As we get back to the lodge, after an exhilarating game drive in the western side of Madikwe, I see a flash of movement - a tawny blur - and hear a scuffle.
“It’s a lioness”, declares Gavin, our ranger. “She has attempted a kill, but has failed”.
I am somewhat shocked, as this is less than twenty meters from the deck of Tuningi Safari Lodge, where we are about to dine.
A giant fig tree - Ficus Thonningii - reputed to be over five hundred years old, presides over the wooden deck, which looks magical tonight. There is a welcoming fire in the cement circle, and tables are set with white cloths and elegant wine glasses. Besides the stars and full moon, lanterns placed in the tree and on the tables illuminate the scene.
With her customary warmth and patience, Heidi, the lodge manager, greets us as we pour out stories from our game drive: “We saw a dozen lions, sitting on a termite mound, with a magnificent sunset behind them,” I declare.
Kind and attentive staff serve our meal, which is delicious South African fare, including game meat, and ending with a sticky malva pudding. The staff double as cabaret, and we are entertained with harmony and African dancing.
I am so entranced with the deck and it’s proximity to the waterhole, I stay at Tuningi instead of going out on the morning drive. With my bird book, pen and excellent old Leitz binoculars I sit on a chair, waiting to see the passing parade.
A feeding party of tiny birds flits in. There are twenty or more blue waxbills with their powder-blue faces and breasts; a few violet-eared waxbills; a green–winged pytilia (arguably the prettiest bird in Madikwe) and sparrows. I am in bird heaven as a horde of green wood-hoopoes arrives and they begin to groom one another. They are chattering and cackling in harsh tones, a contrast to the liquid notes of a black-headed oriole above me in the fig tree.
A proactive waiter brings me what he knows I like: a pot of strong rooibos tea. As I look up I see a massive bull elephant trundle towards the water hole. He is in musth and his temporal glands are secreting copious quantities of viscous fluid.
I am fascinated by this close up spectacle, but harbour residual fear as the deck is a mere meter above the ground. I wonder if the lioness is still lingering in the bushes. The bull begins to give himself a mud bath and throws mud systematically all over his vast hide, till he is a red-brown colour and seems less irascible.
With clever foreknowledge he moves to the pipe outlet where the water is fresh and he takes long slurps into his trunk, then squirts it into his upturned mouth, so close that I get a glimpse of his pink tongue.
As I walk to my suite, I see a cluster of female kudus with a majestic male. They are browsing next to the alfresco shower, where I bask in the sunshine and try out all the lotions and potions. There is also an inside-outside bath that could easily fit two people, and I muse on the fact that Tuningi is an ideal spot for honeymooners. The king-sized bed has a mosquito net romantically draped over the canopy. There are goodies that Heidi puts in the room, but I shall not spoil the surprises.
Heidi is passionate about having children as lodge guests. She has set up a creative and educational programme to entertain them. They get to make animal print T-shirts, to identify tracks and spoor and make plaster casts of them.
A fun-filled book has just been developed which has fascinating facts about each animal, and questions to keep energetic minds busy. Heidi could charm a pickled soul, so even the shyest of children would take to her. Wisely, she keeps families and couples apart in the game vehicles, and also in the suites.
When Heidi joins us on a game drive, we spot something unusual: hundreds of large feathers spread over a wide area. She leaps off the vehicle and begins to gather up a few of the feathers, “for the kids to see”, she says, “I will hide them in my treasure hunt”. Gavin explains that it looks like a leopard has killed a Kori Bustard. He finds tracks to confirm his theory.
On the drive back, a fragment of poetry creeps into my mind:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
Wordsworth’s daffodils are a far cry from the dry savannah, but I echo his sentiments, and will treasure the time spent in Tuningi Safari Lodge, especially on the deck beneath the ancient fig tree.
For more information, and to book, visit http://iafrica.safarinow.com/go/tuningisafarilodge/. Federal Air offers daily flights from Johannesburg to Madikwe - visit www.fedair.com or call 011 395 9000.