Part 3: Mashatu Tented Camp, Tuli Block, Botswana

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Mashatu Game Reserve and Mashatu Tented Camp in particular delivers a safari experience which is – for most people – well above expectations and which represents likely the best value for money of any safari destination in Southern Africa.  At less than half and more like a third of the cost of just about any other northern Botswana property of the same quality, Mashatu Tented Camp is worthy of inclusion on practically any Southern Africa itinerary.

Spend three days there and you will see why:  lots of game (elephants, big cats, giraffes, eland & many more), not too many other safari vehicles, highly experienced and capable guides, off-road driving to get close to signature species, night drives, opportunities to walk in a buffalo-free environment, availability of other adventure activities like horse-back safaris and mountain bike safaris, availability of a couple of the best photographic hides/blinds in Southern Africa and fast, convenient connections to and from Johannesburg, to and from the Sabi Sand Reserve and now also to and from northern Botswana.  Plus a ‘stay 4 nights, pay for 3’ offer in the green season through the end of May.  What’s not to like?

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En route from Serolo Camp to the Limpopo Valley Airfield we experienced an ‘elephant delay’ at a spot where a natural spring spills water out onto the road. With the surrounding area being as dry as it was, the fresh water was simply irresistible – and essential – to the elephants living in the area.

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Consequently, there were 50-plus elephants of all sizes and ages around and in the water; their wet, muddy bodies a reflection of the extent to which they were reveling in the moisture amidst the parchment dry surroundings.

About an hour later we were back at Mashatu Tented Camp where we had previously spent a couple of days in 2013.  Here is a link to the trip report.

Just like the last time, our tented room was well equipped with two three-quarter size beds, ample storage space, two fans, a safe, proper door, and a separate but attached outdoor shower and toilet.

 

We barely had time to settle in before high tea was served at 3:30 and it was delicious with quiche, sandwiches and two types of sweet baked goods on offer, in addition to some good filter coffee.

Our game drive was initially a bit slow with sightings of giraffes, eland and zebras helping to keep things moving along. Soon enough though the tenor of the drive changed, from so-so to spectacular with first a solitary female leopard in the grass and then a female cheetah with three young on an impala kill.

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We watched them for the better part of 40 minutes, observing first the mother and then the babies feeding, one of the youngsters chasing off a rather overly bold jackal.  Shortly after we heard the first sign of imminent trouble in the form of a leopard call.

Our guide Richard thought that the cheetah would be fine and that the mother would quickly lead the youngsters to safety if needs be. We left the cheetahs behind eventually, the young ones so bloated from overeating that they had trouble lying down in one spot for long.

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We returned to camp for our own appointment with food.  Dinner (fish and lamb stew) plus various side dishes didn’t quite live up to the high standards which we’ve come to expect at Mashatu.  Perhaps the chef had the day off.  The Okavango bream tasted like kipper; the stew was fine but overly greasy, and the presentation was not exciting at all.  Quite tasty and filling – just not at the same high level that we had enjoyed here previously.

September 23

We were up at 5:30 a.m. this morning for a quick breakfast (coffee, rusks, fruit salad) and out at 6 a.m. sharp. Initially again very quiet but things soon improved when we got word of a young female leopard nearby.

A few minutes later we were on the scene and observed a smallish female leopard lying down in the vegetation, panting heavily from recently having eaten.  She had a kill (impala) high up in a nearby tree, which we saw when driving away.

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Sometime later, after a few good general plains game sightings, we were advised about the presence of a mature male leopard, quite close to where we had observed the female. And so it was. Stationary below a tree in the shade, we watched and photographed this powerfully-built male leopard for quite a while. He seemed to look straight at us with what might otherwise have been a scary expression except that there was no emotion visible in his eyes at all.

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As we were finishing up our male leopard photographs, news came about a large pride of lions with cubs. Off we went. It turned out to be an exceptionally handsome male, two females in their prime and six cubs belonging to each of the two sisters. The cubs being just a couple of months or so apart in age.

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We observed them for what must have been a good 40 minutes, watching them run around, play & cozy up to Dad who wasn’t very responsive or expressive.  The lions were clearly enjoying being at the top of the heap in the animal world.

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Before enjoying mid-morning tea and returning to camp, we bumped into yet another female leopard which promptly walked into the nearby dry riverbed.  In just two game drives we had seen leopard multiple times, cheetahs on a kill and an impressive lion pride.

