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A tantalizing tale of twenty-eight tortoises


Jochen
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Intro; get it together, Jochen!

 

If you see the topic tags, then you know it's more or less simply another lowveld adventure.

But with a twist.

 

Firstly because we chose different places to stay this time; we wanted to see Kruger NP itself. We had already seen some small parts of it (on our first safari ever, which was with a big group. And another time while just driving through the middle part of it). So no lodges in the private reserves next to Kruger this time (well except for one, at the end of our trip, just to spoil ourselves before flying back to Europe).

 

Secondly because we ended up adding a few less-visited places. Our friends at ANT, people from SA, told us we should have a look at Blouberg and Mapungubwe, as they are really beautiful parks. But they seemed so far off, so at first we thought of just doing Kruger.

Strangely enough I could not rent a 4x4 double-cab bakkie near Nelspruit or Hoedspruit. I'm talking about the typical self-drive vehicles with room in the back for storage, a big fridge, etc. So it's not so much for the "4x4" we wanted such vehicle (although I knew 4x4 can come in handy, certainly in the summer season), but also because we were going to do our own cooking etc.

It seems most people rent their vehicles (even regular ones) at Jo'burg airport and start their trip from there, while at first we intended to fly to Hoedspruit or Nelspruit and jump in our vehicle there, thereby avoiding city traffic. But alas, it was not meant to be...

So, since we were obliged to start from Jo'burg, we started re-thinking our plans. Why not do a "round tour"? Start in Jo'burg, drive to Blouberg and Mapungubwe, then enter Kruger NP via Pafuri gate all the way in the north, and then drive all the way down and exit at Skukuza, to end with a few days at a lodge in the private reserve.

That sounded great, but then I insisted; "for years now we've been thinking about Mashatu. But since it was so far out of our regular itineraries, we never went there. Now that we are going to the northern border, we have to add ir". My wife agreed wholeheartedly (whew).

 

So we started planning our trip. Two little problems arose;

- Mashatu Tented Camp (which we wanted as it is the affordable option for us) was unavailable as it's being refurbished (it should be about ready now). Luckily, Natasha at Sun Safaris was able to get Mashatu Main Camp rooms at the price of the Tented Camp rooms. We didn't say no to that!

- We had quite some difficulty choosing that one lodge in the private reserves. We wanted to revisit Africa On Foot, as an apprentice guide we met on our first visit was now back at AOF, as the main guide, and with a university diploma in Wildlife Management in his pocket. We remembered François (nicknamed Fafa) as an absolute hoot. But Arathusa was also an option. Our friend and amazing guide Rein Kock is now guiding there. Yet another option was Nyeleti/Kitara/Nzumba in the north of Klaserie, as Jan, yet another great guide and friend is working there. Lastly, another option was Shindzela. A camp we've also been to twice already. But this time Johan was working there. We've met Johan when he was guiding at Gomo Gomo, but had never been his customer. we did share a lot of sightings with him while on drive at either nThambo or AOF though. Plus we had been following him for a while on Facebook. Too bad for all our friends we had to let down, but we chose Shindzela. After all, Johan was the only guide in the above "list" that we hadn't met in person.

 

So without further ado, on to the safari!

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Part 1; Blouberg provincial reserve

 

Got off the Air France red eye flight at 10AM, went through customs asap, and started looking for a person from Britz/Kea, the company where we rented our vehicle. We were keen on getting on the road asap, as we had quite a bit of driving to do. Britz had promised us that they'd have us on the road before 1PM "as the vehicle is unequipped". That was true; we were staying at lodges and/or self-catering accommodation, but had no need for tents etc.

 

Luckily their guy showed up 5-10 minutes after we came through the arrival gate. He transfered us to Britz headquarters, a 10 minute drive. Their HQ is only one block away from the highway, so it's easy to find.

 

After some paperwork; more paperwork. Apparently, since I went to Mashatu, I needed a special paper to get the car over the border, and for that paper Britz charged us another R 500. We didn't really mind as they were still very reasonably priced, with or without that R 500. But we lost another 10 minutes while they got that paper ready. It's a bit silly as well, that paper. As it's just to get through the Botswana border, only to drop your car off 20m further, at the side of a dirt road, because you cannot cross the Limpopo river in the wet season anyway. You need to cross by cable car. But still you need that piece of paper, as otherwise the guard at the border does not allow you to park "behind" the border. Granted, we could have parked before the border as well. But then our car would be less safe, and we'd have to drag our suitcases through the sand for half a kilometer.

