Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mashatu Game Reserve - Africa is not for sissies

A new adventure stretches ahead and with great anticipation the kilometers of tar are metered off. Finally, there between the koppies and the acacias lies the border post. Botswana is ahead! Park the car away from the grass and the rats that may decide to make a meal of the electrics and head for Passport Control. Then it is a patient wait for everyone to make their appearance while I desperately scurry around for a cool spot under a tree. One by one the group arrives and we transfer down to the river crossing.
Pontdrift is an experience all on its own. During the rainy season it is always a gamble as to how one would cross but this time it is in the cable car. A painstaking experience with luggage and one or two people crossing at a time and then finally the rest of the bunch. Back into passport control and onto the vehicle which while standing still is a searing experience that the ice cold bottles of water do little to assuage. Finally the vehicle starts out and the rush of air is a welcome respite. Short lived however, because there is another stop at the airstrip to pick up more mad photographers.  Then, off to the Lodge we go.
About an hour later the camp looms ahead and we can unpack only to scurry desperately to get gear ready and off to tea. Then, onto the vehicles and finally, finally to relax for a short period before the fun begins.

It begs a mention at this juncture that at Mashatu, where we are with the C4 Images Safari Photo Workshop Group that the vehicles at Mashatu are the ever present Toyota Landcruisers. This mere little fact intimates that you will have a bumpy ride and therefore be prepared to hold onto cameras and all other things while you bump merrily around the reserve. And for some of us this includes sports bras to do some of the holding. However, this cannot dampen any enthusiasm and expectations remain high.
And Mashatu, as usual, delivers. In a riverbed we come across a lone lioness having forty winks under an overhanging tree. She is so relaxed and some great photo opportunities present themselves. Then darkness starts creeping in and we head off for the vaunted Southern African sundowners. (I haven’t had this experience repeated in East Africa - and its all got to do with a G&T with a nibble or two of good old biltong or some other African snack - definitely adds to the congenial atmosphere.  Just as we had downed our drinks a cracking growl from nearby bushes sends us scurrying onto the vehicle while the dregs of the feast are unceremoniously thrown onto the vehicle and as we scour the bushes we are rewarded. A leopard comes sauntering along. The subsequent crashing of shutters is inevitable but the light is not good. Time and light has run out and the spotlight and flashes are next.  However, the leopard kindly sticks around for a pose or two before sauntering towards the riverbed and inevitably…………the lioness. Great excitement grips the vehicle and we are off to see the fun. The lioness quietly waits for the leopard to appear and a spitting, growling encounter follows. Dust, paws and teeth are bared but the spat does not last long enough for the cameras and before we know it the leopard is high in a tree with a bloody nose while the lioness angrily stalks around the base.  Then, disappointingly it is time to go.

There is a threat of rain and unusually for the Northern Tuli block clouds are gathering in the sky. The next morning we leave early as usual and on our drive South we spot a few animals, a lonely hyena on his way somewhere, an ostrich pecking at the ground and not too much else. So, our trusty photo expert, the vaunted Albie Venter, suggests to the Ranger that we should head into the forest to look for a Pearl Spotted Owl. Instead of the Pearly we come across a pair of Giant Eagle Owls sitting side by side on a branch. Lighting is once again a concern but we manage to capture them as they are not interested in moving off at all. A small emerald spotted dove sits nearby and presents a pose before we move off again.  We also are treated to a good cheetah sighting with a mum and two cubs playing hide and seek in amongst the grass and bushes. But, patience in this game is always rewarded and some good photos emerge. However, none that will make the POTY awards!

The afternoon starts with a good opportunity to photograph a Corey Bustard who one day we hope will fly off so that we can get the photo of the year!  And then, suddenly, a lion kill! However, as is usual with lions, it is already over by the time we get there. The pride has already done its arguing and it is a peaceful scene with lions lazing under the bushes in the afternoon heat stomachs distended and jaws open and panting.  Last on the kill is an old dishevelled lioness valiantly tearing at the remains.  After a good spell of involuntary shutter strike (a disease we wildlife photographers all suffer from) we head off for the river bed again. This time the elephants are on display. Intent on excavating for water we are able to move in fairly close and all the while the adults and sub adults demonstrate their prowess at shifting sand there is a little chap on the edge of the river occupying himself with a tuft of grass. These antics are endearing and heart stopping. This is what makes conservation so worth while.  Those cumulus clouds are not moving on! During the night it rains!

