We were fortunate enough to spend five days in Mashatu in mid-September. It was dry and the heat was not yet baked in. Make no mistake, it was warm in the middle of the day but cool in the evenings and early mornings. You really get a sense that the land is pregnant with new life at this time of the year. The trees were starting to bloom and the predators and giraffe all had young. Nature’s anticipation of the coming bounty.
“Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres : such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise that live by voices inaudible to you.”
― Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places
Part of the fun of the trip was taking new people to Mashatu. My daughter and I have been privileged to visit Mashatu a number of times but my son Ryan was out from Australia and my daughter’s boyfriend Ashley had never seen Mashatu before. We were excited about sharing our experiences in this remarkable wild place with them. Before we crossed the Limpopo, which was low enough to drive through by vehicle (no need for the pont), we warned them that the area was very dry at this time of the year but not to be put off because they were in for a treat.
I intend publishing four posts on our trip to Mashatu because there was so much to see and photograph, even though the feathered migrants had not yet arrived. We had heard before we arrived at Mashatu that a female Cheetah had five cubs. So it was with great anticipation that we went out looking for her and her family the morning after we arrived. We found her in the shade of a Shepherd’s tree on the other side of the ridge from the sage grove.
From a photographic point of view, the Cheetahs were lying in a perfect position, on a slight rise so our perspective was at eye level.
Part of the specialness of Mashatu, from a photography and experiential point of view, is that only three vehicles are allowed on a sighting at one time and more often than not you are the only ones there. In addition, you can go off-road. When we were in the Serengeti earlier this year, the wildlife and sightings were superb but we could not go off-road to get closer to our photographic subjects and improve the perspective.
“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.”
– Sir John Lubbock Vice chancellor, University of London
Once the rangers know you are a photographer they are very accommodating. We were watching this Cheetah family from such good perspective but I had some grass in the way of my subjects so our ranger, Maifala, kindly moved forward about one metre, which made all the difference.
The cubs were very cute with their blondish long hair on their backs and dark sides and belly. They were still very small and not yet able to run away from an adult predator. It is amazing to think that this high performance female wildlife athlete was rearing four cubs on her own in a predator filled area.
Unfortunately, she must have lost one cub before we arrived. We are not sure what happened. This particular morning this Cheetah mother was very patient and at peace with her cubs. Once the cubs settled down to feed is was a very quiet, serene time. Despite the serenity of the Cheetah family there was a lot of activity all around them with Impala snorting and Spurfowl and Guineafowl calling, so the Cheetah mother remained relaxed but alert.
“Most people are on the world, not in it–have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them–undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching, but separate”.
– John Muir
On a separate occasion late in the afternoon, we watched the same Cheetah family playing in last light.
The cubs were having great fun, tearing round chasing each other. The Cheetah mother was lying down, ever vigilant as this was the time of the evening when there was a changing of the guard., the diurnals were settling down and the nocturnals getting ready for their nightly activities.
One little cub seemed to be very impressed with Mum, enjoying the closeness.
Another cub decided that it was worth trying to kill this branch which looked like it had been thoroughly “killed” by a hungry Elephant.
Eventually the Cheetah mother got up to move her cubs away.
This is when Maifala signalled that she wanted to be left in peace which is what we did.
I thought she was a particularly beautiful Cheetah in her prime. She had managed to keep four of her cubs alive for a couple of weeks in an environment seething with predators – an impressive feat by any measure.
“People need wild places. Whether or not we think we do, we do. We need to be able to taste grace and know again that we desire it. We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possibly care less about us in our place. It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully. Looking out on a clean plank of planet earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own.”
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.