 

Anyway, that paper "set us back" 10 minutes, but Britz delivered; we were on the road by 1PM, with a full tank of gas.

 

First stop; shopping! At first I thought to to go shopping in a Pick N Pay located in some shopping mall next to the highway between Jo'burg and Pretoria, but Britz told us; "no need for that, there's a big Spar, just down the road from where you are now". So we went there, for what must have been the quickest shopping trip ever. Mira had noted down what we needed (not the precise products we tend to buy at home - as we did no know those would exist in the local supermarkets - but she rather noted down what meals we needed; "3x breakfast, 2x evening meal", etc...).

 

We found what we needed rather fast. Two things we couldn't find, and that was really awkward to us;

- no chocolate spread. We got a choice between about 10 brands here in Belgium, but in SA nobody seems to like or buy chocolate spread.

- paprika-flavored crisps. Again, in Belgium, that is the most popular flavor (next to salt). But in SA it's eiter all Indian-type of flavors (chutney, chili, ...) or UK-flavors (sour cream, onion, vinegar). We went with the Indian stuff. Seriously, UK-folks; vinegar?? We clean our sink and coffee maker with that stuff.

 

On the road!

Edited by Jochen
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- paprika-flavored crisps. Again, in Belgium, that is the most popular flavor (next to salt). But in SA it's eiter all Indian-type of flavors (chutney, chili, ...) or UK-flavors (sour cream, onion, vinegar). We went with the Indian stuff. Seriously, UK-folks; vinegar?? We clean our sink and coffee maker with that stuff.

 

Salt 'n' Vinegar is supposed to remind one of Fish 'n' Chips since that's what we put on the latter, but without the fish obviously. I don't like any of these chemical flavoured crisps so usually choose plain.

 

I usually travel with a jar of chocolate spread in my luggage as I know most Europeans will be deliriously happy with it as a gift, though the time before last in Namibia caused some fights amongst the Germans.

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We had warned Blouberg that we would only arrive at around sunset. After all, it's a five hour drive. Six, if you count the needed breaks. So we would arrive around 7PM, while normally their gate closes at 4:30 PM. But it was no problem for them. The camp manager told me; "just give the guy at the gate a little tip for his effort to stay longer". But I made a mistak while wiring them money; I wired R 100 too much, so I asked the manager to use that as the tip for the guy at the gate.

 

The drive north was quite uneventful. Very few potholes too. Except for one event that really shook us. At one point a maintenance vehicle passed us. A bakkie with workers in the back. I remember Mira making a remark "they shouldn't allow that; having people sit in the back of a bakkie at such speeds, and without seatbelt". While I thought to myself "that guy is going way too fast for such vehicle".

 

Half an hour later; blue lights, small traffic jam, ...accident! A car was on it's roof. Another car (a bakkie!) was missing it's rear axle. And under two blankets; an equal amount of dead people. :( I don't know if it's the crazy driver that passed us half an hour prior. But it sure looked like that. NOT the way I want my vacation to start.

 

At 7PM we arrived at Blouberg Provincial Reserve. Nobody at the gate (lol) so we opened in ourselves and drove on. From Google Earth, I knew we had to pass the ranger's house first, before getting to our house. And yup, there he was. He said the guy at the gate was waiting for us in Vivo town. He would call him back, and we were allowed to drive on to our house. This one;

 

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Nice little house! On the inside, it looked like this;

 

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So; a little salon, a "dining room" and a small kitchen. To the right in the pic, that little "hut in the hut" is actually a small bedroom for kids (with a bunk bed). And to the back of the pic, that bigger "hut in the hut" was our bedroom + bathroom. It was actually quite big. Good beds. Fresh linen and towels. Nice shower too. Fridge, microwave, braai facilities, ... all there and all very OK if you ask me.

 

Well, it better be, for the huge amount of money it costs. We paid R600 per night. That's per couple, so R300 per person. In other words; 30 USD/20€ per person. Maybe I should write that down again, so it sinks in; 30 USD/20€ per person. "Huge amount" was meant sarcastically, obviously.

 

It's amazing you can get such a nice house at such a price. But not just the house; you get the reserve as well; there's no additional charge for reserve fees, vehicle fees or whatever.

