Saving water in Madikwe Game Reserve

Madikwe Game Reserve is a magnificent 750km² reserve lying 300 kilometres to the north of Johannesburg, in the North West Province. It is home to the big five, as well as numerous animal, reptile and bird species, and has a bird list of over 350. The climate year-round is moderate to hot, with winter temperatures sometimes dropping below 0°C overnight, and summer temperatures sometimes reaching over 40°C. The average annual rainfall is low, about 500mm per annum, and over the past few years has been getting lower, so efficient use of ground water is of critical importance to the guests and residents of the reserve.

It was with this is mind that Gordon and Sue Morrison, the owners of the The Bush House ( – a magnificent four star lodge set in the Western section of the park – contacted us to assist with their gardens. Their primary goal was to reduce their lawn areas in order to reduce their water consumption, as well as to help lower their maintenance costs. The original lawn covered an area of 1600m², and consisted of a mix of both Kikuyu and LM. It was a magnificent sweeping lawn (and still is), but necessitated extensive watering cycles in order to keep it looking green and healthy, which had a direct impact on the lodge’s water consumption and borehole.

The beautiful sweeping lawns of The Bush House

Water is a scarce commodity, and with the recent drought and uncertainty in changes in climate, efficient water usage is always going to be of concern, so the change to a more water-efficient – as well as wildlife-friendly – garden, was an important one for the lodge. There were other notable problems to resolve too: The high water requirement of the lawn was having a negative impact on some of the trees, specifically the beautiful Erythrinas which framed the outer edge of the garden. Generally, Erythrinas go dormant in winter, and should not be watered during the dry season, but because of their positioning in the lawn, there had been little choice but to water them, creating a sort of ‘conflict-of-interest’ in the watering cycle.

The beautiful Erythrinas on the lawns of The Bush House

Grounded Landscaping’s first task for the project was to map out the lawn area, and to put together a proposal that would include a reduction of lawn and an adjustment to the irrigation system in order to maximise its efficiency. We began by creating a concept design of the lodge garden, changing four key areas from Kikuyu/LM lawn to indigenous garden beds. Our plant selection necessitated additional research to ensure that the selected species were suited to the Madikwe climate. To do this we reviewed plant lists of the reserve itself, and chose species that would work well in the lodge’s garden setting. (This is also a worthwhile tip for homeowners: the next time you’re unsure about what plants to buy for your garden, pay a visit to your local nature reserve). In our case, some of the species we chose included Peltophorum africanum (African Wattle) and Olea europaea subsp. Africana (Wild Olive), amongst others. Then, within the micro-climate of the garden, we chose plant species based on their differing light requirements, i.e. sun/semi-shade/shade, as well as their screening or ‘framing’ potential for specific guest areas. Some species were selected to attract sunbirds and butterflies, and these were positioned to help encourage movement of these beautiful creatures around the garden. In this regard, it was rewarding to see how quickly the local wildlife responded – as can be seen by this acraea butterfly which began feeding on the bagged plants the minute they arrived!

Butterflies arrived within minutes – the plants still in their bags!

Finally, our planning included looking at the irrigation system. In consultation with the owners it was decided to utilise an existing lawn station for one of the new beds (i.e. change gear-drives to risers), to add a new station for a new ‘forest garden’, and to adjust the direction of some existing gear drives in order to reach new areas. It was also decided to add two new gear drives in areas that had existing dry spots. The existing valves were semi-buried under soil, so we decided to build a new box to neaten this up and make future maintenance of the system easier.

The old valve setup, semi-buried in soil – they’re in there somewhere!

Because of the distances involved to get to Madikwe, the lodge graciously decided to put our core team up for the seven days of the project. Coupled with the close viewing of game at the waterhole right in front of the garden, this made for a memorable project, with the occasional ‘hiatus’ in proceedings when a bull elephant or herd of buffalo came over to drink – see photos below. We also decided to bring in local labour from the surrounding community in order to supplement our core team, which helped to speed up the project and provide jobs to the community for the short period we were there.

Here are some selected highlights from the installation:

The preparation of the new largest bed area

Marking out the new bed area around the existing pond

Marking out the new bed area to the right of the path leading to the underground hide

Preparation of the ground for the new ‘forest garden’

Preparation of the ground for the seating area beneath the beautiful Frangipani trees

A brief hiatus in proceedings…you never know what distractions you might have whilst working in Africa!

Sometimes the tiniest creatures were the most rewarding to find

Back to work – never underestimate a 450l tree; delivering, placing and planting one takes a huge effort

Moving the Wild Olive into place – only 30 metres to go…

Planting a new Paperbark Thorn (Vachellia sieberiana var. woodii)

Trust working his magic to re-build the valve-box and re-organise the wiring

Ryan getting his hands dirty, and everything else

Another highlight for the team – Gordon and Sue graciously allowed us a game drive to see a pair of male lions that had moved into the area

The new valve-box

The Bush House staff, readying themselves for the planting of their own plants!

The new young bedding plants surrounding the pond

The new ‘forest garden’

The new Monkey Thorn (Vachellia galpinii), which will, in time, provide shade to guests in front of the patio

A new Paperbark Thorn (Vachellia sieberiana var. woodii), which will provide shade to guests watching the waterhole

The view of the waterhole from the new bench, framed on the right by the lawns and on the left by indigenous plants and existing mother-in-laws tongues

The full team: Grounded Landscaping with Madikwe community members…and don’t forget the elephant!

The Grounded Landscaping team

The end result is a garden that both ourselves and The Bush House can be proud of: wildlife-friendly, indigenous, and most importantly, a water-wise solution to the uncertain future of our natural water resources. In total the lawn areas were reduced by 33%, and The Bush House has confirmed that they are now saving 22 500 litres of water per week.

The Bush House testimonial

Glenice, Ryan and the team from Grounded Landscaping have been an absolute pleasure to work with from start to finish. Bearing in mind we are in the middle of a game reserve and so far away from Johannesburg, the planning and execution has been exemplary. In the seven days they were with us Glenice and Ryan were completely hands on, always available and totally involved with this large project. Everyone on the team was completely professional and friendly and it was a wonderful way for our staff and ourselves to learn so much with this hands on approach. Nothing was too much trouble and it was a project that had a “feel good“ effect. Our guests have been delighted with the result and we are doubly thrilled that due to this project we are saving 22 500 litres of water a week. Sincere thanks.

– Gordon & Sue Morrison, The Bush House, Madikwe Game Reserve, March 2016

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