Makulu Makete; Watching the Wild Things at South Africa Reserve

Article excerpt

Byline: Carolyn Hughes Crowley, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Earth hath not anything more fair - William Wordsworth, as quoted by a guest at Makulu Makete

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. …