So what does the reserve look like? On to the next post...

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though the time before last in Namibia caused some fights amongst the Germans.

 

:D I can imagine!

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Here's what the scenery looks like;

 

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In other words; compared to the flat landscapes of the lowveld; this place was STUNNING.

 

But what can you see there? Well, it's a small reserve, so no elephants and no lions. Also no lions; too expensive to protect I guess.

But other than that; all the usual suspects, and an amazing birdlife (Blouberg is one of those hidden gems for birding in SA, and Africa Geographic Birds & Birding magazine spoke about the reserve in one of it's issues).

 

We do recommend a 4x4 to enjoy this reserve to the fullest. Otherwise you're stuck in the flat part. But for the mountains you need 4x4. There's a sundowner spot not far from our camp (strangely enough it's called Mashatu Camp, but not to be confused with Mashatu Reserve), but you need 4x4 (and even diff lock) to get to it. Also, there's a pass through the mountains that allows you to get to the other side of the reserve, and you need 4x4 for that too.

 

We did that mountain pass the next morning. It wasn't that difficult. But on the other side of the reserve, it seemed not a lot of vehicles had been driving there since the rains came; soon enough we were driving with very tall grasses on either end of the track, obscuring a lot of the view.

 

Oh, and for the ladies; golden orb spiders everywhere! We drove through them, they crashed on our wind shield and some ended up in the car (as we always drive with open windows). We wanted to get to a vulture colony, but it was getting rather late; we did not forget that we had to drive all the way back to our hut, to have breakfast, and it was already way past 9AM. Time flies when you're having fun.

 

So we did not see the vultures, but we did see plenty of other birds, plus baboons and impala. Also I found very fresh leopard tracks in the mud on the road. But I guess, since there's not that many visitors here, that they stay away from people and are thus seldom seen.

 

Maybe it was a mistake to do the "vulture-drive" in the morning, as it had taken more time than we anticipated (and we hadn't seen it all; we did not go all the way to the end, nor did we go to the little stretch of river at that side of the reserve). We were only back at 11AM.

 

But maybe our mistake was not to have stayed a day longer, as the afternoon drive passed equally quick. In the afternoon, we did the flat lands, but also the road right next to the mountainside. We saw klipspringer, kudu, red hartebeest, wildebeest, impala, baboon, oryx, and lots and lots of giraffes. And again; lots of birds. I wrote down on my iPad that I had seen 15 newspecies here (looked them up in my bird App - I'll provide the list later on).

 

Lots of the animals ran off (again you could see more visitors would do this place no harm), and even more were not worth a photograph because of the high grass and/or thick bush. But I did end up with some half-decent shots. Here's some;

 

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Obviously the giraffes were easiest to photograph. They do not run off, but as usual just stand there and stare back. Or they even approach you out of curiosity.

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The next morning we slept in. To be honest; I was a bit tired. First day 7h of driving after a red eye flight, then a full day of gamedriving... I needed to catch up on some sleep.

Still, before we drove on to our next stop, we went out for a little drive, doing the road next to the mountain again, hoping to see the klipspringers better. But we couldn't find them. I did see this guy though;

 

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Finally, my dung beetle shot! I had hoped to see one in this rainy season - as I had never seen them before in the dry season. Mission accomplished. But stupid as I was I thought that I'd have plenty of opportunities this trip. So I didn't do the right effort with this one, which is to get down and dirty, to his level, for a shot at a flat angle. Don't make the same mistake! Seeing dung beetles is easy enough; but with a nice ball of dung, on an open spot, that's something else!

 

Too soon, it was time for us to leave. We had immensely enjoyed Blouberg. And we will certainly return. And next time we will surely stay a day longer! This time, we simply added it as a stop-over to get to Mashatu. In retrospect, that was a mistake. It's the perfect spot to get into the rhythm, it's got very nice game, beautiful landscapes (I forgot to mention the Baobabs; they've got huge baobabs, people!) ...and at R600 a night it's an absolute steal.

 

I can certainly recommend this place. For birding, any time of the year, but especially in the summer season (as all the migrants are there). But also for regular game drives (in that case, the dry season may be a bit better ...but we had no reason to complain. We saw a lot (but photographed little).

 

On to Mashatu!

