My heart beats for Tuli

The Tuli Block is a con­ser­va­tion area and wildlife par­adise in the east­ern­most cor­ner of Botswana. It bor­ders South Africa so you can eas­ily visit for a long week­end. We got stuck on ar­rival and al­most stayed for­ever!

go! Botswana - - DO IT YOURSELF - WORDS TOAST COET­ZER PIC­TURES TOAST COET­ZER & ALICE INGGS

This looks like trou­ble, I think to my­self. But I can see a Land Cruiser on the other side of the Mot­loutse River, so I fig­ure there will be some­one to help us if we get stuck.

I’m driv­ing the mag­a­zine’s Re­nault Duster and it’s not the 4x4 model. As ca­pa­ble as it has proved to be on the gravel roads of south­ern Africa, the Mot­loutse River poses a dif­fer­ent kind of chal­lenge. I’ll have to build up mo­men­tum to get through about 70 m of soggy, muddy tracks, fol­lowed by about 100m of sandy riverbed. The Land Cruiser is in the sandy riverbed sec­tion. To the right of the Cruiser is a rocky ridge in the riverbed called Solomon’s Wall, but un­for­tu­nately I’m not feel­ing full of wis­dom to­day…

As I steer the Duster into the river, my girl­friend Alice Inggs goes quiet next to me. Too quiet. I, on the other hand, turn into Sarel van der Merwe. I can feel my mous­tache grow­ing and I ac­cel­er­ate like a race-car driver.

I man­age to keep up the mo­men­tum through the muddy tracks, but now the Land Cruiser – and its four pas­sen­gers who have climbed out to cheer us on (or so I tell my­self) – is in the way. I don’t want to leave the tracks be­cause I know the ad­ja­cent sand will be even deeper. But I have to stop. And then we’re stuck.

For­tu­nately the Land Cruiser peo­ple are friendly. Once they’ve stopped laugh­ing at us, I lower the Duster’s tyre pres­sure and re­verse a lit­tle so I can gain more mo­men­tum and I drive through the rest of the riverbed with­out a hitch.

Les­son learnt: Don’t tackle the Mot­loutse River in any­thing but a 4x4. “Tlou” means “ele­phant”, af­ter all.

The smell of lion dung and cof­fee

The riverbed drama is soon for­got­ten. Now Alice and I are sit­ting on the banks of the Lim­popo at Lim­popo Camp in Tuli Game Re­serve, and we’re as re­laxed as seven Sun­days.

We drove here from Fran­cis­town yes­ter­day, in gloomy weather with the odd rain shower. There are few pub­lic roads in Tuli Game Re­serve and you can’t drive the oth­ers in your own ve­hi­cle, so we parked the Duster in a safe spot near the Pont­drift bor­der post and Jimmy Tlou picked us up in the lodge Cruiser.

We reached Lim­popo Camp late in the af­ter­noon and we de­cided to move our guided game drive to the fol­low­ing morn­ing, since the weather hadn’t im­proved. We braaied un­der lead­wood trees in front of the lodge (ba­si­cally a big house) and now we’re hav­ing cof­fee be­fore Jimmy picks us up for the morn­ing game drive.

If you stay at Lim­popo Camp (or at any of the four other lodges in Tuli Game Re­serve), a game drive is in­cluded in the rate. Jimmy, his Cruiser and the lodge staff are all at our dis­posal: Modise Mafadza lights the fires and keeps the yard clean and Samma Tlou (Jimmy’s wife) and Sadiko Keletso Man­gogola

make up the cook­ing team.

You don’t have to cook. You don’t have to drive. You just have to re­lax. You can sit in the back seat with your cam­era and ask Jimmy to stop so you can pho­to­graph a li­lac-breasted roller. A bit closer. A lit­tle bit more. Thanks, Jimmy. Click.

We see impala, wilde­beest, black­backed jackal, a ze­bra, an eland in a hurry and os­triches in the dis­tance. But de­spite all the fresh, plate-sized spoor, it takes a while be­fore we see our first Tuli ele­phants. They’re four young bulls and they take turns to wres­tle with each other. Friendly tus­sles, with an un­der­ly­ing mes­sage: Let’s de­ter­mine who the main bull is now, so we won’t have to fight about this for the next 30 years…

Jimmy switches off the en­gine and we watch as one el­lie places his trunk against his ri­val’s fore­head, al­most lov­ingly. I hear a clink as their short tusks touch – like when you put away a cof­fee cup in the kitchen cup­board. As they wres­tle, the one man­ages to push the other one back a few paces. The “loser” turns his back and walks away. This is the life of an ele­phant.

We also see four young gi­raffes. Mother gi­raffe watches over the chil­dren while some oth­ers graze fur­ther away. Later, Jimmy turns into the veld to show us bat-eared foxes.

Even­tu­ally we reach a rocky ridge where we stretch our legs and have cof­fee. Alice and I brought some left­over steak from last night, which we slice into ten­der strips. While we snack, Jimmy fol­lows a game trail into the veld – walk­ing among tree eu­phor­bias and shep­herd trees. He re­turns with a pot shard – proof that peo­ple lived in this water- and min­eral-rich area long be­fore colo­nial bor­ders were drawn up. On the other side of the Lim­popo is Ma­pun­gubwe Na­tional Park in South Africa. Fur­ther east, across the Shashe River, is Zim­babwe. The Lim­popo and Shashe rivers form the bor­ders be­tween South Africa and Botswana, and Botswana and Zim­babwe.

