Life and death in the Land of Giants

Paul Hopkins recalls a trip on the wild side to see life in the raw in Botswana

THERE is only one road into Mashatu in the Northern Tuli terrain of Botswana. They call it the MI: two strips of white-washed cladding on a bed of red-earth-coloured stones. It is less than a mile long, not far from where the river bends and the Land of Giants criss-crosses Zimbabwe and South Africa.
On a clear day (and that’s 300-plus days of the year) from the flat mountain top of Mmamagwa Hill, where ancient royalty once dwelt, you can see both neighbours across the borders of the Limpopo river. Crane your neck and Mozambique gives way to the Indian Ocean.
To traverse this vast private reserve — 72,000 acres — you must follow the elephant paths, trunk roads perhaps, and the zebra crossings and hold tight to the muscles of your nether regions. In this peaceful and democratic country of just 2.25m people, Mashatu is the summation of what defines wilderness: vast open spaces and serene skies, diverse wildlife from the massive to the miniscule, and the tranquillity of it all broken only by birdsong and the calls of the wild.
Here is paradise for the world’s largest land animal, the elephant — the largest population on any private reserve — tallest mammal the giraffe and largest antelope, the eland. Home too, to the world’s largest bird, the ostrich, and heaviest flying bird, the kori bustard. Add in your obligatory lion and iconic baobab tree, and there be giants!
Day has barely dawned and we are miles from basecamp, fellow traveller Sue and I hovering in the hushed-still hide by the water-hole. Guineafowl, with their funny headgear, arrive by the dozens for their morning libation, and weavers and hornbills and babblers and wagtails too. Storks stroll by, indifferent to the antelopes as diverse as they are plentiful.
All here to quench thirst.
From the hide — a camouflaged dug-out in the desert sand that allows you to watch animals unobserved — I stare unflinchingly: a banded mongoose, with its large head and short muscular limbs, scampers across the scorched earth. A nyala ram with his females and hornless young scarper from the scene.
Then, patience being paramount and paying off, we hear them before we see them, the ground grumbling beneath their collective weight. As if from nowhere, with a slow, graceful but determined gait, the elephants arrive.
Perhaps two dozen: man, woman and child. The bull is proud but a little lost because he knows his is a matriarchal society and the cows are in charge. The mothers slurp insatiably from the hole and then, their thirst momentarily quenched, encourage their young to dive in. The youngest is just one month old, I am told.
We hold our collective breaths for fear of scaring them away. The continuous banter of the herd, the flapping back and forth of their large ears, the constant, playful motion of their tremendous trunks, and being up so close and personal to these largest and ancient animals, is just awesome.
Mashatu offers the best predator viewing in this blessed land and, over our three-day stay, Sue and I have surreal sightings, again up close, of lions, the pride waiting patiently on open plains to pounce, and a gut-wrenching cheetah kill, with the impala curiously calm, most likely in shock and paralysed with fear.
Then there’s my first sighting, in half a lifetime of coming to sub-Saharan Africa, of that much-maligned
creature, the hyena. It really is no laughing matter that
this fellow is known solely for being a scavenger, and, of course, his wicked laugh. Yes, hyenas can be dangerous to humans but they are highly, highly intelligent, social animals who, although known as scavengers, in truth are formidable predators. They can outwit lions, leopards and cheetahs and frequently steal fresh kills from these primary predators.
And I learn on this trip that female hyenas have ‘pseudo-penises’ used in domination displays. Talk about gender issues.
Mashatu is on the eastern fringes of the Kalahari Desert so water is its most precious resource. The luxurious camps, being close to water, and in thickets of remarkable vegetation, transport the visitor into an enclave enriched and populated by birds and animals, of which there are so many species and varieties that it would take a wannabe David Attenborough a lifetime of learning to keep up.
Mashatu Lodge (Main Camp), where my dear friend Sue and I stay, is an oasis among the undulating and seemingly endless plains of the wild.
Fourteen luxury suites lie along the camp’s perimeters to allow for absolute privacy and communion with the Botswanan bush and its wondrous inhabitants.
At night, on my decking, in solitude, I listen to the rustlings out there in the darkness made visible under a starry sky, and the strange, yet oddly familiar, sounds of its community, a cacophony that soothes my very soul.
And the words of our own Oscar Wilde come to mind: “I have a strange longing for the great simple things …”
I shall be back.


Paul Hopkins flew courtesy of Belfast-based Mahlatini (+44 (0)28 9073 6050 / who offer a 3-night safari staying at Mashatu Tent Camp from £2,265pp including flights on Turkish Airlines and car hire. Or fly straight into Mashatu’s Limpopo Valley Airstrip from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo and stay at Mashatu
Lodge (Main Camp) from £3,570pp
Given the pandemic, prices might have been updated

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