Come with me and explore the Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana…

During my training as a Safari Guide in Southern Africa I was fortunate enough to spend four weeks at a magical and very special place: Mashatu Private Game Reserve in Botswana. This is how a day looks like in the “Land of Giants”.

 

It’s a new dawn…

…and the sun rises over the vast and endless landscape; colouring gold and yellow what has been created thousands of years ago and what still lies unaltered and steady there in front of me. Morning dew still covers the leaves and my thoughts are as crystal clear as the air I’m breathing. While the sun slowly rises in the East I take the time to look around in camp. It is situated on the banks of the  Motloutse-river. No water runs down its course this time of year and a dry and sandy riverbed meanders through the reserve.

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The Motloutse played an important role in the history of Botswana. It was here, just a few footsteps upstream, where the first diamonds of the country were found that lead to its wealth.

The banks are lined with riparian forests, twenty simple tents are erected under the branches on our side of the river. The bathrooms are outdoor, the toilets separated from each other only with a thin layer of canvas (…should be interesting…). The kitchen is situated in a small hut , where two Botswanan ladies cook our delicious meals.

Small pathways lead to our tents; build on stilts lies the study deck, where the daily lessons are taught and all the meals are consumed. A cosy fireplace next to the river invites to spend long nights staring into the flames while watching the stars through the branches up above.

Photo Credit: Megan Berger_MG_4207

Mashatu borders on three rivers: the Shashe, the Motloutse and the Limpopo.

They provide perfect conditions for the massive Mashatu-trees after which the reserve is named. But although there are three major rivers in the area, it can still get pretty dry here. Mashatu lies in the so-called Tuli-Block. “Tuli” is the Twsana-word for “dust”. The shoe fits, given that during the winter months there is so much dust in the air making the sky at sunset look like it is on fire.

The name “Land of Giants”, how Mashatu is called, originates from the gigantic Baobab-trees and majestic elephants in the area.

Setting out from camp we go on bush-walks every day. On foot through the African wilderness. Afoot and light-hearted we march up the east-west-ridge today. From atop we look down the verdurous flood plains. A herd of elephants bathes in a nearby waterhole. Impalas are grazing in the distance and I hear a plains Zebras alarm-calling somewhere far away. And every worry, every thought about the future or the past is forgotten.

The only thing that matters is this moment. 

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Close encounters

We make our way down into the green grass of the plains and approach the breeding herd of elephants carefully, always cautious of the wind and a possible escape route. We hide behind a massive fallen Leadwood. From a save distance we watch the herd. There are about thirty individuals, some of them only a few months old. I can feel a light breeze on my neck and I can almost see how it is carrying my scent over to the herd.

The wind has changed. They will smell us any minute now. 

Just a few moments later the older elephants of the herd raise their trunks up in the air; some of the younger ones imitating the gesture. The whole herd suddenly stands still; only to move closer together seconds after. Calves are gently pushed between the legs. A very impressive cow steps out of the herd and makes a few determined steps in our direction. Something here is not right and she knows it.

It is very likely that she is the matriarch, the leader of the herd. She raises her head to be able to see better. Usually the eyes of an elephant face down. To be able to look straight, they have to raise their heads – a posture that can indeed look frightening. She spreads her ears wide and shakes her head. I am still not sure if she can see us, but no doubt about it: She knows we are here.

IMG_8542(Photo Credit: Megan Berger)

Suddenly, she makes a few fast steps towards us and trumpets deafeningly.

I can feel my chest leaning back. I am shaking in my boots, to be quite frank. It is the strangest feeling, being so close to a wild and giant animal without knowing what to do next. The only thing I can do is trust.

The matriarch retreats, her tail stiff in the air. While she slowly walks back to her herd, she keeps on turning around again and again to make sure we keep our distance. Finally, she leads her family away from the waterhole and into a nearby forest.

We march on, everybody left with their own thoughts again. In my head I’m going through the elephant encounter once more. It was fascinating and educational to observe the matriarch behave like she did, but I do prefer it when the animals are completely unaware of our presence.

 

Magical Sundowners in Mashatu

Before the sun sets we decide to drive over to Mmamagwa for a sundowner. Mmamagwa is a stunning shoulder of rock overlooking the savannah. Atop we walk through golden grass that reminds me of the film “Gladiator” when Russel Crowe walks through the fields into the sunset and into Elysium.

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(Photo Credit: Federico Diddi)

On the western tip of the rock lies an ancient Baobab. Carved in its stemm is the name of Cecil Rhodes, which you might be able to feel out if you touch the bark carefully.

Cecil John Rhodes was a British businessman and one of the key players in the scramble of Africa  – the colonialisation  of the African continent in the nineteenth century. Two countries have been named after him: Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia – today Zambia and Zimbabwe.

But two countries didn’t seem to be enough as a legacy for Rhodes, so he came up with the cunning plan to build a railway line from the Cape all the way up to Cairo. The tracks were supposed to lead right through Mashatu.

It’s easy to imagine Rhodes standing up on Mmamagwa making plans. While the sun sets in the West, I can overlook the whole of Mashatu. But thankfully, Rhodes intention turned out to be a logistic nightmare and failed. This place remains wild till this day. 

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We sit in awe watching this magical place steeped in history. Nobody says a word. Every now and then a little elephant shrew forages between our legs. Mystical Mmamagwa captures my imagination. Up here a stillness unfolds inside me that I had long forgotten about. I breathe deeply through my nose.

My senses are operating at full capacity.

At the bottom of the hill I can see some wildebeest grazing; I can still smell the rain from earlier today; over at Lion’s Head a Zebra is calling again; with my hands I can feel the rock I’m sitting on, rough and warm. My whole body is awake.

And I finally feel like an active part of this world again; not like a detached particle riding the subway alone with white headphones in my ears. It is most astounding: Just in a few days Mashatu has accomplished what Berlin wasn’t able to in almost ten years.

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Bonfire Nights

With the setting sun the hyenas and jackals begin their evening chorus and it is time to climb down the rock and back onto the game vehicle. But while we are driving back to camp, I turn around once more.

Mmamagwa gleams in the light of the setting sun and my body shivers. I don’t know what it is, but there is something magical about this rock. The echo of older days  resounds from its walls and from its back I can see a last piece of Wildness – not only in Africa, but in myself.

At night we sit around the bonfire in camp, listening to each others stories and the guitar. I cannot help but imagining this scene from a bird’s eye view. Here we sit, around the flames, somewhere in the African wild, above us the stars and around us wild animals and the magic of the night…

And in this moment, I am sure: If only we all sat around the fire more often, playing guitar, listening to each others stories – the world would be a whole lot better because of it…

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…Want to know how it feels like to wake up in Mashatu?

Here you go…