About 500 years ago, how­ever, this re­gion was part of the king­dom of Great Zim­babwe, which had a trade route to the coast. Ivory and gold from the in­te­rior were trans­ported to the coast, and Swahili and Arab traders brought prod­ucts from the Middle East and China to the wealthy res­i­dents of the king­dom.

Jimmy breaks my reverie: “Would you like to see fresh lion dung?” We fol­low him for about 80 m along the trail. Jimmy thinks the dung might be from this morn­ing. It’s still morn­ing and Alice and I are sud­denly very alert to our sur­round­ings. Jimmy says there’s a li­on­ess in the area and she has two cubs, but they’re very shy and sel­dom seen.

We head back to the Cruiser while some ele­phants snap branches off trees nearby.

The smoke will find you

We don’t make the same riverbed mis­take the next day. In­stead, we fol­low a slightly longer but con­sid­er­ably bet­ter road to exit North­ern Tuli Game Re­serve. (Tuli Game Re­serve and Mashatu Game Re­serve are the best-known pri­vate re­serves within the bor­ders of North­ern Tuli – see page 38 for more in­for­ma­tion.)

This other road crosses the Mot­loutse River up­stream from Solomon’s Wall and the go­ing is much eas­ier. The sky is still over­cast, but some­times the sun breaks through to high­light one of the kop­pies in the rolling bushveld.

We join up with the tar road again (see map on page 38) and fol­low it for a while be­fore turn­ing right to Lim­popo River Lodge, where we’ve booked a camp­site for the night. Yes, you can ex­plore this wild cor­ner of Botswana with­out stay­ing at an ex­pen­sive lodge.

The eas­i­est way to reach this part of the Tuli Block is via the Platjan bor­der post be­tween Botswana and South Africa. If you cross there, you can be at Lim­popo River Lodge within 15 min­utes. The Zanz­ibar bor­der post is also a good op­tion.

Lim­popo River Lodge is sit­u­ated on a long, nar­row strip of land that stretches north of the Lim­popo for 9 000 ha. We see ele­phants upon ar­rival. Trunks reach into the air as calves and cows drink at a wa­ter­hole near the road. When one cow trum­pets and walks over to our ve­hi­cle, we wave po­litely and drive away.

It’s late af­ter­noon when we get to our camp­site. We’re the only guests tonight, but the care­taker is ready for us. The water is hot in the pri­vate bath­room and our stand has been raked clear of leaves. (Each of the six stands has a pri­vate bath­room with a shower and a toi­let.)

The open-plan de­sign of the bath­room de­serves a medal. There’s enough space for you to move around in the shower, enough stor­age space for your clothes and toi­letries, and a place to sit down to put on your socks. There’s also a half-me­tre gap be­tween the wall and the roof so you can watch birds while you lather up.

The Lim­popo flows past quiet but strong – South Africa is only 80 m away on the op­po­site bank. A white-browed robin-chat sings its last song for the day and a troop of ba­boons set­tles down in some big trees nearby. The dark­ness in­ten­si­fies and be­fore long I hear the kwirp of an African scops-owl.

We pre­pare din­ner un­der the stars: spaghetti with fried onions and gar­lic, home-made tomato smoor and a tin of tuna.

I wake with the birds the next morn­ing. Bul­buls. A hadeda in the dis­tance. Swainson’s spur­fowl. And wa­ter­birds like pied king­fisher and black crake. Doves coo, a trop­i­cal boubou clears its throat and a crested bar­bet starts to kr­rrrr, joined by a com­mon scim­i­tar­bill and a Meyer’s par­rot. I see a big bird alight in a tree­top on the op­po­site bank – maybe a white­backed vul­ture. Some­where in the dis­tance I can hear an ele­phant.

It’s not just na­ture sounds drift­ing on the quiet morn­ing mist of the Lim­popo River. I can hear a trac­tor, too – there must be a farm on the South African side. But some­how the sound isn’t in­tru­sive.

Last night I added a thick mopane log to the fire, and now I hold my hand over the ashes to feel for life. The ashes are still warm. I bend down and blow, turn­ing the em­bers red. I add a few twigs and blow un­til I feel dizzy. A small flame. Another one. I add thicker twigs. Fif­teen min­utes later, my feet are warm and flames are curl­ing around the mopane log again.

Alice is hav­ing a lie-in this morn­ing. I get the ket­tle. This is the last camp­fire of our Botswana tour and my last cup of cof­fee can’t be brewed on the Cadac… I put the ket­tle on the fire and sit back in my camp­ing chair. The smoke fol­lows me and I move my chair. It fol­lows me again and I move my chair again. Even­tu­ally, I give up. It doesn’t mat­ter if the smoke finds me. I came here for camp­fires, af­ter all…

See page 86 for more in­for­ma­tion about places to stay in the Tuli Block.

TULI BLOCK

TULI BLOCK

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