Gaborone - Maybe, when you think about Botswana as a holiday destination, you think of the famed inland waterway, the Okavango Delta, or perhaps of the equally legendary Kalahari Desert, but I suspect few would think or know about the huge south-east corner of the country called the Tuli Block.
It’s known as the ‘Land of Giants’, rightly so, because its star attraction, Mashatu Game Reserve, is a 33 000ha swathe of wilderness, teeming with game and birds of all kinds, with the largest herds of elephants on privately owned land in the world.
The largest private game reserve in southern Africa, Mashatu is at the heart of the proposed Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area, and shares boundaries with the Tuli Safari Area in neighbouring Zimbabwe and the World Heritage Site of South Africa’s Mapungubwe National Park. It’s here in this corner of Africa that three countries meet – Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
You’ll find an amazing diversity of landscapes here – riverine forests, vlei and marshland, savannah, rocky outcrops and seemingly limitless horizons. And all of this is just over five hours drive from Johannesburg via Polokwane and Alldays.
Why the ‘Land of Giants’? For many reasons. Firstly, to leave South Africa and enter Botswana, you have to cross a giant river: the ‘great, green, greasy, Limpopo’ (Kipling’s not too accurate description). You’ll be winched across the mighty river in what the guides euphemistically call a ‘cable car’, in fact a small metal cage into which a couple of people, the guide and your luggage just fits. In years of severe drought you’ll be driven over the sandy riverbed in an open-sided game vehicle.
Once in Mashatu, the ‘Land of Giants’ label kicks in again. Huge ancient baobab trees rule the landscape; and then come the superlatives: the largest land animal in the world dominates here (the elephant); it has the tallest mammal (the giraffe) – I counted more than 25 alone on the 45-minute drive from the river crossing to the main camp; the world’s biggest flying bird, the Kori Bustard; and perhaps Africa’s most iconic animal, King of the Beasts – the lion.
It was in 1987 that Michael Rattray, the visionary who can lay claim to being one of the pioneers who put South Africa on the map as a global safari destination with the now iconic MalaMala Private Game Reserve, went into partnership with the Botswana Development Corporation. This highly successful partnership transformed a little known and remote area into one of southern Africa’s most rewarding safari destinations.
Stay in the luxurious main camp, situated beside a busy waterhole, or, if you really want to get close up and personal with the bush, stay at Mashatu Tent Camp – definitely not for sissies as game comes and goes in the camp as it pleases.
Two weeks later, I’m far north of Mashatu, at the top end of Botswana where another three countries meet, this time, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
I’m on the mighty Chobe River, a little way down from where the Chobe and the Zambezi rivers converge, on an aptly named small houseboat, the Zambezi Voyager. Instead of thick bush and savannah, I’m surrounded by floodplains teeming with birds and animals, cruising past sandy banks where great riverine trees – African mahogany, fig and jackalberry – bend down towards the water as elephants bathe, baboons patrol the banks and huge yellow-eyed crocodiles snooze in the afternoon sun. Skeins of white-faced whistling ducks arch over the wide sky, fish eagles call, and hippos snort amid swathes of water lilies.
The Zambezi Voyager, moored on the Namibian side of the Chobe river, is a small, comfortable houseboat with just five cabins on the lower deck, a main deck with lounge and dining area, and a top deck where you can sit and watch the watery world go by.
But this is late April and the river is at its fullest, so it’s tiger-fishing season. My companion, Suzie, has had previous gentle forays with trout in tranquil inland ponds, but has never been tiger fishing.
We set off a couple of hours after dawn, in one of the Zambezi Voyager’s small boats with our superb guide, Fabian, who was born on Namibia’s Impalilo Island, a short 20-minute journey by boat upstream from Chobe River Lodge, where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were married all those years ago.
It’s at the bottom of this island where the Chobe and Zambezi meet, and we are now in Namibian waters, zooming past small villages where children play on the banks and local fishermen pole mokoros through deep channels lined by papyrus. We’re heading for the rapids – favourite cruising grounds of Africa’s fiercest fighting fish. Fabian cuts the engine and we hear the rushing of the rapids. (If you kept straight on for a few kilometres at this point you’d go over the Victoria Falls.)
He baits our lines with “bulldogs”, small bottlenose fish caught in nets by the locals, used as tiger fish bait and tasty human food.
Tiger fish are clever: the nanosecond you feel a nibble, you must strike – whip your line quickly to one side to secure the hook. Suzie and I aren’t quick enough at first and lose bulldog after bulldog to the wily tiger fish, which also bite through our lines several times, or jump high in the air to escape the hook.
But at last we get the hang of it. I catch a small-to-medium one, but Suzie manages to land a 3kg whopper. We quickly take the requisite triumphant photos before releasing our catches back into the river.
Adrenalin used up for the day and after a hearty brunch, we spend the rest of the day and sunset hours drifting along the banks of Chobe Game Reserve in our three-person boat.
This is a birdlover’s paradise, where water birds of all kinds from little waders, to storks, geese and herons patrol the banks. I ticked off 75 birds in three days, including Chobe specials such as Allen’s gallinule (the bonsai version of the African purple swamp hen – a twitcher’s Holy Grail), white-crowned and long-toed lapwings, slaty egrets, dozens of black-headed night herons roosting together, the lesser jacana; glossy ibises, gabar goshawks and scores more. We even found the nest of a green-backed heron with its apple-green eggs.
And there’s game galore, from zebra and giraffe to warthogs, the endemic Chobe bushbuck, kudu, impala, big buffalo herds… and, of course, the famous Chobe elephants. They are everywhere – in the middle of the river munching the soft grass, swimming and playing by the banks, among the trees.
Early the next morning, back in our little boat, as we drift along a couple of metres from the bank, we come across three young lions that have come down to drink. Within minutes, game vehicles roar up, jostling for space on the soft sand, but unable to approach. We sit complacently in our boat, in pole position, with a grandstand view.
I’ve been to Chobe many times, and it’s not one of my favourite game parks, as there are too few roads and far too many vehicles. But for a unique wilderness experience, where you really see and experience the best of Chobe, choose a houseboat on the Chobe river.
At night, after yet another spectacular African sunset, lie in bed lulled by the gentle rocking of the water and listen to the silence, broken only by the sounds of foraging hippos, the piping of frogs and, in the distance, a jackal’s bark.
This is really a wonderful way to interact with the African wilderness. - Sunday Tribune
She flew from Joburg to Kasane in Botswana by Airlink (www.flyairlink.com), and back from the Vic Falls in Zimbabwe to Joburg by British Airways (www.britishairways.com).