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A bonus item follow just minutes later when we had a good look at the female leopard seen earlier, this time resting up on a branch a few meters off the ground.

By 10 it was time for brunch and Mashatu pulled out all the stops with an attractive and elaborate spread including salad, chicken pie, sausages, egg roll, beans, chutney, bacon and bread and sliced tomato.

Our afternoon drive – by Mashatu standards – was a little bit quiet but even so we had some good views of elephant, giraffe and eland.  After a quick shopping stop at Mashatu Lodge we drove to a hyena den where we observed a few very young hyena babies.  They were still almost entirely black. One of them seemed to be rather stressed and ran around the den calling for its mother, next to whom it finally settled down.

On the way back to camp we saw our 5th different leopard, crossing a dry riverbed.

Just like the previous evening, dinner was disappointing.  Other than the excellent vegetable soup and the local rustic version of polenta, widely known as pap, the other dishes such as the braised oxtail and pork leg was either on the tough side or overcooked and dry.

Also the presentation of the dinner items is not exciting or visually appealing, with everything shrouded in darkness with no color or textural differences being discernible.  The bread was again perfect.

September 24 – Photographic Hide Experience

This morning we each paid $65 extra for a 3-hour Matabole hide session with a professional photographer.  This is the sunken container hide which is also known as the ‘elephant hide’, I believe.  Our photo guide Janet struck exactly the right balance between being helpful and knowledgeable and gently imparting hints and technical knowledge without being intrusive or annoying in the least.  Everybody gained from the experience and nobody left more confused than before, which sometimes happens with photo advice.

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Fortunately for Janet the animals did their part and we were thrilled and entertained by two good-sized elephant herds, different groups of Impala, a solitary steenbok, many guinea fowl and assorted other odds and ends including some warthogs and various bird species including francolin, doves, go-away birds, blue waxbills and several others.

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Even a non-photographer would have been impressed with the manner in which the elephants quickly yet remarkably quietly walked up to the pond, surrounded the hide from its far left to far right, and immediately started to drink with intent.

The first herd literally rushed up and spent barely three minutes with us and then rushed off.  It was surprising behavior; clearly there was something bothering them. This was my first hide photography experience with a herd of elephants, and to be honest it was all rather overwhelming at first. Picking the first lens, deciding which photo or angle to go with, all quite exciting!  By the time the second herd of elephants showed up I was ready and got some good pics, even some close-ups of elephants toes which I have always wanted to do.

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Hint:  have more than one camera body ready with a short (20 to 70mm or) lens and another with a medium-long telephone of about 70-200.  You won’t need anything much bigger than that unless you want to get some close-ups of birds perching in the nearby bushes.

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The afternoon game drive was equally successful.  The highlight was a performance by a young female leopard. She trotted out practically every leopard pose known to man:  lying down, sitting, standing, staring and dozing, in the process leaving several extremely happy photographers behind.

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The afternoon drive was concluded with a great sighting of the two female lions and their six cubs. They were totally relaxed in a safe spot overlooking the dry riverbed.   The cubs were playing and mock fighting, biting each other’s tails and generally creating a bit of havoc, just like youngsters of any species. It was a perfect ending for our last evening drive in Botswana. So far this has been a great trip with the best predator sightings ever.

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September 25 – More Cheetahs

We resume where we left off last night, on today’s morning game drive.  A quiet first hour and then in short order a handsome male lion (seen yesterday morning with the rest of his pride), the well behaved female leopard walking across a dry riverbed and then another superb sighting of cheetah. This time around it was a family group of a female cheetah with 4 sub-adult girls of around one year of age. They were just about fully grown, ultra-sleek running machines with just a bit of false mane hair remaining on their upper backs.

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We watched them for a considerable length of time as initially they were all resting up in one small area.

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Then they got active and started walking seemingly in a hunting or attacking mode looking and listening for signs of prey.  Other than one half-hearted attempt at running down a steenbok, by one of the cubs, there were no serious attempts at taking down anything. Obligingly the cheetah bunched up several times so that we could photograph them all together, all five of the small teardrop accented faces looking in our direction.

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Reluctantly, we let them go as they returned to a prone position in the shade of a Shepherd Tree.

One last tasty brunch and then it was time to settle our bills, say farewell and head off to Limpopo Valley Airfield for the flight to Mala Mala in the Sabi Sand Reserve in South Africa.

Continue to Part 4


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