Camouflaged dig-outs in desert sand guarantee unrivalled views of animals in the wild in Mashatu, Botswana, writes Paul Hopkins.
THERE is only one road into Mashatu in the Northern Tuli terrain of Botswana. They call it the MI: two strips of white-washed cladding on a bed of red-earth-coloured stones.
It is less than a mile long, not far from where the river bends and the Land of Giants crisscrosses Zimbabwe and South Africa.
On a clear day, and that’s 300 plus days of the year, from the flat mountain top of Mmamagwa, where ancient royalty once dwelt, you can see both neighbours across the borders of the Limpopo river.
Crane your neck and Mozambique gives way to the Indian Ocean.
To traverse this vast private reserve – 72,000 acres – you must follow the elephant paths, trunk roads perhaps, and the zebra crossings and hold tight to the muscles of your nether regions.
In this peaceful and democratic country of just 2.25 million people, Mashatu is the summation of what defines wilderness: vast open spaces and serene skies, diverse wildlife from the massive to the miniscule, and the tranquillity of it all, broken only by birdsong and calls of the wild.
Here is paradise for the world’s largest animal, the elephant – the largest population on any private reserve – tallest mammal the giraffe and largest antelope, the eland.
Home too, to the world’s largest bird, the ostrich and heaviest flying bird, the kori bustard. Add in your obligatory lion and iconic baobab tree, and there be giants!
Day has barely dawned and we are miles from basecamp, fellow traveller Sue and I, hovering in the hushed-still hide by the water-hole.
Guineafowl, with their funny head-gear, arrive by the dozens for their morning libation, and weavers and hornbills and babblers and wagtails too. Storks stroll by, indifferent to the antelopes as diverse as they are plentiful.
All here to quench thirst.
From the hide – a camouflaged dig-out in the desert sand that allows you to watch animals unobserved – I stare unflinchingly: a banded mongoose, with its large head and short muscular limbs, scampers across the scorched earth. A nyala ram with his females and hornless young scarper from the scene.
Then, patience being paramount and paying off, we hear them before we see them, the ground grumbling beneath their collective weight. As if from nowhere, with a slow, graceful but determined gait, the elephants arrive.
Perhaps two dozen: man, woman and child. The bull is proud but a little lost because he knows his is a matriarchal society and the cows are in charge. The mothers slurp insatiably from the hole and then, their thirst momentarily quenched, encourage their young to dive in. The youngest is just one month old, I am told.
We hold our collective breaths for fear of scaring them away. The continuous banter of the herd, the flapping back and forth of their large ears, the constant, playful motion of their tremendous trunks, and being up so close and personal to these largest and ancient animals, is just awesome.
Mashatu offers the best predator viewing in this blessed land and, over our three day stay, Sue and I have surreal sightings, again up close, of lions, the pride waiting patiently on open plains to pounce, and a gut-wrenching cheetah kill, with the impala curiously calm, most likely in shock and paralysed with fear. Then there’s my first sighting, in half a lifetime of coming to sub-Saharan Africa, of that much-maligned creature, the hyena. It really is no laughing matter that this fellow is known solely for being a scavenger, and, of course, his wicked laugh.
Yes, hyenas can be dangerous to humans but they are highly, highly intelligent, social animals who, although known as scavengers, in truth are formidable predators. They can outwit lions, leopards and cheetahs and frequently steal fresh kills from these primary predators.
And I learned on this trip that female hyenas have ‘pseudo-penises’ used in domination displays. Talk about gender issues.
Mashatu is on the eastern fringes of the Kalahari Desert so water is its most precious resource.
The luxurious camps being close to water, and in thickets of remarkable vegetation, transport the visitor into an enclave enriched and populated by birds and animals, of which there are so many species and varieties that it would take a wanna-be David Attenborough a lifetime of learning to keep up.
Mashatu Lodge (Main Camp), where I stay, is an oasis among the undulating and seemingly endless plains of the wild. Fourteen luxury suites lie along the camp’s perimeters to allow for absolute privacy and communion with the Botswanan bush and its wondrous inhabitants.
At night, on my decking, in solitude, I listen to the rustlings out there in the darkness made visible under a starry sky, and the strange, yet oddly familiar, sounds of its community, a cacophony that soothes my very soul.
And the words of our own Oscar Wilde come to mind: “I have a strange longing for the great simple things...” I shall be back.
WHY MASHATU IS UNIQUE
The unique photographic experience offered through Photo Mashatu includes the hides, the specially adapted photographic vehicle and the opportunity to rent camera bodies and lens, all in the company of qualified photographic guides.
The very low rainfall, especially in the green season, guarantees a great safari combination in the Western Cape. The adventure activities include cycling, walking and horse safaris for the more adventurous, exercise-inclined safari goer.
Mashatu offers the best predator viewing in Botswana, with daily sightings of lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, black-backed jackal and African wildcat.
FLIGHTS & ACCOMMODATION
South African Airways operate double daily flights from London Heathrow (Terminal 2) to Johannesburg Oor Tambo. The overnight flights at around 11 hours 10 minutes make it one of the fastest routes to SA.
There are twice-weekly flights from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo to Mashatu on a Thursday and a Sunday.
Alternatively, out of Belfast, Mahlatini (+44 (0)28 9073 6050, www.mahlatini.com) offers a 3-night safari staying at Mashatu Tent Camp from sterling £2,265pp including flights on Turkish Airlines out of Dublin (via Istanbul) and car hire.
If you would like to upgrade the experience why not fly straight into Mashatu’s Limpopo Valley Airstrip from Johannesburg’s or Tambo and stay at Mashatu Lodge (Main Camp) from sterling £3,570pp. Mashatu is the perfect safari extension to a South African holiday.
BEST TIME TO GO
Most people wishing to visit Botswana will likely be advised to head to the country during the dry season which runs from April to October.
The reason for this would be that it is cooler than the hot November – March period. With less rain, the wildlife concentrates around permanent water and it is easier for vehicles to travel around without getting stuck.
The grass has dried and disappeared so it is easier to see the animals.
Wildlife and stray livestock can pose a serious hazard so avoid driving in rural areas at night. Botswana is a very large and under-populated country, so the distance between one urban centre and another can be very long with minimum services of any kind available en-route, including fuel, food, accommodation and mobile phone coverage.
Ensure you carry enough drinking water, some food and a second spare tyre if travelling long distances on dirt roads.