Abraham dropped us off near a small airstrip, where we were
met by Jakes, one of the guides from Mashatu Tented Camp, driving
a Toyota Landcruiser. He
immediately asked us which we liked better, the Landrover or the
Landcruiser – we told him we would have to reserve judgment
until we had spent more time in the Landcruiser.
Mashatu Game Reserve adjoins the Tuli Lodge area, but is far
larger, around 75,000 acres. Both
are privately owned properties that are part of the greater
Northern Tuli Game Reserve, which encompasses the very
eastern-most tip of Botswana.
Jakes drove for almost an hour on the bumpy washboard
gravel road, and he was moving right along.
At one junction there was an arrow pointing to our turnoff
and a handmade sign labeled M1 – a tongue and cheek reference to
the major British motorway with the same designation.
We drove through the bushveld, across flat barren plains.
After a while the landscape became more rolling, with
denser brush and many big trees.
The hillier countryside was beautiful, and we crossed
several small rivers. It
seemed to be the Land of the Giraffes; there were two big ones
right in the road, and dozens of others along the way.
We were excited about this, because so far we had not spent
as much time with giraffes as we would have liked.
We arrived at the Mashatu Tented Camp, where we were
greeted by an older Motswana gentleman named Congo.
He gave us a welcome drink, and took us up a little path
through the woods to Tent Number 1, which would be our home for
the next three days. It
was a canvas tent set on a permanent concrete platform, with a
small verandah in front and a bathroom and shower out back.
It was very nice, with electricity, running water, decent
beds, nightstands, and a dresser.
Congo told us to keep the tent flap zipped tightly to keep
the monkeys out, and to put our valuables and toiletry in the
dresser drawers in case they got in anyway.
We noticed right away that our tent zipper wouldn’t
actually fasten; we hoped this wouldn’t be a problem.
was an electric fence around the camp, which we were told would
hopefully keep out the elephants, but would not deter lions and
hyenas. We were
instructed not to leave our tents during the night.
Each tent room was equipped with an air horn in case of
emergency; the information sheet in our rooms said that animals
outside your tent do not constitute an emergency; animals in your tent do.
unpacked our bags and went outside to explore.
We paid our respects to a bushbuck that lay in the
underbrush just a few feet from our door, unconcerned by our
presence. We went down
a path to a gate in the perimeter fence, and then crossed the dry
streambed between high protective stone walls to the Hide, a
camouflaged shelter built beside a water hole, where one can sit
and observe the animals as they come to drink.
There were several serious looking photographers there; we
quietly sat down in the empty chairs, and waited and watched.
A herd of impala came down for water; they seemed to sense
our presence and were wary at first, but soon seemed to gain
confidence from safety in numbers.
At three o'clock we went to the lounge for high tea.
This open-sided building of rustic wood and thatched roof
housed the bar, the sitting area, and the dining room where brunch
and tea were served. We
met our guide, Justice, a friendly Motswana who seemed to have a
genuine passion for the animals and the bush.
The day was warm and the sky was a deep clear blue as we
set off on a game drive with Justice through the beautiful rolling
Toyota Landcruiser was similar to the ‘rovers, with three bench
seats and no roof. The
seats were a bit further from the ground than the ‘rover, and
Justice hung a little portable ladder from the side of the vehicle
to assist us in climbing up. A
couple from Kentucky joined us, and a spotter named Ephraim rode
in the back seat to assist in finding wildlife.
drove out the back of the camp, past the watering hole.
The first thing we found was a boomslang in a tree.
This highly poisonous greyish-green snake has potent venom,
more toxic than mambas and cobras.
I think boomslang is a great name for a snake!
It was camouflaged in a mopane tree, and we were able to
drive the vehicle to within inches of it, for an eye-to-eye
We saw all of the usual suspects:
impala, zebra, wildebeest, eland, steenbok, warthogs and
baboons. Justice told
us that the zebra and wildebeest often hang out together, because
zebras see really well and wildebeests have very keen hearing, so
together they make a good team.
In the bird department, there were plenty of francolins
(also known as spurfowl), guinea fowl, Cape turtle doves, and
hornbills both yellow and red billed.
We saw several giraffes, but only in the distance.
Driving along a creekbed, we saw
an eagle owl perched in a tree above us.
A red-crested korhaan hid in the underbrush, its mottled
brown feathers helping the partridge-sized bird blend in to the
surroundings. A huge
saddle-billed stork fished along the riverbed, and a black-backed
jackal paused in its hunt to check us out.
We could hear the constant chant of doves in the
background; their repetitive three-syllable call sounded like they
were singing “Botswana,
Justice got word on his radio of a cheetah sighting, and we
went to find them. There
were three adult males, all brothers, starting to hunt.
We watched as they stalked regally across the plain.
