All very civilised at this stage, and no sign of the supposed hordes of youths throwing bricks at cars and torching them with flamethrowers, but it was obviously the wrong part of town for that. In the morning, the plan was to take the five-hour drive to Botswana, to visit Mala Mala’s sister lodge Mashatu, named after the huge trees in the area. It’s a 400 mile drive through the megalopolis that is Johannesburg-Pretoria (population 6-10 million, depending on how you define it). This is non-stop flat agricultural land, becoming like Spain and progressively drier as we head north. Smashed up cars on podiums beside the motorway are accompanied by signs reminding that Speed Kills. There are signs to the slaghouse, sorry slaghuis, where they butcher their meat. It would be hard to be a vegetarian here.
After passing Polokwane, we reach the border post of Pont Drift, a hut on the edge of the dry Limpopo river. In summer this would be a raging torrent, and you would have to cross in a cage suspended over it. Immigration is a formality and within minutes we are in the Mashatu reserve. “No animals means no tourists means no jobs” proclaims a welcoming sign. This landscape couldn’t be more different from Mala Mala. It is a dry, desolate place. A scorched lunar landscape with scattered rock and scree. The grass is so dry it is almost bleached white. There hasn’t been a drop of rain here for four months and it is hard to believe that any life survives here at all.
For the first few hours of our first drive in the afternoon, my worries appeared to be confirmed. Our ranger was called Elvis and he had one-armed tracker called Benny. The roads were rutted and pitted, and progress was slow. Occasionally we stumbled across a lonesome jackal or a flock of guinea flow. Elvis’s driving style was conservative: go gently and don’t crush any trees, so when we did spot a giraffe or wildebeest, we didn’t get that close. But things improved as the light faded. Driving along a river bed we examined a troop of 50-odd baboons. A Great Eagle Owl peeped out from a large nest and an impressive red-breasted shrike came to say hello. Squirrels skittered up and down the mashatu trees (apparently there are lots at the moment because there aren’t many snakes around). Eland, zebra, warthog, wildebeest and African Eagle were all spotted. And then we had an excellent close encounter with a herd of elephants that included several babies. A two-month old appeared to have no idea what to do with his trunk, and eventually fell face first into a hole. As one wildlife commentator once observed, the trunk comes with no instructions and it takes time to work out what on earth to do with one.
It was long dark, but the rangers had located two leopard cubs feeding on an impala kill. The female was shy and hid in the bushes while her brother tucked in greedily. Barely weaned, he was head first in the softest part – the buttocks. We watched for 15 minutes enchanted and then headed back for our own dinner. Happily, ours was cooked! We nearly didn’t see the leopard cub eating, courtesy of some strange and inappropriate behaviour from a cantankerous old guy in our Land Rover. Having downed two beers and three scotches in 20 minutes at sundown, he began to order Elvis, who was driving, about. “Nothing to see here – go home”, he announced, tapping Elvis on the head like a servant. Elvis ignored him and we were rewarded for our patience. This sort of boorish behaviour can be seen the world over, and has to stop. In honour of these heroics back at camp we created Elvis’s tracker Top Ten.
1. Blue Suede Kudus
2. Suspicious Hinds
3. Jailhouse Bok
4. In the Gekko
5. Eland Land of Hope and Glory
6. The Wonder of Gnu
7. You ain’t nothing but a Cape Hunting Dog
8. Hornbill Hotel
9. You’re an Eagle in Disguise
10. Burning Dove
The mood in the jeep changed completely the following day with the departure of grumpy man and his peculiar lesbian friend (”we’re cousins actually….” Yeah right!) We were treated to excellent sightings of enormous Kori Bustard (bigger than their counterparts which we have just successfully reintroduced into the UK); ostrich (it is unclear whether they were here first or in Australia, or simultaneously); a huge herd of 50 or so elephant feeding in the marshes; and, spectacularly, three Cape Hunting Dogs. Reports came over the radio of their presence about 30 minutes away so we sped to the area. They were on the move and when they are, they move fast. Thirty or forty miles per hour in a car on good tarmac seems like nothing, but in a jeep over unknown terrain, it’s a tall order. We trailed them like this for 15 minutes or so, and finally they took a breather under some trees in a gully, where we could examine their distinctive brown, black, white and orange markings at close hand. Cape hunting dogs are quite capable of covering 300km in a day with barely a break.
