By Bert Duplessis, Fish Eagle Safaris
PART 3: MASHATU WALKING SAFARI
After introductions all round, we received a very thorough briefing from Stuart Quinn, whose enthusiasm and passion for the Tuli area and all of its beauty and wildlife became evident practically immediately. He was to lead our small group of travelers from Southern African and the USA on a walking safari which lasted only a couple of days, but which made a impression that would last indefinitely. Some of the ground rules were to walk in single file, taking turns to walk in front just behind Stuart, to keep the volume down and to follow his instructions at all times. Most importantly – in the event of something untoward happening – don’t run!
The overall objective was to experience nature in its totality. We would not be just driving through it in a loud, intrusive vehicle.
The walking safari would not be a dangerous or risky business – but we would stay well clear of elephants, particularly breeding herds. Compared with the usual walking trail in most other areas – which consists of a specific pre-determined route from which one cannot deviate – the Mashatu Wilderness Trail can take you anywhere, anytime. So Stuart may opt to deviate from a planned route depending on wildlife movements, the fitness level and enthusiasm of the group, or their specific interests.
OVERNIGHT AT TRAILS CAMP
Fairly late on the first afternoon, we set off from Serolo Camp at a fairly brisk pace, over mostly level to gently sloping terrain, passing through mopane forest & shrub, clearly well utilized by elephants. Our route winded down towards the Limpopo River floodplain where we crossed over just the corner of a large marshy wetland where we could see several ducks and other waterbirds in the distance. From there the terrain and vegetation changed quite rapidly into mixed woodland, where we started to see quite a few mammal species including zebra, impala and kudu.
It was almost dark when we reached the overnight trails camp, which consisted of several pre-erected ‘stand-up’ tents, in a heavily wooded area. Our tent had two small but comfortable cots side by side, with just enough space between them to move around, and a small area at the foot of the bed for one’s luggage.
There was no interior lighting at all, and just a few paraffin lamps elsewhere in the camp site. We immediately realized that we had way too much luggage for a walking safari (it was an ordeal trying to find something in amongst a large duffel bag in the dark) and that headlamps would have come in extremely handy.
We managed though and within 20 minutes or so (there was warm water available for a bucket shower if you were so inclined) we were seated comfortably around a camp-fire. It wasn’t very cold yet but temperatures drop rapidly after sunset in this semi-desert environment with a cloudless sky. Later in the winter months of June through August one would be well advised to take a well-insulated jacket and to plan on layering as it can get very chilly early in the morning, only to warm up again, as the sun rises.
We enjoyed some brilliant star-gazing with our fellow trailists Emil (a professional photographer) and Adelle (a photo-journalist by profession) and then sat down to a wonderful dinner prepared by Stuart’s wife Annelien and her kitchen crew. We were all rather tired so we went to bed early & fell asleep promptly. Out in the bush there is an almost total absence of ambient noise, just a beautiful natural sound-track consisting of calls and sounds made by elephants, hyenas, jackals and some restless birds. Someone even heard some lions in the distance. Not me.
THE VIEW FROM EAGLE ROCK
We were up early the next morning for a light breakfast and coffee or tea with rusks, again around the fireside. The morning walk would take us to Eagle Rock, an impressive promontory with a near 360 degree view over parts of the Limpopo Valley, with the Motloutse River in the foreground. As we approached the rocky area, we saw quite a bit of wildlife again, even some giraffe giving us their characteristic stare.
Along the way, Stuart pointed out various interesting geological features. Much of the rock was sandstone, with very visible ‘globules’ to be seen. These were round knobby protrusions or holes, depending upon whether the matter which caused their formation was softer or harder than the surrounding rock. If softer, the globule would wear away faster, causing a round hole; if harder, it would take much longer to erode, resulting in one of the knobby protrusions.
We clambered onto Eagle Rock where we promptly saw a Black Eagle take to the sky. Many of its favorite prey animals – dassies (also known as rock rabbits) were to be seen scampering away. From atop Eagle Rock, there were amazing views in every direction.
From there we made our way to the next overnight stop but not before a most interesting encounter with the rarely seen Brown Hyena. Stuart had mentioned the presence of the animals in a particular spot – a large overhanging rock which formed a wide shallow cave of sorts. We crept up to the area through a narrow rock canyon, hoping to surprise one or more of the brown hyenas near their den. As it turned out, we did not surprise them: they had heard our approach and were lurking on the ‘exit’ side of the canyon. Kathleen saw the brown hyena first as it bolted into its escape route, and Stuart and I also caught a glimpse of the dark shape as it slipped away.
As interesting as the sighting itself was the brown hyena clan’s boneyard. There were in excess of 40 to perhaps even 50 different bones – mostly skulls – lying around right in front of the shallow cave entrance. Most were impala horns with the top of the skull still attached, other were baboon skulls – even a much larger skull of a young elephant could be seen. The older ones were ivory white, while more recent scavenging finds such as a fairly fresh set of impala horns still had a pinkish tinge at its base, the animal having lost its life not very long ago at all.
CREEPING UP ON ELEPHANTS
At the enclosed but open-air Kgotla encampment, we dropped off our stuff, enjoyed a much needed and very welcome hot shower and took a bit of a siesta. Then we were off down to the Motloutse River where we saw about 30 to 40 elephants drinking and mud-bathing. Soon enough they were joined by first one, then another and yet another herd walking out of the bush on the other side of very wide expanse of sandy gravel, making up the river-bed. Crouched down so as not to break the sky-line too much and alert them to our presence, we crept closer for some great views of these imposing beasts. As always, it was endlessly entertaining to watch their interaction and particularly to observe their dominance displays
By the time yet another herd approached the scene and started moving towards our right (the others were in front of us and to our left), Stuart wisely decided that it would be safer to move away from the river, just in case we got surrounded by elephants. Which would not nearly be as much fun as just observing them from a safe position.
We cut through a marshy (yet currently dry) area with lots of elephant foot holes, through a very thick patch of bush and then on to the Mmamagwa Ruins and Rhodes’ Baobab, which we reached just as the sun was setting. The views over the valley, with the sun setting right in front of us, were superb. A tiny rock elephant shrew entertained us scampering out from its rocky shelter right to our feet, quite unafraid of our presence. We had worked quite hard getting up the slopes and enjoyed a well-earned sundowner drink and some salty snacks there before we made our way back to camp, this time by vehicle.
We spent yet another enjoyable evening around the campfire, with good conversation, and a tasty, wholesome ‘home-cooked’ meal, with a couple of glasses of nice wine. By 10P we were snugly settled down in our individual cots, 6 of them spaced out in 4 clusters inside the open kgotla enclosure, right under a massive mashatu tree. It was quite an exhilarating experience to sleep in the open with nothing but sky and stars above. Kathleen and I both slept exceedingly well, she to such an extent that she did not even hear two lions who called very loudly around 0500A.
TRYNG TO WALK INTO LIONS
After a light breakfast we set out with Stuart and Johannes to track and hopefully catch up with the lions. It was heavy going through thick sandy terrain, through and across the riverbed in a westerly direction. It was relatively easy to follow the tracks until they started to split up and re-converge in an almost circular fashion.
It turned out that two lions had met up there and the greeting ritual, with lots of moving about – had caused the disrupted tracks. Once the guys had figured it out, we were on our way again. Unfortunately time caught up with us as one of our party had to be at the Botswana/South Africa border by 1000A.
In the end the chase was almost just as good as the catch. In our mind’s eye we could see the lions bounding towards in slow motion just like in the National Geographic documentaries. Perhaps the imagined version of walking into lions – which is what we were trying to do – is better than the real McCoy. Maybe some other time!
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