Big Read: Discover the Tuli Block

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In south-eastern Botswana, hugging the Limpopo River, lies a rugged landscape unlike anywhere else in the region. The Tuli Block has drawn Mike Main back many times over decades. Here he explains his fascination and discusses why you should look at this mysterious corner for your next safari.

(Images courtesy Tuli Safari Lodge)

One of the brightest stars on Botswana’s tourism universe, the Tuli Block, has had a long – and not always glorious – past. Born on the fringes of Empire and steeped in a legacy of lawlessness, what we find between the Shashe and the Limpopo today is a monument to greed, co-operation, gallantry, courage, adventure, vision and, sometimes, sheer pig-headedness.

Bantu herders and farmers lived here in peace for centuries, from the earliest Zhizo Bantu-speaking people through Leopard’s Kopje times to the momentous era of Mapungubwe, just a few kilometres away, down the Limpopo.

Changes in climate, ranging from decades or centuries of warm wet times to cold dry periods, saw populations ebb and flow across the landscape as its abundance waxed and waned. The region is littered with hundreds of archaeological sites from Stone Age and Iron Age times through to the modern era. The thrilling Mmmagwa site, used by various peoples for more than 1500 years and isolated Leeu Kop, perhaps a refuge site from the 19th Century, are testimony to the enduring, if sporadic, presence of people.

It is likely that the arrival of marauding Matabele from the 1840s onwards dramatically changed the picture. Based at GuBulawayo, near modern Bulawayo, under Mzilikazi and his successor, Lobengula, it was the habit of this aggressive nation to raid widely and violently in all directions so that, with the consequent loss of women, children and cattle, the region was traumatised and isolated areas were likely abandoned completely.

Not until exploring hunters and prospectors from the south, armed with powerful weapons, a thirst for adventure and a whimsical curiosity about ‘what lay further north’, was the Tuli District ‘re-discovered’. And so it was that the great herds of the Shashe and Limpopo were exposed to modern humans and, within a century, were systematically hunted almost to extinction.

Tuli was well known to such lauded nimrods as Baldwin and Selous and, unfortunately, to more commercially driven hunters such as William Finaughty whose favourite hunting area was along the Shashe and Shashane Rivers and who, in a short six month period, shot more than 500 elephants.

Thanks to the passage of Cecil Rhodes’ Pioneer column into what became Rhodesia, many thousands of soldiers, police, settlers and general travellers who travelled through the Tuli District, came to know the magnificence, despite the rinderpest in 1896, of the country and its abundance of wildlife. It did not take long for the word to spread.

Left over from an unused 19th Century railway tract and later cut up into ‘farms’, the Tuli district in the early part of the 20th Century was a place where the law lay lightly, if it lay at all, and it proved a fine retreat for those for whom hunting was a way of life. For the next 50 years, some lived and hunted, some visited and hunted, but no serious farming was undertaken. Some hunted for themselves, others sought to make money from it. The overall effect was devastating, so that by the mid-century hardly any wildlife was left.

Not until the 1960s did evidence of a more responsible attitude to the area emerge and slowly more and more land owners took down their fences and joined in creating the largest private game reserve in Africa.

Tuli is better served by roads from South Africa than from Botswana, and perhaps this is why it was predominantly wealthy South African businessmen who sought out the farms to provide a stress-free retreat into wilderness for them and their families.

It is this convenient link to Johannesburg and the investments of its commercial empires that explains the distinctly South African flavour of the Tuli Block of the past. Despite many landowners still hunting, at least ‘for the pot’, commercial hunting diminished in the ‘70s and conservation-minded owners joined forces and gradually, despite some prolonged resistance, persuaded their neighbours to ban hunting altogether.

Apart from a significant number of private ‘retreats’, there are now two commercial tourist lodges in the area: Tuli Safari Lodge and Mashatu, the latter undeniably being the larger and perhaps better known of the two.

The former nestles on the banks of the Limpopo itself — “all set about with fever trees” just as Kipling described it — with beautiful lawns shaded by giant fig trees surrounded by the most fantastical and appealing sandstone formations.

Its bigger cousin – Mashatu – lingers in the hinterland, far from the banks of the great grey green greasy Limpopo River, among a meandering maze of tree-lined river-beds and open plains.

The evolution of these camps into viable businesses today has been a long and extremely expensive journey. For decades neither made any money and survived merely because of the deep pockets and passion for wilderness espoused by their several owners through the years. Today, however, both are viable business and enter the fierce competition for Botswana’s tourist dollars.

It is not unreasonable, then, to ask what, if any, are the distinctive advantages of Tuli? How can this remote region possibly succeed against the swirl of green that is the Okavango, the riverside glories of the Chobe and the overwhelming vastness of the Kalahari?

