Mashatu’s winter scenes

Mashatu Nature Reserve is located in the Tuli Bloc in south east Botswana in southern Africa. This reserve hosts several different ecosystems. It has huge seasonal variation being very dry during winter which makes it dusty at times and it looks like a moonscape. In mid-summer, the rains make it look like the garden of Eden. With the rains everything turns green and the devil thorn flowers carpet the landscape in yellow.

“Jobs fill your pocket but adventures fill your soul.” ~ Jamie Lyn

Last winter was unusual. There had been good rains right up till April. This helped build up the water resources in the vlei, which is a marshy area with shallow ponds of water. There have been winters in Mashatu when the vlei area was bone dry offering no greenery and no nourishment for the wildlife.

There are many predators in Mashatu ranging from lion and leopard to hyaena and jackals to insect eaters like Aardwolf and Bat-eared foxes. I am told there are Honey badgers but I have never seen one. There are many Black-backed jackal. When they are not following a larger predator hoping for an easy meal, they are opportunistic omnivores. They cooperatively hunt small antelopes and also eat reptiles, insects, ground-dwelling birds, fruits, berries, and even grass. The large male warthog partially obscured in the background was not potential prey as he was strong, fast and had large tusks which could inflict serious damage on a lion or leopard.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” ~ Henry Miller

The Majale is the main river coursing its way through the Mashatu Nature Reserve. Although the surface water in the river dries up during winter, the water table is high. Pools of stagnant water remain usually at bends in the river which tend to be the deepest sections. Over the decades the river has steadily gouged its way through the soft soil creating deep banks.

The Majale river, although dry in winter, has many Apple leaf, Leadwood and Mashatu trees which send their roots deep into the ground to access water even in the driest of winters. These trees remain green and provide home to many species of birds, baboons and many leopards.

Just when you think that there is nothing moving along the dry river banks you may be in for a surprise. On one occasion while driving along the river bed came we rounded a bend in the Majale river only to find this beautiful young female leopard sitting on the top of the river bank looking out along the river. She was relaxed and just taking in all the signs and signals, attentive alert and ready for anything.

Close to our camp, Rock Camp, is a large rock outcrop which attracts Klipspringer, Dassies and leopards, and the occasional pairs of African hawk-eagles and Verreaux eagles looking for easy Dassie prey.

In winter, when the vlei is still green, it attracts an abundance of wildlife. The elephants seem particularly partial to the vlei where there is ample food for them. Sunset during winter can produce some vivid colours as the setting sun turns into a reddish ball as it sinks through the dust laden atmosphere. As the sun sets and the landscape darkens a peace descends. It is an in-between time and it brings a stillness to the bush.

“Fill your life with adventures, not things. Have stories to tell not stuff to know.” ~ Anonymous

In winter the elephants don’t usually drink the stagnant water but will dig into the sand with their tusks or feet to make a same shallow well to access water. The water table along the river is close to the surface of the river bed and by digging a hole the water filters through the sand into the hole. The filtered water seems to be much more palatable to the elephants.

Winter is a time for dust devils and also huge flocks of Red-billed queleas. They flock like a swarm of locusts and make quite a noise when they are on the move. They are seedeaters so fly down from the trees on mass to feed on the seeds in the dusty soil and when disturbed, on mass, fly off to the nearest trees.

While many animals and birds congregate during winter for protection at the waterholes others remain shy and solitary. This male Steenbok presented himself for a few seconds then disappeared back into the underground possibly to rejoin his female.

Along the Majale river you will find massive Mashatu trees, also called Nyala Berry trees. The deep shade provided by the Mashatu tree provides a wonderful resting and hiding place for leopards. They do not always get their own way because the baboons also like the Mashatu trees and a troop of baboons with several large males can be a serious threat to a leopard. This particular leopardess had come down from the tree to lure the approaching troop of baboons away from her cub which was still up in the Mashatu tree.

Mashatu is home to many elephants. They travel to the higher ground at night and return down to the river surrounds during the day. Thankfully over the years the elephants have learned that they have nothing to fear from humans in the reserve and are relaxed around the game vehicles.

The waterhole in front of Rock Camp is close to the Limpopo river and is a magnet for thirsty wildlife in winter. The elephant herd drink first, then cool themselves by throwing water sucked up in their trunk then blowing it over their head, sides and back.

The behaviour of the big things is interesting but so too are the little things. Winter mornings bring back the warmth after a cold night. These banded mongooses huddled together in the cold morning air trying to warm up in the sun.

New males have deposed the resident male lion in the last six months and the resident lionesses seem to have accepted them with the large handsome erstwhile male pushed out into the adjacent Charter reserve.

The Majale river is a place where elephant families congregate. There is never any fighting – each family respects the space of the next family. Oh, if only we humans could learn a few lessons in tolerance and respect for others from these elephants.

There are many Eland in the reserve but they are skittish, as most Eland are. There females usually bolt away first with the large darker males following them.

During winter, the vlei attracts not only family herds of elephants but many herbivores. This is the last area in the reserve which is still green.

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste it, to experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

The vlei has many moods which change according to the time of day and the direction of the sunlight. In the distance is a series of sandstone ridges which stretch from Mapungubwe in South Africa to Mmagwa next to the Motloutse river in Mashatu.

One evening we were having sundowners on a small spit which protruded into the vlei. After happily chatting and enjoying the sundowners for about three quarters of an hour we got back into the game vehicle. Having spent a wonderful cocktail hour watching the sun setting were finished feeling relaxed and at peace with the world. One hundred metres away from where we had been having sundowners were a coalition of the three young male lions lying in the grass just watching us. When in the bush you must always remain alert and aware of your surroundings. You need to show infinite respect for that in between time when the large predators come into their own having exceptional night vision and having rested the whole day.

We return to Mashatu often, Covid restrictions allowing. It is the same place but the experience is never the same. The seasonal changes, the mood changes, and the wildlife dynamics change. Some wildlife moves in from Zimbabwe and while others move back into Zimbabwe. Migrants have moved north during the southern African winter. The different complexion of the bush is fascinating.

Mashatu allows a unique off-road experience in the bush. There are several quite different ecosystems which attract their own system of wildlife. You will never see the same thing in the same place twice.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” ~ T S Eliot

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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