Across the Limpopo to Mashatu in Botswana
4 Oct. We are looking forward to driving in Landy again and it is strange to leave the camp and go back into civilisation after living in the bush for so long. We decide to leave earlier in Landy than the rest of the guys in the Eco Training Minibus as we want to get some shopping from Tzaneen on the way to the border crossing. As we head north the terrain begins to change as we arrive in the beautiful area around Mapangubwe.
After a quick stop in Alldays for a milkshake with our instructor Graham whilst we wait for the minibus, we are back on the the road and soon at Pontdrift Border Crossing. Landy makes short work of the deep sand dry river bed crossing and we soon complete formalities at Customs at surely one of the quietest and quickest border controls in South Africa (apart perhaps from the one at Richtersveld).
First impressions of Mashatu? Unbelievably beautiful. Huge rocky outcrops, large trees and lots of open space look perfect for game drives and bush walks. I think we are going to like it here.
Eco Training Mashatu Camp
Even on the way to the camp we see plenty of wildlife including elephants at a waterhole where a baby was having great fun harassing a warthog. The terrain becomes more interesting as we approach Eco Training’s camp as it is right on the banks of Motloutse River and very close to a feature known as Solomans Wall, a 30-metre high and 10-metre wide basalt dyke. This unusual feature once formed a steep-sided natural dam wall across the river and held back a vast lake, with water spilling over it, until it finally gave way and the river began to flow. Of course now the river flows only occasionally and for now it is dry.
When we arrive at camp it is to find that the lecture room overlooks the dry river and it couldn’t be a more idyllic place to live and learn. We are pleased to find that we can park Landy right next to the camp so it seems logical for us to set up our roof tent and sleep in comfort and leave the small ground tents with accompanying bugs to the young ones. We try not to feel smug!
After everyone has settled in and we all have a look around our home for the next month we set off on a game drive. Sad to say that the vehicles here are Toyotas, not Land Rovers but you can’t have everything. The vegetation here is very different to that which we have been used to so far. Huge appleleaf trees and Mashatu Trees line the river and majestic Baobabs cling to the side of the hills. There are Mopane forests which are loved by the large herds of elephants that can be found here and there are so many different types of flowers and plants that we are going to have our work cut out remembering them for our game drives.
As dusk falls we arrive at Mmamagwa Hill which is an extremely important historical place, formally part of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe (1075–1220), the first stage of development that would lead in the 13th century to the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe.
We climb up the hill as the sun begins to set and the colour of the sky is beautiful, a lone Baobab tree silhouetted against the orange is the perfect place to sit and contemplate our surroundings and how much we are going to enjoy living here. Cecil Rhodes even carved his name into this tree, its clearly a place that has intrigued visitors for a long time. An extra treat on the way back to camp though; Springhares. I have never seen them before and I just wish I had the ability to take good photos of animals in the spot lights at night.
The night proves to be exciting too. We have elephants wandering around the camp during the night. So close that we can hear them breathing outside our tent as well as their low rumbles and soft footsteps through the undergrowth.
Wonderful Game Drives
Its hot here, very hot and the best bit of the day is the early morning when it is beautifully cool and somehow getting out of bed at 5am is no longer difficult. Today it is our turn to make the flasks up and pack up the Toyota to head out for a game drive. On the way the talk is all about the elephants in camp last night and although we are now used to being around wildlife it still makes the heart beat a bit quicker when they are just the other side of a piece of canvas.
We stop at a lovely stop at a place called “Hole in the Wall”, a rocky outcrop with, yes you guessed it, a hole through it. It has a special historic significance as it is apparently the place women went to give birth. Its quiet and and peaceful here and we wander around with our tea, studying spoor and trying to “read” the land. What has been here during the night? It is so interesting to find the signs of their presence, almost as exiting as seeing them in the flesh. A lion paw print where you sat to drink tea yesterday morning, or huge elephant spoor in the sand next to your tent when you emerge in the morning, all adds to the excitement of living in the bush.
Mashatu provides us with some stunning locations for game drives. This morning we find lots of new bird species on our way to the “Amphitheatre”, an almost completely enclosed area with massive rocky “walls” surrounding it, one of which we climb to get the most amazing views of the area.
Elephants in Camp
Back at camp we have some theory work to do and the lecture room is the only place that is bearable to sit and work in. The tents are so hot they feel suffocating. The heat is definitely going to be a challenge here. We even get up in the middle of the night for a cold shower and wet the sheets with cold water to lay over the top of us.
There are plenty of elephants in Mashatu and as well as seeing them on many game drives we also have them through camp, particularly at night. One particular evening Keith sets off to the toilet block and after about 15 minutes I begin to wonder where he has got to. As I walk along the dirt path to the toilets I see Keith sitting down on the floor leaning against the wall and he turns to whisper to me to keep quiet. There are four elephants standing a few metres from him, eating the leaves of the tree overhanging the toilet block. I slowly lower myself to the ground next to him and we sit perfectly still and just watch them. They know we are here, we could almost reach out to touch them, but they are not concerned and as long we keep still and allow them to dictate where they go and how far away they want us, we will be fine. We feel very safe and peaceful sitting here, on our own, watching elephants whilst still being able to hear the conversations and laughter coming from the lecture room. Amazing.
Lions in Mashatu
Thurs 8 Oct. It’s our turn to get the early morning drinks ready today but thoughout the night we heard lions very close and as the alarm goes off we can still here them and we are not sure how close they are; it sounds like they are just outside! So we decide to wait until it’s a bit lighter and hope that everyone else has the same idea and doesn’t mind tea being late. We were right, everyone stayed in bed until the sound of the lions moved away.
On the drive we go in search of the early morning visitors but, although we found tracks all around the camp, we can’t locate them and so drive a bit further on to the amphitheatre where we see some very cute slender mongooses. After a test on birds and some time relaxing through the heat of the day our evening drive is also a quest to find the lions. After hearing baboons alarm calls from the top of Solomans Wall we head that way and this time we are in luck. They have found a little bit of water in the dry river bed, probably created by elephants digging down, and so we are able to sit and watch them for a while.
Wed 14 Oct. This evening we find a female cheetah with three adolescent offspring. They are stalking an impala and the mother is clearly trying to show them how to hunt. They are not much help though, content to hold back under the shade of a tree whilst she does all the work. Unfortunately, although we see her begin to take chase, we soon lose her and we don’t find out if she makes a kill. The sunset is stunning tonight so we take the opportunity to get some more photos.
Walking in the Bush
18 Oct. We are lucky to be able to walk in this amazing place and this morning Graham asks if any of us would like to take a walk along the East West Ridge. We jump at the chance, you never know what you might see and encountering animals whilst on foot is of the highlights of the course. The view is great from here and the baobabs are huge on top of the ridge.
We have a great time identifying birds and plants and although we don’t find much in the way of game it is still a great way to spend a few hours.
The most amazing sighting
Not long after getting back from our walk we all set off in the game vehicle for drive and just a few minutes away from camp we spot a female cheetah and five beautiful little cubs, still very fluffy and probably only a couple of months old. But what alerts us to their presence is the screaming of a troop of baboons who are chasing and harassing the cubs and the mum is clearly agitated and a bit unsure of what to do. She manages to get them away but in the panic they dart of in different directions and she loses track of them. We set off in pursuit in the car through the bush and watch as she calls for her babies, three of them quickly finding their way to her side. A few more yards into the bush and another one appears and she seems to think she has found them all. But now we are unsure. Did we see four or five? Perhaps that is all of them safe. However she starts to get restless again and one of the little cubs is clearly upset, crying out and beginning to wander again. Eventually she rises and begins to make here way back to where the baboons had harassed them, at which point we are worried she is going to walk straight back into them with her babies. However as we arrive back at the scene of the action we can hear a feint crying, and the little cub who had been vocal a few minutes ago begins to scamper towards the sound. The reunion of the two siblings is heart warming; they are so pleased to see one another. The exhausted family settle down under a tree to recover and play and we are once again so thankful that we have seen something so special.
Sleeping under the stars
Our experience in Mashatu is coming to an end soon but tonight we have one more adventure. A walk to amphitheatre and a sleep out under the stars. It is bloody hot today and the walk is not easy but we get quite close to a loan male elephant walking in the river bank so its a pretty exciting walk. After dinner and chatting around the camp fire we take it in turns to keep watch. During my watch (Keith is impossible to wake so I have to do it alone) the moon is full and bright and I can see the surrounding bush surprisingly well. Although there are lots of rustling noises nothing comes close and when the moon drops below the horizon the stars are unbelievable and there are even a couple of shooting stars to complete the scene. Lying in our sleeping bags gazing up at them is a fine way to spend a night in the bush. We are going to miss this place.