Hello Kitty: Sun, safari and a load of lions in South Africa
Holidays of a lifetime
Playing David Attenborough needn't cost a pretty penny, as Mark Evans discovers in South Africa.
It's not your usual rush-hour traffic jam.
Our vehicle is going nowhere - the road blocked, not by a broken-down car or Garda checkpoint, but a massive elephant who's going to let us pass, but not before he's munched on some tasty trees.
Welcome to Madikwe, and one of the adventures of a lifetimei.
When you think of African safaris, a few things come to mind - vaccinations and high prices. But here's the beauty of South Africa as a destination: no jabs, no malaria, and safari at an affordable cost, with handy flights from Ireland.
What you get is an unforgettable holiday adventure, whether it's with kids, for honeymooners, those looking for luxury on the cheap, or the adventurous.
Jaci's Safari Lodge is situated in the heart of Madikwe Game Reserve. It's nowhere near as well-known as the world-famous Kruger Park - and that's no bad thing. While Kruger has plenty of wild animals, it's also got plenty of camera-toting visitors and traffic jams. But Madikwe is much quieter, and you get right up to the animals.
How close? Very. My first few minutes on a game drive got me face-to-face with the king of the jungle… a ferocious-looking lion.
Game-drive vehicles have no windows, but never fear - your vehicle is big and the lion wouldn't dare tackle a moving Land Rover beast.
A fresh kill on the ground, the lion tucks into his meaty feast as you snap away.
Safari isn't Disneyland: life can be harsh - and brutally short - for the animals in the wild. One old lion has a dislocated jaw, probably from a fight with a fearsome buffalo, and the humans can't interfere. It's the circle of life from the Lion King, and that circle can be tough. But there are tender moments too - a pair of male lions have become best buddies, and by night, you can see them cuddling up like two (overgrown) kittens.
But these kitties have a mean streak too, and next day, my jeep is right in the middle of a turf war as two pals battle it out with another lion who has strayed into their patch.
If you've seen I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, it's exactly like Jaci's Safari Lodge (the plush pad where Ant and Dec laugh at the guests, that is). Surrounded by an electric fence, and accessible only by a footbridge, it's beautifully constructed from wood, with all mod cons.
My room was in the original wing (it has suites high up in the trees too), and it was a classic from the Out of Africa movie set.
With a nice verandah for looking out at the animals, it had a beautifully comfy bed in the centre of the room, an outdoor shower (very cool) and a big zip-up door at night, just in case a cheeky monkey decided to nip off with the smartphone. With all this luxury (the resort has two pools), you never forget that you're in the heart of the animals' territory -the night-time roar of a lion or the cackling of baboons in the trees will remind you just in case.
The lodge provides much-needed jobs to local people in the remote North West province of South Africa (it's a stone's throw from the border with Botswana), and they're second to none for friendliness. From lavish early-morning breakfasts to bulging dinners, or just fixing a well-earned gin and tonic for a sundowner, they're incredibly friendly, proud and knowledgeable about the local area.
And it's also got an underwater animal-spotting bunker, which is great for snapping away in secret when the animals come down for a drink.
One highlight for me was the early-morning drive through the bush - sunrises and sunsets here have to be seen to be believed - as the orange rays shine off the bodies of countless giraffes and rust-coloured elephants.
And the quality of the drive will depend on your guide. My expert guide was the Crocodile Dundee-like Warwick, a rugged rugby man who hails from the city but didn't want a slow death in an office job - a man who's most at home in the wild. He can spot a warthog or rhino from hundreds of metres away, knows the nocturnal habits of the jackal or hyenas here, can name the lions, and can identify the countless scores of bird species that thrive on this beautiful wilderness. He's got a loaded rifle, too - just in case!
Driving by evening, he halted at the historic spot where explorer David Livingstone was ambushed by a local tribe back in the 19th Century. We cracked open the beers, poured the tonic into the Gordon's and toasted the famous missionary.
As the last rays of the sun faded and died over the lush valley in the southern half of Africa, you could presume why Dr Livingstone was so drawn to this place.
If you've got a bit of romance in your soul, and want to escape somewhere that will capture your heart, put South Africa on your bucket list.
Mark travelled with Emirates (emirates.ie) via Dubai to Johannesburg, with two flights of just over seven hours each. Economy Class costs from €690pp all-in, or if it's the trip of a lifetime, Business Class luxury is from €2,606 (inclusive). It's a great airline, with the hundreds of movies, free food and drink killing the hours well.
Where to stay:
Jaci's Safari Lodge (madikwe.com) is in the heart of the game reserve.
It's a four-and-a-half hour drive from Jo'burg airport, or 50 minutes by cool safari plane from Jo'burg airport to Madikwe, almost to the door of your lodge, on fedair.com.
Rates per night at the lodge start at €143pps, including meals, local airstrip transfer and game drives, which is very cheap by the pricey standards of safari trips.
If you want to take in the likes of Cape Town too, see the country's tourism site on southafrica.net, or the local province on tourismnorthwest.co.za.