Its advantages lie chiefly in two important factors: the characteristics of its landscape and the fact that, although it has Botswana Government shareholders, it is privately-owned.

The Limpopo today does not always have year-round surface water, but large pools persist and host the usual denizens of African river systems. Beyond the deep shade of the riverine woodlands the tortured sandstone terrain stretches far from the river into the plains beyond.

The land away from the river also has a special appeal. The unrelenting ‘flatness’ of the Central Kalahari and the hinterland of Chobe are not found here. Tuli is an ancient landscape worn down by relentless erosion. Ninety million-year-old basalt has capped much of the land but even this has succumbed to the ravages of time so that the region is riven by numerous dry river valleys, cliffs and an undulating surface of rounded elevations and rolling plains.

With its numerous prominences and viewpoints affording spectacular vistas, it is a region quite unique in Botswana – there is absolutely nothing like it anywhere else in the country and it entirely alters the nature and the ‘feel’ of the game-viewing experience.

A second factor underlies this sense of difference. Because the reserve is privately owned, owners make their own rules. One is that game-viewing vehicles can drive where they wish: off-road is permitted. At first thought, this speaks of chaos and ecological disaster but, no, as visitors are not allowed to drive their own vehicles. Only reserve guides drive, and they have been carefully schooled in striking the balance between ‘good, close-up sightings’ and care of the veld. It works really well.

Private ownership also means that no concession fees need be paid (a considerable expense for operations elsewhere in Botswana) and this helps counter high infrastructure costs. Mashatu, for example, draws electricity and water via a pipeline, from 18km away.

A range of activities are offered here that are not common in other reserves: horse-riding, cycling, guide training and, perhaps most striking of all, photographic training at an extraordinary venue.

Whilst not unique in Africa, Mashatu’s photo-hides are certainly so in Botswana. Large sea-going containers are adapted for comfort and sunk into the ground to give eye-level views across a water-filled pan to animals and birds only metres from the camera.

The Tuli District seems to offer something for everyone and, unlike other Parks and Reserves, there are more activity options thus catering for a wider age range of visitors.

Tuli is redolent with history, and this adds hugely to its interest. This is the land of Rhodes’ Pioneer Column that founded Rhodesia in 1890. Here, in 1891, a handful of mounted Bechuanaland Protectorate Police patrolled the open country, successfully preventing the planned occupation of what is now Rhodesia by a convoy of 40 – 50 Boer wagons led by Lewis Adendorf.

In 1892 this was a land straddled by a single strand of telegraph wire that reached from Mafikeng in the Cape Colony through Botswana to Fort Tuli, on to Salisbury and, eventually, to reach Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Before the advent of Rhodes’ railway, it gave the nascent Rhodesian settlements their only means of modern communication.

In November 1899, during the Boer War, some 400 Boers invaded Tuli District. One part of this force attacked and shelled a roadside store in the Reserve belonging to a Mr Bryce, on the banks of the Pitsane River. The attack resulted in the defeat of the Rhodesian forces, the capture of seven men and the loss of six wagon loads of equipment. At the same time there was an attack on other forces guarding Rhodes’ Drift on the Limpopo River, again resulting in defeat and retreat of Colonel Plumer’s men.

At more than 72,000ha, the area of the Tuli Reserve is vast. There are no fences within or surrounding the Reserve, but there is 100km of international border where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet and this tempts petty poachers but with crack anti-poaching teams the threat is well under control.

Partly due to the history of persistent hunting there are some notable absent species. There are currently no roan, sable, gemsbok, buffalo, rhino, hartebeest or springbok, but because of opportunities to get up very close to lion, elephant, leopard and giraffe, among others, visitors feel more than compensated for their absence.

Thought is being given to introducing more species, but such introductions are not as simple as they might seems as, among other issues, proof must be furnished that they did exist in the area before.

The Tuli Game Reserve has always been driven by people with vision and, despite that so much has been achieved, the vision continues to reach out to even wider horizons, reviving General Jan Smuts’ idea of Dongola (a transfrontier national park envisioned by him in the 1940s). There are plans now, building on the foundations provided by Tuli Reserve and neighbouring Mapungubwe National Park, to embrace Zimbabwe and – one day – the whole Limpopo Valley in a single, enormous protected area, the antithesis of where Tuli was more than a hundred years ago.

Interested in visiting the Tuli Block?
Tuli Safari Lodge: http://www.tulilodge.com
Mashatu Game Reserve: http://mashatu.com
Or you can invest in the Tuli Block. Learn more at Part of Africa: http://www.partofafrica.com

To view the images at full size, click on any and navigate through. Images all courtesy of Tuli Safari Lodge.

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