When prey species are weak, life is good for the resident spotted hyena clan.

When prey species are weak, life is good for the resident spotted hyena clan.

Five sub-adult cheetahs take down a scrub hare.

Five sub-adult cheetahs take down a scrub hare.

After good rains Mashatu gets covered in yellow devil’s thorn flowers.

After good rains Mashatu gets covered in yellow devil’s thorn flowers.

‘Desolate’, ‘dry’, ‘barren’ – these are not words you’d especially want to associate with a safari holiday, and yet they were the words that painted the beige-grey backdrop of Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana’s Tuli Block last October, about 22 months into one of the worst droughts to hit the region in a decade.

A very skinny impala quenches its thirst in the middle of a massive drought.

A very skinny impala quenches its thirst in the middle of a massive drought.

The view from Disappointment Koppie (February 2013)

The view from Disappointment Koppie (February 2013)

The view from Disappointment Koppie (October 2012)

The view from Disappointment Koppie (October 2012)

Mashatu two-track (February 2013)

Mashatu two-track (February 2013)

Mashatu two-track (October 2012)

Mashatu two-track (October 2012)

McNeil’s Pool in the Majale River (February 2013)

McNeil’s Pool in the Majale River (February 2013)

McNeil’s Pool in the Majale River (October 2012)

McNeil’s Pool in the Majale River (October 2012)

A common scene in Mashatu when the rivers fill up.

A common scene in Mashatu when the rivers fill up.

Colour returns to Mashatu after the drought.

Colour returns to Mashatu after the drought.

The occasional breeze that whisked away any chance of rain coated us in a layer of ginger-biscuit dirt, baked on by a relentless sun as we drove past herds of skinny kudu, mangy impala, and listless elephants. A weak eland bull stood propped up against a tree outside our room at Main Camp for three days, a constant reminder of how harsh the African wilderness can be for those who depend on the regularity of seasonal rainfall, and every second tree held the hopeless remains of a starving antelope too slow to escape the inevitable jaws of opportunistic predators.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t as bleak as it sounds.
Superimpose the words ‘fat’, ‘prosperous’, and ‘healthy’ onto that sombre backdrop and the picture brightens somewhat and you have a good idea of how the big cats and scavengers in the area looked at the time. Despite the stark conditions surrounding us, we were treated to some of the best predator sightings either of us had ever had.
Dozens of spotted hyenas, their bellies barely clearing the ground as they loped around a den site overrun with playful pups, fat and happy leopards lazing in defoliate trees beside untouched carcases, a couple of lionesses sprawled in dry riverbeds, bellies full and teats swollen for their cubs hidden in the brittle foliage nearby, and a cheetah who had raised five cubs to near adulthood – a feat she’d have been hard-pressed to accomplish without the open buffet laid on by the drought.

Now, in February, a couple of months after Mashatu received almost double the average yearly rainfall in just one week, that desolate landscape has burst with fifty shades of green and the surviving prey species are strong, fit and healthy again, ending the easy life of the predators and once more giving them a run for their money.
Looking down at the landscape from the top of Disappointment Koppie it’s hard to believe it’s the same place. Where dry earth and the twisted finger-like branches of stunted mopane trees dominated the land there is now a carpet of delicate yellow flowers and an explosion of green from a die-hard forest. Rivers that had been dry for far too long are now flowing, and scattered pools and vast vleis attract migrant birds such as carmine bee-eaters and crowned cranes. The air is alive with the buzz of insects and the unceasing song of monotonous larks.

The drought may have made it easier for Mashatu’s guides to track the movements of predators through the reserve, providing sightings that were second to none, but after the rain, with a vibrant scene full of life and abundance around every corner, no-one’s complaining. It seems that no matter when you go, Mashatu always delivers.

Photography
Over the past decade Mashatu has become a favourite among wildlife photographers from all over the world, especially those in search of the perfect leopard and elephant photographs. The open

terrain, high animal densities and excellent guides make it the perfect place to take award-winning wildlife images, but as this article clearly demonstrates – Mashatu dramatically changes face with the seasons.
The early dry season (May – June) is great for bird photography, especially along the Majale and Matabole rivers, in which shallow pools that attract storks, kingfishers and other waterbirds form. The late dry season (July – October) is fabulous for dramatic sunset scenes as elephants and plains game take dust baths in the late afternoon.

Make sure to clean your gear regularly and bring a pair of clear plastic glasses with for those short periods that you drive behind another vehicle.

As soon as the rain starts falling (November – April), colour returns to the landscape and gives visitors the opportunity to photograph big cats playing in yellow devil’s thorn flowers or elephants taking baths in the rivers.

If I want to go:
Where? In the Northern Tuli Game Reserve at the eastern tip of Botswana, approximately 60 km north of Alldays. Visitors are picked up at Pont Drift Border Post where they can safely leave their vehicles until they are dropped off again.
Facilities:
Mashatu has two luxurious lodges – Main Camp and Tent Camp, both with a swimming pool, a bar and comfortable lounge. Both also look out over waterholes. Main Camp also has a TV- and conference room, as well as a Discovery Room full of information about the area an its wildlife.
The daily routine consists of an early wake-up followed by a small breakfast and a morning drive. Visitors then return to camp for brunch, after which they can relax until mid-afternoon when high tea is served. Then follows the afternoon/evening drive, followed by dinner under the stars in the boma.

Bookings:
Phone: (011) 442 2267
E-mail: reservations@malamala.com
Website: www.mashatu.com

TOP TIP: If you are driving from Alldays to Pont Drift in South Africa, be very wary of Jacuzzi-sized potholes along the tar road. Despite their size they still manage to surprise you.

Info about the authors

“Tabby Mittins and Villiers Steyn both studied Nature Conservation and now work as freelance travel writers for South Africa’s top travel and outdoor magazines. The job allows them to combine their passions for travelling, writing and photography as they journey from one wild place to the next, exploring Southern Africa’s most beautiful natural destinations.”
Please visit www.villierssteyn.com and www.visionphotography.com