We are limited to where we can now go on the reserve because the rain was pretty heavy during the night.  However, we are not disappointed and we get to a lion sighting of note. A whole pride with dad, mums and kiddies all spread out in a clearing. The lions move around our vehicle and we are able to get photographs from all sides. Dad’s bad tempered growls at some pesky youngsters and some good activity shots.  Then, its time to head off for that early morning coffee (amarula for me thanks). And then, it rains! Not a little shower I might add but a downpour of note. Out come the ponchos and the camera equipment gets buried beneath swathes of weatherproofing. However, sustenance is not forthcoming as it would simply get watered down before it can be downed. Then the discovery that the poncho’s are not really waterproof after all and wearing them is entirely a futile exercise. On removing these dripping rags it is also evident that thin white cotton safari shirts become thin white see through shirts when wet!!

We are privy to another great elephant sighting at the river where the elephants make full use of the abundant water. A couple of good abstract shots make the trip more than just a little worthwhile.

At about 9pm that night just as we are finishing our usual boma dinner the heavens open again.  We head for our tent glass of wine in hand (can’t waste the excellent Bacchus nectar) and while in the tent I patiently wait for the abatement so that I can head for the loo at the back of the tent. However, I eventually make the executive decision that I will have to make use of an umbrella and step off the bed only to find a spongy like surface beneath my feet. A quick look out the front of the tent reveals a sea of swirling water around and under the tent. Then the panic sets in and in a great flurry cameras are packed into the storm case, toiletries make it into the vanity case in record time and passports are secured. After packing my clothes all the while Paul is still packing the cameras I count the bags. Seven! Certainly we can’t carry them all at once. So I pick up the passports, the vanity bag and the crumpler and head for the front of the tent. I get shouted at by Paul who thinks I’m deserting him but I’m heading for higher ground. Then the power trips and the headlamps have to come out. I then head out into the darkness looking for higher ground - which is the breakfast lapha. Albie and Isak meet me outside asking if they can help. I send them to get the cameras and my last bag. After depositing my load I head back to the tent. All that is left is for Paul to finish packing his clothes and my last words to him are to be careful when stepping out of the tent because it is built up on a cement base. However, needless to say I don’t think he is listening because when he makes his appearance both he and his bag are soaking wet!

Soaking wet myself I decide a quick change of clothes is needed and a corner of the lapha with a towel and a handy husband do the trick and I manage to dry myself off. Then we wait. It is still raining and the river is swelling. Three tents have to be evacuated. In amongst all of this we notice that there is one couple missing. The camp manager runs to their tent and finds them peacefully sleeping through it all. We sit around till after midnight, we reopen the bar and some more of the good old Bacchus nectar calms the nerves. Finally at about 3am we head for higher ground and freshly made up beds. The valiant hardworking camp staff were all plucked from their slumber and unceremoniously herded back to camp to see to our needs.
The next morning reveals the devastation. And it would appear that we are perhaps pinned down. Paul is hopeful. A few free nights are not unwelcome. The Limpopo is apparently so full that when the cable car goes over it disappears into the water.  However, hope is short lived and by 12am we can head off towards the border and back to what is euphemistically termed civilization. The first river crossing is not a problem and we squelch our way towards the second. The veld is drenched and the roads are muddy tracks. At the river we forge across the concrete causeway wheels cutting through the surging water. A quick stop for some pics and onto the end of the weekend. The Limpopo is a sight to see! Water water everywhere………… bank to bank! But the trusty cable car holds out and soon we are on the other side with our adventure locked into memory to be retold around many a campfire.
 See you there next year!

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