Part 2: WalkMashatu Foot Safari with Stuart Quinn

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Monday September 19th – Tuli Block, Botswana

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It was a short 45-minute flight on an SA Airlink Embraer from Johannesburg to Pholokwane and from there just over two hours by road along a mostly good asphalt road to the Botswana border.  After border formalities between Botswana and South Africa we were met by Stuart Quinn of WalkMashatu.  Stuart and his partner Julie would be our hosts for the next 3 days.

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This was our second Mashatu walking safari, having participated in one of the first outings a few years ago.  At the time we enjoyed the experience immensely and we subsequently recommended it to many of our clients, all of whom had an equally satisfying experience exploring this remote and intriguing area of Botswana – the Tuli Block – on foot.

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As one part of a multi-faceted trip which also includes ‘regular’ vehicle-based game-viewing and perhaps some water experiences such as boating or canoeing and observing wildlife from a blind or hide, a foot safari is for many the purest form of experiencing an area.  Free of the noise and intrusive impact of a vehicle and free to go just about everywhere, a walking safari is open-ended and unpredictable.  It is as close as one can get to the wilderness on many levels as you can feel the ground under your feet, touch the surrounding vegetation and listen for sounds while observing signs and tracks.  Being out of the vehicle adds a sense of vulnerability which is exciting and at times challenging.  Of course, you are quite safe in the presence of a careful, experienced guide yet the possibility of an unplanned, unforeseen encounter is always hanging in the air.

Importantly, there are no Cape buffalo to be found at Mashatu which makes it all the more desirable as a walking safari environment.  These unpredictable animals – particularly the cantankerous old solitary bulls – are by far the most dangerous of the ‘Big Five’ mammals to be encountered anywhere in Africa.  Not having them around in Mashatu is an important safety consideration.

From the border post, it was about a 40-minute drive in an open 4-wheel drive vehicle to our first overnight site, a circular open-air enclosure – the Kgotla.  En route we observed giraffe, kudu, impala, and elephants.  The six of us together with Stuart and Julie would spend the night under a huge mashatu tree.

Just like the first time a few years ago – 2013 Mashatu Walking Safari Trip Report – it made for a fun and totally novel experience to have a communal sleep out in such a quiet, peaceful spot with nobody else around. Not even the sound of a passing aircraft disturbed the natural rhythm. Not that it was always quiet.  Sometimes strident bird calls and other noises were enough to keep one guessing.

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For afternoon tea we enjoyed a local delicacy:  ‘vetkoek’ – a donut-like sandwich – with cheese and tomato.  Interesting and delicious.   Our afternoon walk of around 90 minutes took us down to the dry Motloutse River where a few elephants were crossing over.  We enjoyed several interesting sightings of Impala, kudu, and steenbok amongst others.

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By just after 6 p.m. we were back in camp, just in time for a pre-dinner drink.  Dinner of beef stew, coleslaw, and beetroot salad was delicious and well deserved.

Around 10 p.m. we were all ready to retire to our small cots, spread out in a circle around an open fire.  Under a light breeze with the cool air gently blowing across our faces we fell asleep as peacefully and naturally as is humanly possible.

Tuesday September 20 – Mohave Bush Camp

After early morning coffee & tea and rusks (local version of biscotti) with one’s choice of muffins, fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal we set off on an hour-plus walk to Mmamagwa Hill, a spectacular viewing point with awesome views over a large chunk of the Tuli Wilderness with Eagle Rock in the far distance.  With binoculars, we spotted many elephants walking in the area below and in front of us.

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Back in camp around 09:00A we enjoyed a delicious brunch about an hour later.  Just around 11:00A that morning we were on our way to Mohave camp for an overnight.  Mohave is a tiny bush camp with just three basic bungalows next to each other and a thatched lounge and dining area as well as a small lapa overlooking a waterhole on the Mohave River. This is what safari is all about.  Great atmosphere, quiet, remote and wild.  True wilderness.  Mohave is known for often having lions around – we heard some – as well as elephants.

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Afternoon tea this day was special with koeksisters & a seasoned ground beef empanadas.   Just what the doctor ordered before we set off for Eagle Rock, a hike of about 90 minutes or so.  We encountered a few patches of heavy going sand along the way, but mostly the walking was fairly easy over flat terrain.

At Eagle Rock we observed some rock hyrax and two impressive Black or Verreaux’ Eagles which were nesting in the area.  I was hoping to see them fly by at more or less eye level, but we had to settle for some views from below.  Magnificent birds either way.

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The walk up to the top of Eagle Rock didn’t take much more than 10 or 15 minutes or so and can be done by almost anybody who is moderately fit and mobile.  From up there, we enjoyed great views over the surrounding countryside, the Motloutse River and the distant hills.  It was a beautiful sunset. We walked off the hill to where a car was waiting and drove back to Mohave for pre-dinner drinks around the fire.

During dinner that night a large elephant bull came to the water hole at Mohave around 9 p.m. It was a real ‘great grey ghost’ scenario and everybody loved watching the elephant drinking quietly and then slipping away into the darkness, almost soundlessly.