Cheetahs are exceptionally elegant.
They are long and lanky, built for speed – the feline
version of a greyhound. Justice
drove the ‘cruiser ahead of them and stopped, so we could watch
and photograph them as they strolled by; he repeated this drill
several times. The
cheetahs disdainfully ignored us, like stars too used to
They stopped several times to mark their territory,
spraying scent on trees. They
worked their way up a long slope to the top of a narrow ridge,
where was a breathtaking panoramic view of the plains below.
Justice told us that cheetahs often spot their prey from
this ridge, which was appropriately named Cheetah Hill.
sun was getting low and the evening sky was turning pastel colors.
A nearly full moon hung pale above the horizon.
We left the cheetahs to their hunt and moved on.
We postponed Sundowners
in favor of leopard hunting.
Justice drove alongside a woodsy creek in the gathering
darkness. We spotted a
leopard, walking along the bank of the dry creek; he soon lay down
and started grooming himself.
It was getting quite dark, but our spotter Ephraim shone
the light on him so we could get photos.
As we maneuvered closer he sat up and stared at us
intently, but after a while he seemed to lose interest.
His eyelids started to droop, and before long he flopped
down on his side for a snooze.
We carried on, spotlighting along the way.
We stopped for a late Sundowners, with white wine and
homemade potato chips. The
moon bathed the landscape in a soft glow, the silky light
transforming the plain to a shimmering silver.
It looked like a lovely night for a walk.
I stood with Mike, the man from Kentucky, and we fantasized
about hiking by moonlight across the plain to the top of the far
hill – we could sneak off when the guides weren’t looking. I
wondered how far we would get.
Even with the moonlight, the stars were brilliant above us.
Justice pointed out the Southern Cross and the two bright
Pointer stars aligned next to it.
We could see the constellation Scorpius in full, high in
the sky instead of obscured by the horizon like it usually appears
We arrived back at the camp at 7:15, where Congo met us
with lanterns and escorted us to our tents.
Dinner was served in the boma, a circular enclosure
surrounded by a high solid wooden fence.
As at Tuli, the server announced the fare: Lamb
and beef, potatoes, couscous, veggies and mashed pumpkin.
It turns out that mashed pumpkin is surprisingly good!
But I did note that they served ‘lamb’ for dinner
often, but I have yet to see a sheep in Africa.
The air was clear, and very cold.
We sat close to the fire for warmth.
They served Cointreau after dinner, pouring triple shots of
the delicious orange liqueur.
Heading back to our tent, we found our path lit by storm
temperature was dropping quickly and there was no heat source in
our tent, though we were supplied with plenty of thick warm
blankets. But to our
delight, we found that hot water bottles had been placed in our
beds. Crawling under
the covers with the hot water bottles and multiple heavy blankets,
we were very cozy.
Our guide woke us at six, and it was freezing – the
coldest morning we’d had yet by far.
I put on pretty much all the clothes I had brought –
three shirts, a windbreaker, a polar fleece and a heavy rain
jacket, along with a winter hat and gloves.
Lacking long johns, I wore my pajamas underneath my pants.
Jineen, who gets cold more easily than I, was wearing even
more layers. Pack
light, right? Hah!
After all, its Africa – how cold can it be!
a quick cup of hot tea, we set out on the game drive at 6:30.
Climbing into the Landcruiser, we were gratified to find
heavy blankets waiting for us on the seats, and even better, a hot
water bottle for each of us. There
were eight guests crowded into the vehicle this morning, as well
as the guide and spotter – it was packed, but at least we were
out across the savannah, we watched the sun come up in a blaze of
orange. A chorus of
bird song greeted the translucent morning sky.
We saw zebras in the half light of dawn, and impala faded
away into the bushveld before us.
We met up with elephants almost right away.
It was a large group, at least twenty, with two very small
babies. They made
their way through the bush, moving purposefully.
Justice drove ahead of them and stopped strategically by
their path; they swerved past us and kept going, the adults
surrounding the little ones to shield them from our view.
Justice again maneuvered the vehicle ahead of the herd, and
we watched them close up as they strode by.
One large female, the herd matriarch, became increasingly
annoyed with us. After
several warnings she finally charged the jeep, with her ears
flapping and her trunk held high, trumpeting as she came.
She did not charge particularly fast, seeming content to
just chase us away rather than flatten us, but she was persistent,
following us for at least half a mile even after we retreated.
Justice told us later that this was a ‘mock charge.’
When the elephant’s intent is serious, they charge with
their ears pinned back and their trunks tucked underneath.
Good to know.
