Mary Coulson, photographer and long term friend of Wildfoot Travel has just come back from Tuli in Botswana, The Mashatu Game Reserve and in particular the incredible Mashatu Lodge which is high on many wildlife photographer’s bucket lists. Here Mary gives us a first hand account of her trip.
The excitement and anticipation as you climb up into the land cruiser for the first early morning safari drive raises the adrenaline levels so high that all senses are on full alert. Is that a leopard’s tail hanging from that Mashatu tree? Was that a Banded Mongoose running up the river bank? Take a deep breath and pace yourself as you’ll be out for a few hours reaching saturation level with all the wildlife that Mashatu Game Reserve has on offer.
The guides and tackers on the game drive have a vast knowledge of the fauna and flora underpinned with a genuine desire to give their passengers an experience of a lifetime. Ronald and Commando were no exception, patiently answering questions and with a subtle sense of humour there was always a pleasant camaraderie on the drive. I was continually impressed with how Ronald would always take into consideration the light and backdrop for good photographs with all sightings. A lasting memory will be the sundowners at a high vantage point where you can absorb the orchestra of the evening chorus against a magnificent backdrop of a panoramic African sunset.
Mashatu Game Reserve is one of the best kept secrets in Southern Africa. This 29,000 hectare block is tucked away in the South-eastern corner of Botswana, at the confluence of the Limpopo and Sashi Rivers. It is in one of the driest areas with an annual rainfall of 12 -14 in. However, despite the extreme environment, conditions are ideal for game viewing with the vast open plains scattered with small trees and bushes for example mopane, acacia karrooand Shepard’s trees. There are remnants of riverine forest dominated with Mashatu trees and croton thickets, marshes (in the wet season), rocky outcrops and sandstone ridges.The area covers many ecosystems leading to a high biodiversity of flora and fauna.These areas are explored with game drives across flat sandy plains and driving over rocky outcrops and along dry river beds. Low ratio four-wheel drive was required to negotiate up and down the steep sides – this adds to the excitement of the experience! On one of these excursions we met a leopard as we neared a curve in the river bed. Unperturbed she walked straight passed us up the riverbank and vanished into a thicket. We surmised that she had some cubs hidden in the thick scrub.
Having lived half my life in Africa I fully appreciate how privileged one is to see members of the cat family. In Mashutu the opportunities to view and photograph leopards, lions and cheetah is breath-taking. We sat with a pride of lions on various occasions and were able just to observe the interactions between the five cubs with their mothers and a handsome black – maned lion. Similarly, with two separate cheetah families. We were fortunate to see leopard in various situations from walking along the river bed with us to trying to escape the heat on the branch of a Mashatu tree. The photographs from these viewings can be exceptional.
Mashatu caters for professional and serious amateur photographers. There is a Mashatu photo vehicle which has been customised for the game reserve environment. There are sliding gimbal heads and bean bag arches and to cater for the African dust there are cushioned and dust waterproof storage compartments. There will always be a specialist photographic guide and field ranger to accompany you.
One of the highlights of the trip was a couple of visits to the Matebole Hide. This consists of a couple of shipping containers dug into the ground next to the waterhole with viewing windows level with the water surface. Equipped with beanbags this allows for photographs with a unique perspective of the animals coming down to drink. The wonderful Janet Kleyn, the resident photographer, welcomes you to the hide. She guides and assists you as required and her expertise aids advanced and beginner photographers alike. Even those who just accompany the serious or professional photographers are provided with mobile phone tripods and pointers on how to get a good photograph. The evening session was about to end as we neared sundown when suddenly around the bushes came a herd of elephants. They were at full elephantine trot in their eagerness to quench their thirst. The proximity of these animals was awe-inspiring.
With the rich biodiversity of Mashatu each game drive would reveal unusual and unique insights of the African bush. One of these was a peek through the window into the private lives of the hyena clan. The clan have organised a nursery, kitchen, spa and local food source. The den was situated about 200m from a series of pools fed by a spring upstream. The hyenas had stored sections of carcasses in one pool and we were entertained with the retrieving of the meat and generally play fighting. Some of the characters seemed to really enjoy the whole spa experience.
The enjoyable safari experience is underpinned by the excellent accommodation and catering facilities. There are two options with the Main Camp and Tented Camp which are quite different in design and atmosphere. The Tented camp is more intimate with the bushveld with no obvious fences and allows a true safari experience of luxury in the bush known as glamping. There is a breakfast and lounge area on the terrace. Evening drinks at the bar allowed the recounting of the day’s experiences among those staying at the camp and meeting the different guides. The Boma presents a great setting for the evening meal. As the ambient temperature was in the high 30’s there was a definite trend to sit furthest from the fire! The swimming pool at the tented camp is a welcomed relief after a hot game drive or mountain bike safari.
I did a mountain bike safari along elephant footpaths early one morning with Mario, an experienced guide and biker. I found out that dried elephant dung is as hard as rock! I thoroughly recommend doing this as you immediately in tune with the environment and must be aware of the wildlife. Mario was in radio contact and had a rifle for safety purposes. For those of you who are experienced horse riders there is an opportunity to go horse riding in the bush. Both camps also offer bush walks.
The Mashatu Lodge (Main camp) has 14 air conditioned luxury suites set near a waterhole. It is bigger and more suited to families with a swimming pool. Clients can enjoy the sounds of the African bush but within the safety of an unobtrusive fence. There are beautiful views along the walkway from the bar (Gin Trap) to the new infinity pool.
Mashatu Game Reserve is easily accessible. I flew from Oliver Tambo airport to Polokwane, an hours flight and then travelled with Copper Sun courier to Pont’s Drift on the border with Botswana. I was then met by my guide and field tracker and arrived at the Tented Camp after an hours drive through the game reserve.
In conclusion I look back on my Mashatu Safari Experience as a lifelong memory of unique wildlife sightings underpinned with new friendships.
Take a look at more photos from Mary’s amazing trip here: