Picture-perfect

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hr_mike-dexter_cheetah-hi-resThe wild, often-forgotten Northern Tuli Game Reserve, or Notugre, is a photographers’ heaven. Shutterbugs should go now. Words and photographs by Mike Dexter

Far across the open plains, a dust devil whisks dry leaves, sticks and sand into a silent spiral, higher and higher, transporting them across the desolate landscape. Seeds from the knee-high grass that blankets the earth in the wet season are swept into the air and deposited in what will hopefully be fertile soil elsewhere in the reserve. In so doing, the dust devil fulfills its role within this delicate ecosystem, where all inhabitants, living or not, have a part to play.

Near the edge of the plain marches a family of elephants. At this time of year, they have to travel great distances to satisfy their immense thirst and hunger. It can be difficult for calves to keep up with the merciless pace and it’s not unusual to witness orphaned youngsters trying, and failing, to fend for themselves. The herd is heading for a small waterhole where, unknown to them, a group of photographers is patiently awaiting their arrival, unseen in an underground hide that has taken the wildlife photography world by storm.

An African safari, of course, is a dream for nature lovers worldwide. For some, it’s the simple immersion in an ancient and untouched wilderness that beckons. For others, the sheer diversity of life is reason enough to go to this vast continent, but what unites all visitors is the desire to photograph and share the experience. In an arid corner of eastern Botswana lies a reserve that tailors to this desire like no other: the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, otherwise known as Notugre.

Photographers strive for originality in their images, an ambitious goal, but Shem Compion of C4 Photo Safaris found a way to bring it within reach. In 2011 he designed a one-of-a-kind hide that would place photographers at grassroots level, eye to toe with Africa’s giants. Mashatu Game Reserve, a private concession within Notugre, was chosen as the ideal location for this and I was hired to get it off the ground (or ‘in’ the ground in this case). We created a small waterhole in front of the hide, providing animals with fresh water throughout the year.

In its short life, the Matabole Hide (named after a nearby river) has produced a Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning image and has topped the bucket lists of shutterbugs the world over. A second underground hide, the Valley Hide, has subsequently been built and has been yielding similarly spectacular results. There are also two professional photographers permanently based at Mashatu offering in-house tuition and specialised drives on a custom-built vehicle.

However, the photographic experience at Notugre does not begin and end at Mashatu. The vegetation is, for the most part, sparse, allowing for unimpeded shots on game drives. Decades of responsible safari practices have generated an animal population that is relaxed and approachable. Moreover, the ability to drive off-road allows you to follow them as they move through the bush.

And the wildlife here is incredibly diverse: the reserve is aptly known as ‘The Land of Giants’; an aerial survey in 2013 revealed that roughly 1200 elephants call the 720sq-km area home. Notugre’s open plains, rolling hills, weathered sandstone ridges and deep dry riverbeds overlooked by ancient mashatu trees are ideal for many creatures, particularly leopard. These shy cats are often seen along the sandbanks. This is also an excellent place to observe cheetah and spotted hyena.

The unique experience offered by Notugre’s hides, its open terrain, experienced guides and resident photographers all contribute to making this reserve one of the best wildlife photography destinations in Africa.

Why Tuli?

Vikki Threlfall of Tuli Safari Lodge gives us five reasons to go

1. “Notugre is a timeless corner of Africa quite unlike the rest of Botswana in terms of its stunning scenery, which is typified by huge vistas, big skies, rocky outcrops and baobab-studded plains.”
2. “Being a semi-arid zone, it’s a year-round destination, with a relatively subtle difference between the rainy and dry seasons. In fact, the greener season (usually November to March) is a beautiful time to come, as the bush transforms into a floral wonderland.”
3. “Opportunities for game viewing and birdwatching are diverse. Tuli boasts the largest herd of elephant on privately owned land in Africa and must be one of the few places where one of the Big Five (the elephant) can be seen in the same spot at the same time as one of the Little Five (the elephant shrew).”
4. “The reserve is also interesting from a historical perspective. It is very close to Mapungubwe World Heritage Site in South Africa and there are examples of rock art in a bushman shelter inhabited more than 1000 years ago.”
5. “Notugre offers various safari activities, including night drives, hide experiences, horseback safaris and mountain biking. It’s also ideal for bush walks.”

Safari Planner
• Getting there  Most visitors enter the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (Notugre) from South Africa. South African Airways, Kenya Airways, British Airways and Ethiopian Airlines all fly to Johannesburg, from where it is a six-hour drive by private transfer, or you could hire a car. Note that the border post is only open from 8am to 4pm. The road is tarred all the way to the Pont Drift border post, although the last 30km is badly potholed. There is no bridge over the Limpopo River, so you will be transported across in a small cable car if the river is flowing — an experience in itself. Otherwise, Angel Gabriel Aeronautics flies from Joburg to the Limpopo Valley Airfield twice weekly for about US$755 per person return, which takes an hour.
• Where to stay  Notugre has a good variety of accommodation. Mashatu Lodge (Main Camp) (doubles from US$535) is high-end, while Mashatu Tent Camp (doubles from US$395) offers a closer-to-nature experience without forgoing the creature comforts. Tuli Safari Lodge (from US$420 per person sharing) has elegant, tented accommodation within sprawling gardens. Tuli Wilderness has two camps: Serolo Safari Camp (doubles from US$129) and Molema Bush Camp (US$10 per person for tents). Tuli Game Reserve has five places to stay, all of which are self-catering: Santhata Camp (doubles from US$190), Limpopo and Hatari camps (doubles from US$157), Tented Camp (doubles from US$157) and Pride Rock (doubles from US$132).
• What to do  Other than photography and wildlife safaris, you can go mountain biking with Cycle Mashatu, horse riding with Limpopo Horse Safaris and walking with Tuli Wilderness.
• Health  Visit your local GP or travel clinic to ensure you have had the necessary vaccinations and antimalarials.
• Further reading  Bradt’s Botswana Safari Guide (4th Edition) by Chris McIntyre.

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