The Tuli Wilderness in southeastern Botswana truly feels like a place where time has stood still. The land has remained largely unfenced and untouched, leaving the wildlife to wander as instinct dictates. So what better way to explore this enchanted land of dust than in the footsteps of the giants who call it home. Tabby Mittins steps into the tracks of elephants to find out what this beguiling region has to share.
small herd of elephants loped along the dry riverbed, stirring up puffs of powdery silt from the coarse sand and leaving a narrow path of unmistakable footprints in their wake. A gentle breeze wafted their earthy scent over us as we followed, just 100 metres or so behind.
“So, Stuart, I’d say this track is about a minute and twenty-three seconds old. What do you think?” whispered Duncan Hossack from the USA, crouching down and pointing out the near-perfect oval spoor of the last pachyderm in the procession ahead of us.
Stuart laughed the quiet, hoarse, Disney-villain laugh we’d come to know well. “I think you’re absolutely right. Glad to see you’ve been paying attention.”
Duncan, with his wife Janet, Villiers and me, had come to Tuli for four days in the wilderness, walking in elephant, lion, wild dog and leopard country. In that time, thanks to Stuart Quinn, owner of this little slice of (occasionally drought-stricken) utopia, we’d learned more about tracks and tracking than we knew there was to know.
From our first afternoon in the African classroom, after a rocky drive through what looked like a forest of mopane bonsais – their stunted, finger-like branches reaching out in all directions as if begging for water from the unyielding sky – we’d been hanging on Stuart’s every word, doing our best to commit all of his imparted wisdom of the wild to memory.
In just one day we’d learned how to identify various species’ spoor, the difference between old and fresh tracks, between those of an animal moving slowly and those of it beating a hasty retreat. We discovered how to read the differences in gait, size, and even age of some species, and learned to distinguish the marks of a toktokkie beetle from those of a millipede.
So caught up were we in Stuart’s enthusiasm for tracking and the home he so clearly reveres, we found ourselves drawn into the events of the past as they revealed their secrets from the talc-like soil so typical of Tuli. And there, near the end of our second walk, the past was only a few strides ahead of us, rumbling and pausing occasionally to root around in the riverbed
There’s something extremely satisfying about understanding the signs of the wild, as if that little-used section of brain once used for survival still craves something more fundamental than speed limits and expiry dates on tinned tomatoes. Distinguishing between the day-old tracks of a male lion patrolling his territory and those of a lioness near a den site feels like a genuine accomplishment when you’re on foot, isolated in the African wilderness, with only a CamelBak and a couple of jelly babies for protection.
You’d think an experience as surreal as walking in the recently-made footsteps of wild elephants would be hard to beat, but, in an area as rich in wildlife as Tuli, we should have guessed that there would be more in store.
Between investigating the decades-old remnants of farmsteads, attempting to track everything from porcupines to lions, skirting fields of grumpy-looking marabou storks, and watching crocodiles or birds in riverbeds, we lazed about under the huge mashatu tree overhanging the patio at Serolo Safari Camp, feasting or snoozing the sweltering hours away. We were well and truly immersed in all things Africa – and loved it.
Bright and (very!) early one morning, after a quick yet satisfying breakfast of muesli and rusks and a bumpy drive to a distant rocky outcrop, we ventured out into the shimmering heat of the sunrise. We froze at Stuart’s signal as the high-pitched, hoot-like laugh of a young spotted hyena echoed between the rocks around us. Using our newly-learned tracking skills we could see signs of the clan’s comings and goings in the dusty sand at our feet.
Then, falling into step behind Stuart, we tiptoed up the kopje in the hope of catching a glimpse of the curious carnivores around their den site and were met with the initially startled, then baffled, gaze of an adult female calmly observing our progress from the rocks just above.
This was not as frightening as one might imagine. Stuart’s calm demeanour, and the fact that he knows the Tuli so well, left us trusting his instincts, and perhaps having more faith in our own.
The hyena sniffed in our direction as we gazed at each other from a mutually comfortable distance. After a few minutes, not wishing to outstay our welcome, we shuffled back down the rocky hill in awed silence.
Observing the thump and rumble of hefty herbivores on foot is fairly extraordinary, but standing just metres away from a carnivore that, with wrinkled brow, is staring intently at you cuts right to your inner caveman (or woman) and somehow makes you feel more alive.
As if one hyena encounter wasn’t rejuvenating enough, in another section of Tuli we found ourselves picking through a debris of mangled bones at the entrance to a brown hyena den. The animals weren’t home, but the remains of their recent habitation
were scattered across the area leading up to the (surprisingly small) opening to their eerie-looking underground dwelling.
Scavengers they may be, but it’s amazing what hyenas drag home. The skeletal remains of klipspringer, kudu, eland and even elephant lay rakishly strewn about in the red sand. Especially noticeable were the inordinate number of baboon bones. Never before had I felt so grateful for my place in the evolutionary hierarchy.
On our final afternoon, after an epicurean brunch of thickly sliced French toast and bacon, and a long midday nap in the shade of Serolo’s tents, we piled into the vehicle for a short game drive to Eagle Rock, a craggy hill that marks the eastern tip of the Tuli Block.
In the light breeze of early evening we climbed the well-trodden path up the rocks and emerged, gobsmacked, at a 360º view over Tuli and across to South Africa. The dry Motloutse riverbed wound its way through the landscape below, drawing our awestruck gazes across the parched landscape and into the setting sun.
Leading us to the edge of our impressive vantage point, Stuart pointed out a large scraggly nest belonging to a pair of Verreaux’s eagles. Though the breeding season wasn’t for a couple of months, the beady-eyed pair drifted over to check us out, treating us to the rarely-seen white patterns on their backs as they flew past.
The sun kissing the horizon cast a golden glow over the landscape. Stuart splashed puddles of water into dips in the rock, and we sat spellbound as blue-headed flat lizards and their comparatively dull-coloured female counterparts emerged to quench their thirst. With the radiant view, the muted shrieks of the eagles, the exceptional company of the silent, thirsty lizards at the top of Eagle Rock, getting up to leave as the light faded proved to be the first chore in our four days of walking in the Tuli wilderness.
The second was having to leave the next day.
Heading to our respective homes in different parts of the globe, with a fresh understanding of survival and a new sense of our place in the natural world, I had a feeling we’d each be looking out for the spoor of local wildlife in our neighbourhoods for some time – and that the lure to return would never fade.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
By road: From Johannesburg (South Africa) via Polokwane, Vivo, Alldays and Pont Drift or Platjan border posts (6-7 hours). It is best to confirm with Tuli Wilderness which border post to use, since some border posts close due to periodical flooding of the Limpopo River. Pickups from the border can be arranged. For complete directions visit www.tulitrails.com and click on ‘Where are we’.
Vehicle entry: P195 (Botswanan Pula), also payable in South African Rands. Correct vehicle licence and paperwork are essential.
By air: Chartered flights make use of Limpopo Valley Airfield, located approximately an hour’s drive from Tuli Wilderness. Transfers to and from the airfield can be arranged.
When to visit:
Trails can be organised all year round, but the drier months (April to September) are the best time for walking, being mild and comfortable, with daytime temperatures averaging 20-30˚C. The best time for tracking (the driest time of year) is from June to October. Between October and March, it can be incredibly hot and temperatures may soar as high as 46˚C.
Tourists do not require a visa when visiting Botswana. However a valid passport, with at least six months left before expiry and two empty pages, is required.
The Tuli Block is located in a low risk malaria zone, but it is recommended that visitors take prophylaxis when visiting during the rainy season (December-March).
Find out more:
Tuli Wilderness Trails (www.tulitrails.com)
This article was published in Issue 65 (Winter 2013/14)