In the Footsteps of Oom Schalk – Departures

Written by Justin Fox

Madikwe Game Reserve lies in the heart of the Marico, an evocative corner of South Africa made famous in the short stories of Herman Charles Bosman. Justin Fox visits the luxurious Rockfig Lodge to get under the skin of the Bushveld.

In January 1926, the young Herman Charles Bosman was sent as a novice teacher to a tiny school in the Marico District of the former Western Transvaal. He stayed less than six months, but the impression made on him by the region and its people was seminal. Almost all his short stories are set in the Marico, many of them narrated by his famous storyteller, Oom Schalk Lourens, who has become one of South Africa’s best-loved literary characters. 

During his time as a teacher, Bosman was inspired by the local bosvelders, and by the particular quality of the Marico landscape. His stories sketch a picture of the hardships of farmers and the cycles of life. It’s a world where drought, cattle raiders, and rinderpest threaten; where shooting wild game, brewing coffee from the roots of the witgat, and distilling mampoer are common practice. Bosman sought to capture what he called ‘the soul of the veld’. For modern travellers, it is these evocations that we hold dear, for they colour and enhance our appreciation of this region. 

Thanks to conservation efforts, Madikwe Game Reserve looks much as it did in Bosman’s day: a wild place of big skies, vast plains, and rocky inselbergs in a region where Bushveld and Kalahari meet. Comprising 750 square kilometres, this malaria-free reserve has become famous for its African wild dogs, but it’s also great for Big Five viewing, and the wide range of habitats make for excellent birding, with more than 350 species recorded.

Our group of friends arrived hot and dusty from Joburg and entered Madikwe at Abjaterskop Gate. I remembered that Bosman’s schoolhouse was a two-room, thatched structure with a dung floor in the shadow of Abjaterskop. Close by was Zwingli trading store where Bosman bought his provisions. It’s still there today, just south of Abjaterskop Gate on the R49.

Many of the farms described by Bosman no longer exist, but quite a number have been incorporated into Madikwe. Wildlife that was so plentiful in Oom Schalk Lourens’s day had mostly been shot out by the late 20th century, but is now back in wonderful abundance.

Rockfig Lodge is a fenced-off oasis set on a koppie with gorgeous views of unspoiled Bushveld dotted with inselbergs. The lodge is small and intimate, comprising of just three self-contained villas and one private family house, Inkwe (which sleeps six). They are positioned far enough apart to ensure seclusion but within easy walking distance of the restaurant, bar, and pool deck. Best of all is an underground hide beside a waterhole for intimate game viewing. 

My villa, Tshukudu, was modern and well-appointed with a fully equipped kitchen, comfortable living room, large stoep, boma for braaiing, outdoor shower and private plunge pool.

After unpacking and settling in, we headed out on a game drive with experienced ranger Honest Sangweni. Khaki landscape, green magic-gwarri bushes, cobalt sky. The sightings came at regular intervals: waterbuck, zebra, giraffe, buffalo. We arrived at a dam where elephants were playfully spraying themselves with mud. Then a rhino appeared on the scene and they turned their attention on the poor fellow who had to back off smartly.

Later, we came to Vleisfontein, once a Catholic mission, now the park’s headquarters. Oom Schalk recounts how the local predikant riled against the papists and their proselytising activities among the Bapedi. The remains of the mission – graveyard, chapel, fine accommodation buildings, surrounding fields once tended by Jesuits and dams stocked with fish for Friday meals – are well worth a visit.

As the sun sank, Honest found us a lovely spot for sundowner drinks. Standing in the veld with G&T in hand, I remembered that the fictional farm of Oom Schalk was near here, just north of the Dwarsberge and west of Abjaterskop, shaped like a camel’s hump on the horizon. Oom Schalk tells us that ghosts used to live on that kop, and that it was the home of witches. Even though the old oom didn’t really believe such nonsense, he used to spur his steed to a gallop through the poort, because ‘a horse is sensitive about things like ghosts and witches, and it was my duty to see my horse was not frightened unnecessarily.’

The ensuing days found a natural Bushveld rhythm, with morning and evening game drives, and much lounging around our plunge pools during the heat of the day when the Kalahari vented its steamy breath. Our drives produced spectacular sightings: a cheetah mom and three cubs; lions galore, mostly recumbent and looking regal; giraffes lowering their necks to drink like toppling skyscrapers; light-footed wild dogs on the hunt. 

Our last day culminated in a lavish braai, lit by a bonfire and lanterns, with camp chairs drawn close and the stars shining uncannily bright. When others made for bed, I retired to the hide with my binoculars. The air was filled with a chorus of crickets and night jars. The waterhole lay just a few metres away, softly lit, almost at eye level. Antelope came and went like ghostly phantoms, hyena whoops rent the night.

Sitting there on my lonesome, Bosman’s words echoed in my head: ‘And so I arrived back in that part of the country which the Transvaal Education Department in its wisdom had sent me years before. There is no other place I know that is so heavy with atmosphere, so strangely and darkly impregnated with that stuff of life that bears the authentic stamp of South Africa.’ Just so.

Ways and means

How to get there

Rockfig Lodge lies in the western sector of Madikwe, North West Province. From Pretoria, it’s a four-hour drive on good roads.

The experience

Rockfig Lodge offers a wide range of activities, including daily game drives, safari walks, an underground hide, ‘The Cliff’ sunset deck, a private braai at your villa and in-room spa treatments. Uniquely, Rockfig Lodge has its own pizza oven and guests can craft their own meals.For children, there are Kids Bumble Drives focusing on the ‘little stuff’, like toothbrush plants, beetles and spoor.

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In the Footsteps of Oom Schalk
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In the Footsteps of Oom Schalk
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In the Footsteps of Oom Schalk

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