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Few travel experiences are as memorable as time spent at an African lodge going on game drives. It’s a must for any traveler. As good as that gets, however, there is still a separation between the visitors and the animals that can’t be avoided for safety reasons. In many cases, the unbreakable rule is that guests must stay in the Land Rover at all times — no exceptions. This is where Mattanu Private Game Reserve, in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, stands out. Not only can guests get out of the vehicle, they can get closer to animals than they might ever have imagined possible.
Guests at Mattanu Reserve have the option of sleeping outside in raised luxury tents that feature a host of amenities. // © 2009 Kenneth Shapiro
Mattanu is located approximately 35 miles northwest of the diamond mining town of Kimberley. The reserve is made up of nearly 5,000 acres, and within its fenced borders, a wide array of animals run free, including giraffe, wild boar, jackal and many different species of antelope. In fact, Mattanu started in 1991 with 95 endangered roan antelope and 65 rare sable antelope; since then more than 300 roan, sable and disease-free buffalo have been bred and distributed around Southern Africa — all thanks to the work at Mattanu.
The reason for this success in aiding endangered populations is that Mattanu is owned and operated by Dr. J.C. Kriek, a renowned wildlife veterinarian who specializes in game capture, breeding and transport. Dr. Kriek has
captured and transported everything from antelope to rhinos weighing two tons. Stories of Dr. Kriek’s adventures are one of the highlights of a stay at Mattanu, but it doesn’t stop there: Guests at the reserve can arrange to actually assist Dr. Kriek on a game capture, making for a unique and unforgettable experience.
On a recent visit, I found myself at dawn in the back of a pickup truck with a group of South African men, bouncing over dirt tracks that could hardly be called a road and scanning the bushes for the long, curved horns of a sable antelope. On this day, the goal was to capture four sables, give them each a thorough medical examination, transport them to a neighboring reserve and release them for breeding.
Dr. Kriek hovered overhead in a helicopter piloted by his son, Johann. His job was to spot the antelope and shoot it with a tranquilizer. Then, our group in the pickup would move in, secure the antelope and hoist it into the truck. Once it was in the back of the pickup, we would climb in and search for the next sable.
Within minutes, we were racing to the spot where a sable had been darted. Jumping from the pickup and searching through the brush for the huge animal, I suddenly remembered the stories Dr. Kriek had told us the night before about deadly puff adder snakes that prefer to lie still, perfectly camouflaged, in the bushes until an unfortunate person comes along and steps on one. Needless to say, I watched where I stepped as I worked my way into the brush.
The sable, which weighed several hundred pounds, was lying in some branches, apparently unconscious. Standing next to the animal, you realize just how dangerous its horns — like three-foot-long spears — can be. My job was to grab hold of these horns and keep them away from the other men as we moved the animal to the pickup. Occasionally the sleeping animal would twitch and jerk its head suddenly, nearly lifting me off the ground as I held on for dear life. Eventually, we got the sable loaded onto the truck, and climbed in with it. As I soaked the animal with water so it wouldn’t overheat, I just prayed it had received enough of the tranquilizer and wouldn’t wake up to skewer me on its horns, or knock me out of the speeding pickup.
Fortunately, it all went as planned and, when we were done, we released the four sable and watched as they sped away into the brush.
It was difficult, adrenaline-fueled work, but it was a morning that I couldn’t have dreamed I would get to experience, and one I will always remember.
Luxury Tents and More
Whether guests participate in a game capture or not, there are plenty of activities at Mattanu to keep them busy. Besides daily game drives into the bush, guests can take a helicopter ride with Johann to spot animals from the air, go quad biking or simply take a dip in the reserve’s pool.
Mattanu Private Reserve is a family operation. Besides Johann, Dr. Kriek’s other son, Jacques, serves as the resort’s general manager, handling the game drives and most of the rest of the operation, and mother Daleen is in charge of the kitchen. All the members of the family are extremely friendly, and they provide guests with a great opportunity to get to know a great, local South African family.
The accommodations at Mattanu are unique as well, with guests staying either in “chalets” or luxury “tents” on platforms.
The chalets are stone-built and have thatched roofs. They come with air-conditioning, a private deck, bathroom, fully equipped kitchen, fully furnished living area and more. The chalets accommodate up to 10 people.
Mattanu’s five luxury tents each come with beds and furnishings, a full bathroom with shower and a jet-spa tub, air-conditioning and under-floor heating, mini-refrigerators, a deck and more.
Both types of accommodations overlook a watering hole where wildlife sightings are common.
I stayed in a luxury tent during my visit and found it was an exciting way to get the feel of being on safari — without really roughing it. In the middle of the night, several giraffe wandered right by my tent, giving me a close-up view I won’t soon forget.
Mattanu also features a main lodge big enough to accommodate groups of up to 120. It has a full kitchen, a dining area, bar, satellite television and more. The Kriek family has a great selection of fine wines and cigars, and they are happy to pull something special out of the cellar for guests.
Between the game captures, animal viewing, helicopter rides, unique luxury accommodations and good meals accompanied by fine wines and great storytelling, guests at Mattanu will leave knowing they experienced a unique slice of Africa.