We stopped on a knoll for a cup of tea, with a wide view of
the bushveld around us. I
took panoramic photos of the stately procession of elephants as
they moved across the plain, blending into their surroundings
on, we came across some of the regulars; wildebeests, giraffes,
warthogs and ostriches. We
saw a mother zebra with very unusual markings; her neck and back
were covered with intermingled stripes and spots, though the baby
at her side had a normal striped pattern.
A lilac-breasted roller bird flew across in front of us,
the sun highlighting the iridescent blue of its wings.
We saw a couple of new birds – the attractive blue-black
Burchell’s starling, and the brilliant crimson-breasted shrike.
So far, every day we had found at least one new species of
animal or bird that we hadn’t seen before.
We came across another Land cruiser,
parked on the open plain; stopping to investigate, we found to our
delight that the occupants were watching a pride of seven lions.
There were two adult females, three older cubs which
Justice said were probably nine months of age, and two smaller
ones, about six months old. One
of the lionesses lay daydreaming in the sunshine, and the other
walked regally across the clearing, her lithe body all grace and
power, tawny coat gleaming in the sun.
Neither of them acknowledged our presence, but Justice said
if we got out of the vehicle they would probably kill us.
We decided not to test the theory.
For that matter, with the totally open ‘cruisers, there
seemed no reason they couldn’t kill us while we were in
the vehicle if they wanted to . . .
The cubs were extremely cute, though I am sure they were
hoping for a description more like fierce or majestic.
They had thicker coats than their mothers, almost a little
fluffy, and they were darker colored, with mottled spots.
Several of the older cubs were males, and we could see the
scruffy beginnings of manes around their necks.
youngsters stalked about, looking for trouble and getting into
mischief; kittens are kittens the world over.
Two of them chewed on a bush, looking not in the least
kingly. After a while
they all meandered over to a knoll and posed for us.
Two of the older cubs were lying side by side facing us,
and the third, wanting in on the act, squeezed in right between
them. All three of
them gazed at us, hamming it up for the camera.
Eventually we moved on.
We drove up to the top of a knoll to find three cheetahs,
the brothers from the night before, sleeping in the sunshine.
They briefly raised their heads to check us out, and then
went back to their nap.
We drove along beside a riverbed,
and found a large adult male lion, resting in the shade.
He had a thick dark-colored mane, and one eye was blind.
He looked venerable and old, battle-tested, and he wore his
scars with pride.
were headed back to camp, checking out a few zebras and elephants,
when Justice got a report on the radio that there was a leopard in
the area. We drove
along the dry riverbed to where it had been sighted.
After a fair bit of searching, we saw a female leopard
walking furtively through the underbrush, and we got a mere
glimpse of her two half grown babies.
We reflected on what a great
morning it had been - lions, cheetahs and leopards, all in the
space of an hour.
We arrived back at the tented camp at 11:15, just in time
for brunch in the dining hall with the other guests.
We spent some time getting to know Jennifer and John from
New York, who had visited Mashatu before.
John had broken his back in six places several years
before, and now lived on a morphine pump – even though he had
ridden up front beside the driver on the morning game drive, the
constant bumping on the rough tracks had done him in.
lunch we sat on the front porch of the tent and threw crumbs to
the birds. We got out
our bird book and identified an arrow-marked babbler,
camaroptera, a tropical bou bou, some white-throated
robin chats, and several red-eyed bulbuls.
We walked down the little path between the stone walls to
the Hide, and watched to see what would come to the waterhole.
Before long a herd of female impala came down from the
hillside. They stood
side by side as they bent down to drink, their graceful heads
mirrored in the reflection on the water.
Soon after they finished, a bachelor herd of males came,
sporting impressive sets of long curving horns.
John Spence from Aardvark Safaris had told me we would
enjoy the Hide, and he was right.
We stayed there for several hours, fascinated.
identified some more birds: the golden-breasted bunting, the
cinnamon-breasted bunting, and a brilliant little turquoise bird
called the blue waxbill. We’d
seen enough new species this afternoon to last a week!
two big male kudus walked by on the far side of the clearing.
Kudus are my favorite of the antelopes, tall and graceful, with elegant faces and huge
cupped ears. They are
a greyish-brown color, with thin vertical white stripes on their
sides. They have a
fringe of long mane all the way down their spines, and also on the
underneath side of their necks.
The males have magnificent long twisting horns.
The kudus seemed to be considering coming down to drink,
but they sensed our presence and kept going, fading away into the
Upon returning to our tent, we found that the faulty zipper
on the tent flap had been replaced, making it monkey-proof.
Pretty good service, considering we had just mentioned it
High tea was served at three o'clock, and then we went out
for the afternoon game drive at 3:30.
Only four guests this time, much less crowded.
John and Jennifer sat this one out because of John’s
back, but we were joined by Xavier and Bircee from Belgium.
Xavier was a very keen photographer; he took pictures of everything.
