planned to join them for a stay at Motswari Private Game Lodge.

We wanted to maximize our time in the bush so we volunteered to be the advance team and arrived a few days ahead of the rest of the clan. We flew from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit airport, a former Air Force Base. There was a long taxi from the runway to the single room airport building. We were amused by the baggage claim which was basically a table in front of a garage door.

Sandrey picked us up to drive us to Motswari and warned us that we would start to see animals soon. He wasn’t wrong. No sooner had we turned out of the airport when we saw a pair of giraffes along the fence. A few minutes later we passed through the Timbavati gates and started to see lots of game – more giraffes, zebra, an elephant, three warthogs and a hyena crossed the road in front of us. We talked with Sandrey about the big five and asked about the always elusive leopards. “You have to be very lucky to see a leopard.” No sooner did he say this, we ran into not one but two leopards ON THE PAVED ROAD. Leopards are shy, elusive and often hang out in the brush or on tree limbs, to see them out in the open was incredibly lucky, let alone in the middle of the only paved road for miles. At first, we thought that they were just going to cross in front of us only to disappear back in the scrub. Nope, they gave us a show for about 15 minutes crossing back and forth with the male often laying down on the road to show the female how relaxed he is and ready to mate. She was a little more discerning and kept a close eye on our vehicle. We were doubly lucky that the road was quiet while we had our interlude with the leopards, for when a big rumbling truck came up behind us the pair headed into the long grass. Ahead a pick-up truck rounded the corner with workers piled in the back. They pulled over and we looked on in horror as one of the workers jumped out to take a pee. Sandrey waved and flashed his lights. Luckily they got the message and the worker jumped back in before the leopards realized he was there. Phew. Last thing we wanted to see on our first few minutes in the park with our kids was a kill… We arrived at Motswari about an hour late but our hosts didn’t mind. Of course you stop when you see leopard!

Motswari is a private game reserve within the larger Timbavati reserves, part of the Greater Kruger National Park. It runs along the midwestern flank of the Kruger itself and is about 500 square kilometres. Motswari is one of several private game reserves within the Timbavati. Camp consists of around 15 rondavels for accommodation as well as a large common area, dining area and swimming pool. There is also a large Staff Camp as everyone who works here also lives on the property.

After a quick bag drop and grabbing some warm clothing, our guide Byron had the Land Rover Defender warmed up and we were headed out on our first proper game drive. Within a few minutes he had us pulled into a shrub to view another very full bellied and sleepy leopard under a tree. Byron gave us the lowdown on the leopard family we had met. On the road on our arrival we met Ntima, the alpha male in this area. He was with a female he was attempting to court. This new leopard we were visiting was a young male, the son of Ntima. We thought we may have caught the alpha male Ntima and the female mating, but apparently she was showing signs of suckling. Shocker! She has cubs and they aren’t his! She was trying to distract him from her hidden cubs that she had with another guy! If Ntima found them, he would surely kill them to protect his bloodline. Who knew that we were in the animal version of Days of Our Lives?

A little while later, Byron was in pursuit of a pride of lion. David, our spotter was tracking them and they were hot on the trail. We didn’t manage to catch them but we did spot a very beautiful big giraffe who seemed a little skittish when we arrived and made his way behind a tree. We laughed when we realized he was attempting to hide. He stopped and stared at us through the tree limbs thinking we couldn’t see him even though his whole body was in full view, even if his eyes were hidden in the leaves.

After a stop atop an old dam for sundowners (South African for cocktails) and some snacks, we were headed back to camp. As the wind whipped up, the sun went down and the temperature dropped. Snuggled under blankets we turned a corner and spotted a breeding herd of elephants but let them continue their meal in peace. Our spotlights blind them, so we didn’t want to put them at any further disadvantage in the dark.

Back at camp, we piled on another sweater and waited for the Ranger to come fetch us for dinner. We enjoyed the meal next to the fire. We were all a little surprised when a small pack of hyenas strolled into camp and past the dining area as we were eating. Apparently we also just missed a small female leopard, new to the area who passed through camp before we were escorted to dinner. All of a sudden we were VERY grateful for the ranger who would take us back and forth to our little hut. Well fed, we made our way to bed for an early night. We were all pooped from the travel day and knew we had a 5:30am wake-up call the next day for our morning drive.

Our accommodations at Motswari were simple but lovely. All guests stay in their own individual thatched cottages called rondavels. With the kids, we had one with two rooms – we weren’t about to be in separate buildings with leopards and hyenas roaming around and no cell service. Good luck with your nightmares kids! Fortunately we were well situated in the double and we each had our own space with an inter-connecting door. The beds were cozy, wrapped with mosquito nets. We each had a nice big bathroom with a tub and a shower. Heat and AC if we needed it.

Back to the schedule. I know it doesn’t sound very relaxing, but there is something quite amazing about the early morning wake-up. A hot coffee and a muffin and a jump straight back in the Defender to head out in the bush is a fantastic way to start the day.

First David spotted a loan elephant. Byron turned off the road and through the bush until we came up beside her. She was an older elephant who likely can no longer keep up with the herd. We felt sad to see her on her own knowing she’s nearing the end of her life. Likely around 60, she is the perfect example of nature taking it’s course in this wild place.

Byron managed to find us that pride of lion. About 4 large females, one young male and the beautiful alpha male, Nharhu. His nickname is Limp Bizkit as he walks with a limp due to a dislocated hip after being kicked in the hindquarters by a giraffe. We started to feel badly for him until Byron reminded us that he rules over two prides with several females who hunt and breed only for him and his cubs. All he does is eat the food they’ve hunted and mate with them. Lucky mysogynist lion, milking that kick in the ass for all he can! We were lucky to get quite close, close enough to see how big his fangs are!

Here we were, less than 24 hours in the bush and we had already seen 3 of the Big Five. Well no sooner did we say that when we came upon three white rhino. One large female with her 6 month old baby and a companion juvenile male. They didn’t seem to mind us, but we did enjoy the chance to see the baby mock charge the male when he started getting on his nerves.

Rhino mom and baby with horns intact

We were concerned when we arrived. We had booked 8 nights here in the bush. How would our wifi obsessed kids manage here in the wilderness? How would we manage? Can you guess? We are loving every minute!