Mashatu: summer spots

Mashatu is a private game reserve in south-eastern Botswana. We visited this diverse and prolific reserve in mid-February this year and were fortunate to do so one month before the lockdown.

“A river doesn’t just carry water, it carries life.” ~Amit Kalantri

Mid-February is in the midst of the rainy season in southern Africa. The wildness of the place was emphasised by the strongly flowing Limpopo river which prevented us from crossing into Botswana via Pont Drift, the closest border post to Mashatu. We had to detour via the Platjan border post which is about 110 kilomteres to the south west of Pont Drift along the Limpopo river. This was the only way to cross the mighty Limpopo into Botswana by road from this part of South Africa. The dirt road from Platjan was very rough with numerous wash-aways and deep rain scoured ruts.

“Rivers are roads that move and carry us whither we wish to go.” ~Blaise Pascal

On our way to toward Mashatu we were surprised how barren and still relatively brown the area looked, indicating that the rains had come late and had not had enough time to bring the bush to life and transform into its summer colours. Only after a day or two in the game reserve did we see the transformation begin. The brown barren looking open spaces metamorphosed into a green Eden carpeted in yellow devil thorn flowers.

Summer is a time of frequent thunderstorms, wet gravel roads, and avian migrants. It is also a time of luxurious, verdant greens and vast carpets of yellow flowers. The rains allow the herbivores to scatter and not be obligated to make the daily hazardous walk down to the river for water.

One predator we always want to see when we go to Mashatu is a leopard. Mashatu is known for its exceptional leopard sightings which occur most frequently along the Majale river. This is the largest of the three main rivers flowing through the Mashatu game reserve. The other two are the Matabole and Pitsani.

There is a high density of leopards along the Majale river due to the abundance of prey and massive trees along its banks which provide them with protection. Leopard sightings are excellent and frequent in winter but can be more challenging in summer. When the rains come in summer, the vegetation grows much thicker along the river making the leopards more difficult to see and the prey is more scattered so the predators have to work harder to feed themselves.

“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”~ Patti Smith

We often see leopards up trees, especially in Mashatu where there are enormous Mashatu (Nyala berry) trees, Jackalberries and Figtrees along the main rivers. For some reason, unknown to me, on this particular trip we only saw leopards on the ground and they were active in the late afternoon and early mornings.

On our second afternoon, we were driving in the southern area close to the Majale river through the Mustard bushes when we came across this female leopard. She was on the move and clearly following something.

“She is free in her wildness, she is a wanderess, a drop of free water. She knows nothing of borders and cares nothing for rules or customs. ‘Time’ for her isn’t something to fight against. Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water.” ~ Roman Payne

Leopards are by nature secretive and rely on stealth and camouflage so are seldom seen in the open. This female was using the Mustard bushes as cover and moving between them to get closer and closer to a single Steenbok she had spotted. This area was about 30 metres from the Majale river.

As she was stalking between the Mustard bushes she would stop and listen. Judging from the turn of her head, a sound to her left must have caught her attention and made her stop in mid stride.

“Sometimes when you lose your way, you find yourself.” ~ Mandy Hale,

This is a view of one of the small tributaries which feeds into the main Majale river. Although it was in the midst of the rainy season these tributaries only flow when there is excessive rain. Several of these tributaries flow through Croton forests. The atmosphere in these forests is cool providing relief from the summer heat and wonderful cover for predators.

The female leopard closed the gap between to around 20 metres before the Steenbok looked up and dashed away. These dainty little antelope have especially acute hearing, a sense which saved its life that afternoon. Only when you get into the bush do you realise that these animals have senses which are so much more finely tuned than ours.

After missing the Steenbok, our female leopard melted back into the undergrowth. In the shade, a leopard will disappear from sight and just sit and wait until the next hunting opportunity arises.

Two mornings later we were driving in the same area along the Majale river when we saw another young female leopard as we came around a cluster of large Mustard bushes. There lying in the open was this young female leopard. Quite relaxed and unfazed by us.

We sat and watched her for quite a while but it started to get quite warm so she moved into the shade of some nearby bushes. This gave her cover and allowed her to watch all the comings and goings around her from relative concealment.

“It is only upon reflection that we learn to see.”~ Mike Haworth

It is fascinating to watch a leopard for a reasonable period of time. It is as if her eyes were not fixed on anything in particular but her ears were constantly adjusting to locate the direction of the different sounds.

Leopards, although masters of stealth, are vulnerable on the ground due to the lions in the area, and Mashatu is also home to numerous hyaenas. This young female leopard must have felt relaxed enough to begin preening herself. You will seldom see a dirty leopard.

“Freedom cannot be bestowed — it must be achieved.”~Elbert Hubbard

She was a beautiful leopardess – relaxed, alert and deadly.

The leopard’s spotted pelage transforms into rosettes from the neck down and then turns back into spots on her stomach and lower parts of her legs. Her tail is also spotted.

A large Mashatu tree between a Apple-leaf on the left and a Leadwood tree on the right. These large trees provide refuge and shade for many animals from leopards to baboons, squirrels and numerous birds. This Mashatu tree was anchored onto the bank of the Majale river. This also give leopards a good vantage point form which to scout for prey.

On our last morning, we were driving along the Majale river at about 7h30 and suddenly Justice, our guide, stopped the game vehicle. Without saying anything he pointed to a spot on the far river bank about a hundred metres from us. We could not see anything. After carefully explaining where to look we finally saw this mature female leopard lying in the shade on the cool sand of the river bank. She had a good view of an extensive section of the river in front of her. Justice drove us to a point on the opposite bank which gave us a much better view and this is what we saw.

This female leopard lay on the river bank for about half an hour just watching and listening to everything around her. Eventually she got up and strolled back in the thick underground behind her. Without our guide Justice, we would never have noticed her lying in the shade on the far bank.

It is very seldom you will see more than one leopard at a time. They are solitary cats. The only time you will see two leopards together are when they are fighting or mating. Alternatively you many be lucky enough to see a mother with her cubs – that would be a real treat.

“A photograph is like a wormhole into a memory or vision. The colour creates the mood and contrast creates the attention.” ~ Mike Haworth

This trip turned into a treat as we realised would be lucky to see a leopard given the thickness of the bush in summer. I have been to Mashatu in summer and not seen one leopard during our stay. The one aspect about the bush you can expect is to see the unexpected.

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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