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We visited Blouberg a few years ago as a day trip. It felt like we were the first visitors in ages - no-one on the gate, no signs, the staff we found didn't speak much english etc, but it was amazing having the place to ourselves. The only other person we met was a researcher changing the memory cards in the camera traps! They apparently have cheetah but we weren't brave enough to tackle the mountain crossing in our non-4x4 to get to the pains beyond!! :unsure:

 

Am looking forward to mashatu as I am thinking of going there in september....

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such a tantalizing title and i'm already drawn in....and what a huge bargain for the lovely little cottage.

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We visited Blouberg a few years ago as a day trip. It felt like we were the first visitors in ages - no-one on the gate, no signs, the staff we found didn't speak much english etc, but it was amazing having the place to ourselves. The only other person we met was a researcher changing the memory cards in the camera traps! They apparently have cheetah but we weren't brave enough to tackle the mountain crossing in our non-4x4 to get to the pains beyond!! :unsure:

 

Seriously; this place deserves to get more international visitors.

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Loving it Jochen. It must have taken you an age to write.

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Thought I'd add all the new species we saw at Blouberg, on just that one day. In total, the number of species we saw was somewhere between 50 and 60. Just for clarity; this is without being birders. I mean; we like seeing birds, but we're not exactly twitchers. Most of our time is spent looking for/at mammals.

 

Also, that figure ("50-60") does not contain the ones we heard but did not see. At our house we heard Black Headed Oriole, Black Collared Barbet, Crested Barbet, Chinspot Batis, Black-backed Puffback, etc... but we didn't see them.

 

The list;

- European Roller

- Purple Indigobird

- Red-backed Shrike

- Green-winged Pytillia (see the pic above with the small bird with green wings and black&white stripes on it's chest)

- Jacobin Cuckoo

- Monotonous Lark

- Violet-backed starling (see also the pic above with the two birds)

- Square-tailed (Mozambique) Nightjar

- Lanner Falcon

- Tropicall Boubou

- Wattled Starling

- Whitebrowed Sparrow-weaver

- Rufous-naped Lark

- Yellow Canary

- Melodious Lark

 

I'll try to write up Mashatu over the weekend.

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>> But what can you see there? Well, it's a small reserve, so no elephants and no lions. Also no lions; too expensive to protect I guess.

Found a typo; that should read "Also no Rhino; too expensive to protect I guess."

 

However (forgot to say this); they do have buffalo (we saw their dung & tracks on the roads), eland, waterbuck, mountain reedbuck and sable!

 

Plus I should not have named the reserve "small". It's 9300Ha. That's smaller than Mashatu, OK. But it's more than the average traverse size of most lodges in Sabi Sands/Timbavati/Klaserie. Obviously, the mountains take up a huge part.

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FlyTraveler

@@Jochen, as soon as I noticed your new TR, I felt this pleasant anticipation of watching great photos and reading interesting things. I was right, this looks like another fabulous trip report. Looking forward to more...

 

P. S. You didn't mention dates or at least the month in the report, or did you? It looks like green season and i suspect that the safari was quite recent...

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I'm glad you got your dung beetle shot even if it could have been perfected. There will be some tortoises coming up, right? You should write that price a third time. $30 USD! The next time someone asks for accommodations that are a bargain, you'll have to tell them about Blouberg Provincial Reserve!

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P. S. You didn't mention dates or at least the month in the report, or did you? It looks like green season and i suspect that the safari was quite recent...

 

Hey FlyTraveler.

 

This was my trip of a few weeks ago. We left on 13/2 (Valentine's day was our first day in South Africa, lol) and came back the first week of March.

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FlyTraveler

 

P. S. You didn't mention dates or at least the month in the report, or did you? It looks like green season and i suspect that the safari was quite recent...

 

Hey FlyTraveler.

 

This was my trip of a few weeks ago. We left on 13/2 (Valentine's day was our first day in South Africa, lol) and came back the first week of March.

 

 

Good for you, I like very much your photography (here and on your other trip reports), looking forward to more... :) I also admire your determination to get field guide licenses (both you and your wife)!

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FlyTraveler

I'm glad you got your dung beetle shot even if it could have been perfected. There will be some tortoises coming up, right? You should write that price a third time. $30 USD! The next time someone asks for accommodations that are a bargain, you'll have to tell them about Blouberg Provincial Reserve!