Our evening drive was no less eventful. We were privileged to witness an elephant migration that crossed the road in front of us. Elephants follow habitual routes, travelling in single file behind an experienced female. So here was a train of thirty of them, silently walking in line, with a couple of youngsters hastily brining up the rear. Two minutes earlier or later and we would have missed it. We then pushed on to a marshy river bank, thick with reeds and bamboo, where we found five lions fast asleep – three females and two young males. They were sound asleep, and totally unconcerned with our presence or any noise of conversation or engine. After a sundown drink on a superb hill which gave us a 360o view of the bush we enjoyed a purple patch on the night run home. First, the African Wild Cat, similar in most respects to our domestic tabby. Then a close view of our old friend the stocky, cheeky civet, who dropped his prey as we pursued him. Howling in the distance turned out to be three jackals. Then the bizarre spring hare, which bounces around like a mini-kangaroo. All capped off by a delightful pair of bat-eared foxes, their large ears poised to pick up the rustlings of any unfortunate piece of nocturnal dinner.
There was just time in the morning for one final drive. The usual quota of zebra and giraffe were milling about. It is a little known fact that giraffe have to sleep with their heads up otherwise the blood pressure on their brain would be too great. So now you know. There were hundreds of guinea fowl in one area, and a hot leopard panting in the shade. I made the mistake of pointing it out. “Don’t point at leopard – they no like it”, said Elvis. Suitably rebuked, I listened to his stories of their behaviour. One in this area had become a specialist in hunting guinea fowl, leaping up trees to their roosts in quick succession to form a stockpile below. “Maybe he just prefers white meat,” offered Elvis by way of explanation. We also found a two-foot bird with a large brown crest foraging in a pool of water. This was a Hamerkop, and he was using his feet to stir up his favourite food – frogs and toads. We had one other near miss – with a 16 foot python. We could see his burrow and followed his enormous tyre-width track through the dust but lost him somewhere in the woods. A shame, I would like to have seen him.
But it was time to go. We drove back to Johannesburg through Polkwane, with the optimistically named suburbs of Nirvana and Superbia, to get ready for the next stage of our journey – to the mighty Victoria Falls on the Zambezi river, dividing Zimbabwe and Zambia.
It takes ten hours to fly from London to Johannesburg – 5,500 miles. Then after a 3-hour wait, it’s 1 ½ hours to Maun (pronounced Mow-oon) in Botswana, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The flights get shorter and the planes get smaller. Ten minutes in a single-engine Cessna gives a beautiful first time view from 3,500 feet. Rivers and channels interspersed by marooned islands on a vast flat plain, where the water takes several months to come down from Angola. This used to be Bechuanaland – an area the size of France or Texas, but populated by a meagre 1.7 million people, most of them in the east and south east – away from the harsh Kalahari Desert.
The action on the ground is no less prolific. It’s been a good season, and food and water are plentiful. That means lots of breeding and lots of juveniles. Every few minutes there are herds of Burchill’s zebra, skittishly dancing away from the jeep. Hundreds of impala – rutting males, snorting and interlocking horns, whilst gangs of disinterested females chew the cud. Wildebeest dancing crazily. Warthogs with tiny piglets, often caked in mud. Giraffes lolloping gently in the tall trees – one with its ear bitten off by a lion in some previous encounter. And hundreds of elephants, typically in herds of a dozen but sometimes in kinship groups of fifty or more, ripping bark off trees or bulldozing palms to fell the juicy nuts at the top.
There is an intimate encounter to be had around almost every corner, but the really elusive jewels require patience and luck. Suddenly, a short glimpse of a leopard crossing the road in front of us. We pause to establish his line of direction and move off the track to follow him along. It’s a big male, scent marking regularly to announce his territory. We follow him for 15 minutes through patchy scrub that is fortunately open enough to keep tabs on his movement. Then it’s time to leave him in peace and find a suitable spot for a sunset drink – always a superb experience in the bush as the yellows and reds merge and the moon rises.
On the way back to camp it’s time for night safari using spotlights to pick out animals from their reflecting eyes. Dung beetles the size of golf balls scream past in squadrons as the birds fly home to roost. A massive Verreaux’s eagle owl perches aloft a solitary tree. Scrub hares bounce about in the short grass. Impala and giraffe gather around the airstrip where the ground is more open and any predators can be spotted more easily. And then, close to camp, we see three wild dogs loping along the road. They speed up as we catch them off and we trail them for five minutes until they come to a large pool in the rain-soaked road. They won’t go through it because they fear crocodiles, and so peel off into the thicket.