I thought I took a lot of photos, but Xavier took more.
Justice drove, and Ephraim was our
spotter again. When we
were at Tuli Lodge we never had spotters on the drives, even
though the Landrovers had been equipped with a special seat for
them out on the front of the vehicle.
Here at Mashatu Ephraim went out as spotter on every drive,
sitting in the back.
came to a lovely large water hole formed by a dammed up river.
A blacksmith plover waded in the shallows, his black, grey
and white plumage vivid in the sunlight.
A chorus of doves’ voices filled the air: Botswana,
Botswana, Botswana. We
stopped beneath a great baobab tree, and Justice picked one of the
fruits for us to taste; it was sort of like a nut, but bitter
because it was not yet ripe. He
told us that the baobabs have a very soft, pulp-like wood, and
when they die they sort of implode, and rot away very quickly.
They have a very high water content, up to 60%, and the
trunks actually swell and shrink with the wet and dry seasons.
We found elephants – a herd of about twenty, traveling
along a dry riverbed. We
parked in the direction they were heading toward, and waited as
they came closer. Unafraid,
they trooped right past our ‘cruiser, some of them passing
within 15 feet of us. They
stopped to eat, tearing the leaves and branches off of the mopane
trees with their trunks and devouring them.
Justice explained how the mopane trees actually release a
pheromone when the elephants start eating them, which causes the
other trees downwind to turn bitter to the taste.
Some of the elephants went to the riverbed and dug down
through the dry sand to find water underneath, drinking, and
spraying themselves a little.
They were joined by another group from up the river.
Continuing on, the Landcruiser became briefly stuck in the
deep sand of the dry river bottom; with wheels spinning madly,
Justice managed to get it free.
Regarding the question of Landrovers versus Landcruisers,
by now we had enough data to answer the question.
The ‘cruisers at Mashatu had more legroom and space for
our backpacks and camera equipment, and so were a little more
comfortable. But they
also had less ground clearance, and seemed to get stuck more
often. The ‘rovers
from Tuli seemed to be more rugged and could go over steeper
terrain. Overall, we
voted in favor of the Landrovers.
the daylight was fading, Justice suddenly pulled off the road;
there was an aardwolf, curled up sleeping in a shallow ditch.
It looked somewhat foxlike, with large ears and a striped
coat. Justice told us
that these more attractive relatives of the hyena are totally
nocturnal and quite rare, so we were really lucky to see one.
We had Sundowners on a small hill – white wine and
popcorn. The sun set
in a blaze of fire, its reflected light creating a brilliant
border of orange and rose, like a rainbow all the way around the
horizon. The full moon
hung orange in the sky opposite the sun.
and I talked as we watched the stars come out one by one.
With his keen eyes, he could see each new star sooner than
I could. We watched
the Southern Cross and Scorpius gradually appear in the sky,
growing more brilliant as the night darkened.
The Milky Way was strewn like jewels across the heavens.
I asked Justice if he loves his job, and if he realizes how
lucky he is to live in a place surrounded by beauty and nature.
He said yes, he does, very much so.
I told him about my own job, and how much I love it.
We stood in companionship, sharing the timeless moment.
We spotlighted our way back to the camp, seeing only a few
zebras, a couple of elephants, and some wildebeest.
Congo met us with the lantern and escorted us to the boma
for dinner. There were
about a dozen guests staying at the Tented Camp, and the tables
were set in a semi-circle around the fire.
The main course was goat; why is it that we had a choice of
at least two entrées
every night except for when they served goat?
John let me borrow his international cell phone to call
home, the only time I was able to do so for the entire trip.
dinner we all sat around the campfire and listened to the guides
tell stories, sipping on Cointreau and moving our chairs closer to
the flames for warmth. It
was a friendly group, and very good company.
I commented to Jineen that there never seems to be any
jerks staying in the camps in Africa.
By and large, the guests are kind and considerate.
Everyone is there with a common interest and a love of
nature, and by and large everybody gets along well.
up from the fire, we saw a sleek body move suddenly across the
serving table. It was
a genet on the tabletop, lapping up the milk for the tea.
Genets have cute kittenish faces, lithe spotted bodies and
outrageously long striped tails.
They are very agile and quick, and are excellent climbers.
Though commonly called genet cats, they are not actually
feline, but rather are related to the civet.
This one was apparently a regular visitor at the boma –
the serving ladies chased it away with a shout.
the fire burned low, it looked like shining lights were emanating
from the trees above us. At
first I thought it was glow worms, but it was just the reflection
of the moonlight on the leaves.
As our eyes seemed to be playing tricks on us, it was time
for bed. Following the
path through the trees to our tent, Jineen accidentally kicked
over the hurricane lantern marking the way.
We could hear the distant sound of a hyena calling in the