 

Jochen should have demanded a full board included in the price for such an amount per night :) :)

 

Sorry for the off-topic, talking about good prices, I just found on the Internet a "budget friendly" self catering camp in Hwange NP, Zimbabwe and thought that this could be of interest - $40 per person during peak season (based on double occupancy). Kapula Private Camp. I am not sure how easy self-drive in Zimbabwe and particularly in Hwnage would be and what is the situation with 4X4 vehicle rentals in Victoria Falls (the closest airport). Tents are looking very good. I don't know how good for safari is the area around the camp.

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Thank you @@Jochen for this TR.

Waiting for your comments on Mapungubwe as I will be there in May.

Elaine

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Part 2; Mashatu

 

Over noon, we drove to Mashatu. From Vivo, it's not that far anymore, and the tar road is very good up until the T-junction with the R572.

The R572 takes you to Mapungubwe entrance and the town Musina, but between those two a bridge was washed away a year ago, with the floods. So at the T-junction with the R521 to Pont Drift, they painted "ROAD CLOSED" in big white letters on the tar.

 

Anyway, we were not to follow that road on this day. We drove straight on, to Pont Drift. On that last stretch of road there were quite a bit of potholes. We also saw a team of workers that was busy repairing them.

 

At Pont Drift there's an office you have to go to (on the left), to get your stamps in your passport etc, and then a building on the right where the police inspect your vehicle. At the office on the left, they also ask you for that permit (of your rental company) to take the car into Botswana. After all this you drive on, and are effectively driving on no-mans land for about 100m. The road takes a dip and then you come to a building that houses the cable-way that can get you across the river. You cannot park at that building, so you have to unload your stuff from the car, and then drive a bit back to park your car somewhere next to that little road in no-mans land.

 

(There's no point driving on and pass that building housing the cable-way, because it ends at the shore;you can only cross the river here in the dry season.)

 

A bit of paperwork for the cable-way, and then you are allowed to step on (with your bags, of course), and cross the river.

 

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The whole thing seemed a bit flimsy to us, and rather old, but to our surprise it was new. Last year's floods washed away the "old" cable car. :D

 

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At the Botswana side, a driver from Mashatu was waiting for us. He escorted to the immigration office (just across the "road" from the cable-car. And after having done the paperwork at that end, we jumped into his car, for a 45 minute drive to Mashatu Main Camp.

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The trip to camp was rather uneventful. We passed the airway strip, and spotted some giraffe. But the place looked rather devoid of wildlife and much less green than Blouberg, the place we just came from. We would soon find out that Mashatu has much greener sections (there's a couple of (perennial) rivers running through the reserve, but also some huge portions of land that are dryer. More savanna-like (lots of grass, a few trees, and very few bushes), if you will.

 

We came to the lodge. At one end it is surrounded by a huge wall, at the other end by portions of idem wall, and all the guest's houses. But at that end the land goes down, so you get a nice view. There's a waterhole too, in front of the lodge. At this waterhole, over the next days, we would spot some a tree monitor, a herd of impala, a few baboons and some warthogs, but that was it.

 

In fact, while the place looked rather dry to us (at least the part west of camp and towards the Pont Drift border post), it had rained a couple days ago. So the animals could find pools of water everywhere, hence why the waterhole was less busy than usual. Apparently the dry part of the reserve can get quite dusty in the winter, and then all the animals congregate closer to the rivers. So I assume in winter it's easier to spot the animals, but the place can look very dry and dusty. While in summer the game is more stretched out, but the landscape is much nicer. This was our first trip in the rainy season, and I must admit I liked the landscape a lot. That grass waving in the wind, the inflorescences lighting up in the evening sun... Yes, overall you probably see a bit less in total, and what you see may be a bit more difficult to photograph, but when you get a good sighting the pics are amazing. You'll see what I mean soon enough.

 

Someone who apparently also likes to come this season is Bruce, Mashatu's best customer. He's a retired chap from UK, and has been coming for 24 years now, and this time he was there for a whole month.

 

We were escorted to our room, and of course (given what it costs) it was a real palace. This is the bedroom (with the door where you come in);

 

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Where I'm standing to take this picture is a small salon, and to the right of me was some kind of walk-in-closet (built in stone). At the back was our bathroom;

 

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Shower at the far end, toilet to my left. But there's actually a 2nd, separate, toilet - accessible from the walk-in closet.

