At the most Eastern point of Botswana, where the three countries of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet, there is a beautiful land of endless vistas, broad skies, giant trees, powerful rivers and great herds of game. Botswana is known as one of the best safari destinations in southern Africa and many tourists head directly for Chobe Nature Reserve and the Okavango Delta. But the Tuli game reserve is well worth visiting with its spectacular scenery and diverse vegetation. The nature reserve begins at the southeast corner of Botswana, where the Shashe and the Limpopo rivers meet.
The Pontdrift border post is about a 6 hour drive from Johannesburg via Polokwane. You are welcomed at the border by friendly officials and immigration procedures are usually fairly swift. It is then that you face the crossing of the mighty Limpopo river. In drier months, it’s a simple matter to drive across the mostly dusty and dry riverbed, but in the rainy season, the Limpopo is immense. Luckily there is a cable car that allows you to cross, although this involves multiple trips to get all your food, drinks and luggage over to the other side. It’s a hair-raising ride over the river when it’s very high because the bottom of the rickety cable car all but kisses the surface of the water while you pass over crocodiles languishing in the damp vegetation of the banks.
Tuli is a semi-arid region, with rain falling in the summer months between November and March. The rains tend to be erratic and there are frequent summer droughts. Temperatures can drop below freezing during winter, but start to climb rapidly at the start of spring in September, when hot and dry winds blow from the east. After the first summer rains, the dry veld is transformed with a dazzling yellow carpet of Devil’s claw flowers, an amazing backdrop against which to watch the elephants cavort.
The bird-life in this area is prolific. The summer birds are colourful and the carmine bee-eaters, crimson-breasted shrikes, lilac-breasted rollers and weavers are streaks of brilliance in the bushveld.
Tuli has a number of lovely, self-catering guest lodges. One of our favourites is the Tented Camp. It is positioned on the side of a steep hill and overlooks a vast terrain of endless savannah.
Tuli is sometimes called the Land of Giants, because of its great populations of elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, giraffe and eland. Delightfully, in addition to the more common game like wildebeest and zebra, there are also troops of monkeys, baboons, steenbok, ostrich, impala, waterbuck, nyala and warthog. Every now and then you can be lucky enough to come across bat-eared fox, African wild cat, spotted hyena or a black-backed jackal.
Game drives in the area take you through continuously changing terrain. There are beautiful riverine forests with magnificent old Mashatu trees growing along the river banks. These mature trees form a thick canopy teeming with birdlife, particularly on the banks of and around the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. Perhaps due to the rich alluvial soils along the watercourses, there are quite a few magnificent old giants ranging in age from 300 to 600 years. These trees can reach a height of 30 meters and are evergreen. The sandstone koppies form picturesque buttresses, providing some contrast on the plains. Here and there, baobab trees stand tall in the rocky terrain. The vast Mopane savannah provides incredible vistas with endless plains, legendary African sunsets and a refreshing absence of human habitation. And best of all, an abundance of wild animals flourish in the protected terrain.
Although it’s always heart-stopping to come across one of the Big Five in their natural habitat, the smaller guys are incredible to see too and we can spend hours observing a squirrel, a family of warthogs or some cute bat-eared foxes.
As a cat-person, nothing is more spectacular than coming across a healthy young leopard!
In the late 1960s the owners of some 35 farms in the area pulled down any fences that existed to allow for the free movement of wildlife forming the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. The reserve extends over an area of 71,000 hectares, making it one of the largest privately owned game sanctuaries in Africa.
It is said that Tuli boasts the largest elephant population to be found on privately owned land. I have never seen herds of such significant size. From a vantage point like the top of Pitsane hill, you can see elephant herds stretching for miles and miles.
Heading out for a game drive means an early start, especially in summer. There is nothing nicer than dunking your rusk into that first mug of coffee as the glow of sunrise begins to seep over the horizon. Then its a quick hop into the vehicle and off into the middle distance.
Having your own 4×4 land cruiser vehicle and an experienced, dedicated ranger is an absolute luxury. The drivers are in regular contact with the rangers of other vehicles or lodges and information on the day’s sightings are shared so that those close by can have an opportunity to see whichever spectacle has been spotted.
Some of my favourite birds are the Woodlands Kingfisher with his vivid blue feathers; and the cute white-fronted bee-eaters.
Coming across the scene of an animal that has been killed is always both tragic and fascinating. The law of the jungle means the survival of the fittest. The hierarchy of the large cats, then the smaller jackals, hyenas and then the vultures, is interesting to observe.
A few hours after sunrise, its time for another stop for tea. Usually the game-ranger will choose a hilltop with 360 degree views, or find abundant shade beneath an enormous Mashatu tree. My favourite type of stop is where there is a vantage point of one of the rivers. As you sip your coffee, you can watch the hippos wallowing below you and keep an eye on the motionless crocodiles that sun themselves on the water’s edge.
In summer it is not an unrealistic scenario to find that you have been rained in, with no way of getting word out about your plight. In some areas, above average rainfall can fall in a few hours causing the many watercourses to suddenly start flowing and the mighty rivers to swell. If this happens you might find yourself taking a very loooong route to the border to ensure that you avoid any flooded plains. In our case our driver decided he could get through a badly flooded patch, together with the trailer if he applied a bit of speed, but his passengers would have to walk! We made it!
Tuli is a wilderness of outstanding natural beauty, with majestic rocks, diverse vegetation, abundant wildlife, a profusion of birds and a rich archaeological heritage. The uniqueness, diversity and photographic opportunities of the area is only rivalled by the luxurious camps and the wonderful people who work there. Rich in both history and mythology, it is a place that stirs the imagination, making it difficult to leave and compelling one to return.