Stargazing is amazing here with an incredibly clear sky.  Hanging over us as vividly as any of us had ever seen them were planets, stars, galaxies and the Milky Way.   Dinner – under the stars of course – consisted of butternut squash soup, garlic bread, chicken fried steak and cheesecake for dessert.  The food is home-cooked with no pretensions to be cutting-edge or fancy.  It is wholesome, tasty and nobody goes hungry.  We enjoyed a peaceful night.

Wednesday September 21 – Walking into Lions

We were up at 6:00A to bird calls, enjoying an early light breakfast of coffee, juice, rusks, muffins, fresh fruit, cereal, and muesli.   After taking it easy around camp for a while, we followed Stuart out into the bush in a customary single file.

Our mission this morning was to track and find some lions which we had heard calling the previous night from camp. Stuart picked up their tracks soon enough but as it turned out – unknown to us at the time –  we scared them away from where they were sleeping.

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Later on, having picked up the tracks again, we could see where the lions had crossed right over our tracks in several spots. Which meant that they were close but also that they were alert to our presence.

This is what makes a walking safari such an interesting and ultimately fascinating experience.  You can seek out predators by following their tracks – which is what we did – only to find out that they are better at that game than humans.

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Another 45 minutes or so later – around 9:30 a.m. – it became clear that the lions had hot-footed it out of the immediate area. We returned to camp for brunch (pork sausages, scrambled eggs, grilled tomato, baked beans, and toast) mission as yet unaccomplished.  Walking into lions will have to wait until the next time at Mashatu.

Serolo & The Hyena Den

At around 11 that morning we were en route to our third and last overnight stop on the trail at Serolo tented camp which was located on an elevated ridge above the floodplain, close to the then dry Limpopo River. There was a small waterhole just below the camp, a cozy lounge and dining room area and five en-suite tented units each with two three-quarter size beds, a separate shower and toilet and a powerful fan.

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After a short but welcome nap, we enjoyed afternoon tea with some vegetarian quiche and mini brownies.  Then we set off on the afternoon activity, a drive along the Limpopo River, at the time reduced to a dry, sandy riverbed.  A few kilometers further on we reached a rocky outcrop where a hyena den was located.  We walked around the area for some time before locating a single sub-adult hyena.  It led us on a bit of a wild goose chase, walking away from the area where the hyena cubs were supposedly located.

Eventually we made our way to the den site among the rocks and sure enough, there were four babies to be seen, a couple of which were really curious about our presence and came right up to us to get a whiff of our smell.

The light was perfect and I managed a few really good captures of the hyena acting out and staring at us.

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They were awaiting the return of the adult hyenas who would be bringing them some food. Just then, we heard two lions calling each other.  It sounded close and getting closer.   Hotfooting it back to our vehicle,  we drove out to the nearby main road and less than 500 meters from where we had parked, we saw one and then another lion in the road. We sat and watched, pretty much spellbound as the two spectacular male lions walked towards each other.   Through binoculars and from behind our camera lenses we watched as they performed a brief re-introduction ritual consisting of rubbing noses.  Then they promptly flopped down for a snooze right in the gravel road.   Happy and content we made our way back to Serolo camp for drinks and dinner.   Everybody agreed it that it was a very special day.

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Thursday 22 September – Limpopo Floodplain

We were up early at 6 a.m. for a morning walk of about 3 hours duration.

The first stop was the carcass of a female warthog which had been killed by a leopard at around 1:30 a.m. that morning. Two of our group who had rooms close to where the event took place, recounted the screams of the desperate pig as it was attacked and the commotion which followed as it was dragged away.

Stuart analyzed the tracks at the scene and it soon became clear that several hyenas had robbed the female leopard of her kill, likely almost immediately after the event.

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Continuing on, we walked under the tall trees along the Limpopo floodplain until we eventually scrambled down the bank onto the sandy river bed, approaching a large nest site of white-fronted bee-eaters. The light wasn’t great but it was nonetheless interesting to see dozens of these colorful birds flying out of the nest holes in the banks of the Limpopo, loop straight up and perch on the shrubs above.

From there we walked along and in the dry Limpopo River bed past several Marabou stork nesting sites, Whitebacked Vultures perched in high trees, and multiple other bird species all around. And it wasn’t only birds. We were hardly ever out of sight of impala, waterbuck, kudu, eland, Grey duiker, warthog, baboons, vervet monkeys & other species.

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After a morning snack, we walked to back to an elevated rock platform with a wide view of the Limpopo River.  Even without visible water, it was a wonderful and attractive place. So different from anything we had seen at Mmamagwa Hills, Eagle Rock or elsewhere on the WalkMashatu trail.

A final brunch at Serolo and we were on our way to the Limpopo Valley Airfield where we said ‘see you again’ to Stuart and Julie and met up with our Mashatu Tented Camp guide.  For the next three days, we would be doing a more traditional vehicle safari.  Knowing Mashatu and having already experienced some good game-viewing on foot, we knew we were in for a treat.  It would take a lot to surpass the fun and excitement of our walking safari though!

Continue to Part 3


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