It took us 20 hours to arrive here and it is thoroughly worth it. The following morning, tea is delivered to our tent. This has to be taken inside sharpish before the vervet monkeys steal it all, ripping open sugar sachets and hurling abuse from the tree tops. This morning’s experience is extraordinary – walking with elephants. Doug, the elephant expert has rescued three elephants from a range of tricky circumstances and for the last 15 years has been working with them. Jabu is the bull – a common Zulu name meaning happiness. (Names here are generally much more creative than at home – Justice, Gift and Surprise replace Lee, Darren and Sharon.) The second elephant, Thembi, was a wild child who got into a fair bit of trouble in Zimbabwe, turning over a car and killing a man. Morula is the other lady in this mini herd.
Our afternoon safari is one with a purpose – a buffalo kill has been found two hours away, and the four lions responsible should be there for some time. We speed on, eager to catch sight of the spectacle before sundown. There is time however for some aquatic inspection on the way. A water monitor lizard, 3-4 feet long, ambles down to the water’s edge. A turtle scuttles out. Saddle-billed and open bill storks survey the shallows, all under the ever watchful eye of the fish eagle. The first tell-tale sign of the kill is a large tree packed with a dozen or more enormous vultures – hooded, white-backed and white-headed. They keep watch moodily as we survey the scene in front of us. A small lake with a thoroughly dead buffalo unceremoniously dumped in it, its flank ripped open, the hoof poking rigidly into the air. In the shade, we see four lions.
We drive gently to within a couple of yards. Three lionesses and a young male, his mane only just beginning to grow and his flanks still slightly spotty – two years old perhaps. And then a treat to observe. One of the females ambles languidly down to the lake and starts to feed. Her head goes right inside the beast in search of tender offal. Approaching from the front now, her tail flicking water over herself periodically, crunching horribly into the buffalo’s face. Gory but fascinating. We return home preferring a salad for dinner, but not before sundown drinks beside a rock python that has killed a spur-winged goose. He’s about 8 feet long, and moves off at surprising speed when we interrupt his dinner. A little further off, a female leopard tortoise leads her youngster off into the bush as fast as she can manage.
The following day we are up at 5.30am again and immediately pick up the tracks of a young female leopard. We find her in the long grass by spotting her tail first. But then she is off into impenetrable thicket, never to be seen again. At the next pool in the road we pause to allow a turtle to have a gentle swim and then shuffle into the undergrowth. Tiny baby warthogs wallow in the mud and graze the short grass on their knees. A wounded impala limps along, its back legs probably gored by one of its own. He will soon be lunch for a big cat. A troupe of banded mongoose sprint across the road – gone in a flash. Reedbuck and bushbuck lurk in the shadowy undergrowth. A huge saddle-billed stork comes into land beside its partner. Yellow billed kites patrol the airways.
We return to the scene of yesterday’s lion kill and all four are still there – the buffalo somewhat reduced in volume, and four bloated stomachs to verify the feasting that has been going on overnight. We press on to a large lake and enjoy delightful sundowners in the company of seven hippos frolicking in the shallows. On the way back we bump straight into a spotted hyena out on a lone patrol. This is great luck because they are nocturnal. Back at camp it is New Year’s Eve, and Sarah can’t resist learning the local way of singing and dancing, being proclaimed an honorary member of the staff choir.
This is a more luxurious camp with twelve well-spaced linked by sand paths. Camp policy dictates that your guide accompanies you back after dinner, and this proved very reassuring when we bumped into a hyena on the path one evening. In an extreme case a couple of years ago, three male lions appeared beside the swimming pool and the guests had to beat a careful retreat.
There are many lions in the area. First we discover a pride of six, then three males – brothers apparently – sleeping under a tree. From time to time the males return from their territory marking to check on the females, and we stop to watch these fascinating interactions. The area is teeming with game – hundreds of impalas and their close cousins, lechwe. Large herds of zebra, elephant and giraffe. Warthogs with their hilarious piglets, and a highly inquisitive hippo population. The dominant male in charge of this lot weighs three tons and is the size of a small island.
The malaria pills are making us nauseous, so we opt out of the final game drive, only to find that the white rhino have returned after a three-week absence. Sadly, we never get to see them. So it’s back on the six-seater plane to Maun, to pick up our 1 ½ hour flight to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Botswana has shot into our list of favourite counties – charming people, thinly scattered across a vast and beautiful landscape, full of staggering wildlife, including the elusive honey badger, who we finally saw moving at speed into a dense thicket.