 

Of course we like it a lot, but just one little thing we missed was a terrace. Well it seems that years ago the front part of the room (where I was standing to take that first pic, above) used to be the terrace. But as they had some trouble with kids climbing over the fence of their terrace, they decided to "absorb" the terrace into the room. Hence why the rooms were so big.

 

...but we still missed that terrace, haha. I think we'd preffered the tented camp. Also for the sounds at night; stone walls (and aircon) make it difficult to hear anything. But as I said; tented camp was being refurbished, so we got this room at the rates of the tented camp room. Can't complain! And thanks again Sun Safaris for getting this good rate!

 

To be honest, I don't think anyone could complain about anything here. The place was divine. I've never seen so much food - and so much choice - for so little guests (but I understood that the staff eats the same things as us, but only after guests have eaten). And it was all delicious.

 

Another fun thing; Mashatu hands out inox water bottles, that you can fill with fresh and very cold water at a filling station. It's fresh water from a pump, and it's much better (and greener) than to hand out little plastic water bottles to everyone. However, we hardly saw anyone else use those bottles. Maybe it was just our group that wasn't that thirsty. Yup; makes sense; Bruce had been there for quite a bit, and unlike us he was acclimatized to the weather. Another guest was Terry, a very cool guy from the Botswana military. He was at the border for meetings with some private firms, as he uses these firms for anti poaching patrols etc.

 

(yes of course I complimented him on the good work the military is doing for the wildlife in Botswana!)

 

And two other guests were from the French speaking part of Belgium, but were actually "local" as well: one of the two owned a farm right across the Waterberg (ic right across Entabeni entrance). So actually; I think we were the only ones sweating so much that we needed the water bottles.

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On to the drives!

 

We were told Mashatu only hosts 3 of the big 5. There's no rhino here (poaching...) and there's no buffalo here (no fences, and sometimes dry riverbeds so those buffalo could easily transmit diseases to the cattle of communities nearby). But while it lacked those two species, it more than made up for that with cheetah (they are on the plains, obviously, as it's their favorite playground) and eland (at lots of places difficult to see but here they have huge herds roaming around). Wild dogs haven't been seen for more than a year now. Apparently it depends; sometimes they come here from across the rivers, but then they move out again. And they are only seen regularly if they get stuck on this side of the rivers, after those rivers start flowing in the rainy season. But that hasn't happened in quite some time.

 

Drives are rather adventurous as every (dry) river crossing means there's steep banks to drive off/on. The guides follow those riverbeds (both from above and from within them - driving on the sand) for obvious reasons. But they also spend a decent amount of time on the plains. There's also some low-laying parts (mud & sand) where vegetation is very thick. Here they look for leopards a lot.

 

But our first leopard was spotted on some cliffs. Yes, the reserves also has some huge cliffs next to the riverbeds. So yes, there's klipspringers here as well.

 

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(I started a game based on the above pic. But this one's rather easy. There's more pics to follow. Go here ; http://safaritalk.net/topic/12468-the-spotting-game/ )

 

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He gave us quite a show, this one.

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Let's continue with some pics of general game.

 

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One fun sighting we also had was a hyena den

 

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The newest family member came out to suckle;

 

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Now who said hyena are ugly??

 

We'll be seeing these guys & girls later on too, but not at their den.

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We also had a few good lion sightings. There's a pride of 11; two lionesses with 9 cubs. All cubs are at least 6 months old, coming from at least three different litters (as I could see at least three different age groups). But our first sighting was not this pride. It was the two males that roam about. Sometimes they do not spot these two for quite a while. Then all of a sudden they are back.

 

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Apparently there's also one other nomadic male but we did not get to see that one.

 

At one point a jackal came over to have a look. He was quite curious and thought the lions might have killed something. But he trotted off after he saw that that was not the case.

 

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That lion sighting from higher up, after we left it;

 

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The above picture gives you some idea on how the landscape looked. So indeed you get a lot of huge plains with mostly grass;

 

050.jpg

 

And this is where you find your eland.

 

064.jpg

 

065b.jpg

 

The above is a pano shot, but it does not say a lot at this size. Klick here for a bigger version; http://safaris.marulacamp.com/temp/ST/SA2014/065.jpg

 

121.jpg

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