Up Close and Personal – A Family Safari Road Trip!

“On the first day, we went out looking for lions, and we certainly found them. In fact, not only did we find them, but we found 4…two males and two females. Both sets were mating to the left and right of the vehicle. We learned that they actually mate every 15 minutes for 4 days in a row. Wow. I felt like I was intruding on some private time…I needed to have a cigarette.” — Mari & Alex


To really be there, going to Africa for the first time, the true surprise is simply being there. You think to yourself, ‘Am I really seeing zebra, giraffe and kudu?’ To be able to see all of these creatures up close – as close as you want to be (and we definitely pushed our boundaries) – is something you really don’t expect.

Photo by Mari & Alex

One time, we were especially close to the female lions – from 1-20 feet, and what was surprising to me was that I never felt like our family was threatened. There was a certain respect that the guides held for the land and the animals. They just knew the environment, and we could tell they weren’t going to put us at risk. Honestly, the fact that we could camp out in the Savannah in the middle of the night, allowing our own children to stay watch – you have to have a lot of faith to make a big leap like that. Not once did we ever feel scared because ever-present was the mutual respect between humans and animals; a certain understanding. It was very cool.

It happens from the very beginning, too. We left Johannesburg and took a long drive to Botswana where the adventure literally began at our border crossing – from South Africa to Botswana. We went out in an open Land Rover with one of the more experienced guides…sort of like a Grand Uncle kind of guy who was very hospitable. As soon as we were loaded up, we drove across – or actually, through – the river, which was the boundary between South Africa and Botswana. Everything was dirt road from that point onwards, and we’d only made it 100 yards when our driver pulled over so we could watch some zebras. He told us to look back – he’d seen movement – and sure enough, out of the bush came an elephant, and then another, and then a whole herd of elephants. Our jaws dropped in amazement – we’d only just crossed over, and here we were having animal experiences.

Just the presence of these animals…to be greeted by the most beautiful of beasts…is incredibly moving. It’s the entire reason we went, and there it was, unfolding before us in only 100 yards. Zebras, giraffe, Impalas… I’m even forgetting the names of all the creatures we saw. It was a wild kingdom.

A Sensual Adventure

At our second stop, or concession, we were having our orientation and they said that they wanted to pitch an idea to us. This was when they asked us if we wanted to sleep out in the Savannah, hiking out about 3 miles…along with two guides and their guns. Doing this meant that each of us would have to stay awake for 2 hours per night to keep watch. My first reaction was YES! I mean, what other time in your life would you be able to camp out in the Savannah with wild animals? It was the most amazing experience.

Photo by Mari & Alex

It’s difficult to portray what we witnessed…through all of our senses. Infinite stars…stars beyond what you could imagine. We’ve been to Yosemite. We’ve been to Yellowstone. There is just no comparison. You’re serenaded by a cacophony of the sounds, too. The laughing hyenas, the hippos, and what’s called bush babies, which are little monkeys that live in the trees…and they literally sound like babies.

Over one outdoor dinner, we could hear lions roaring in the distance while we were eating. There was nothing between us and the lions, which could seem unsettling, but part of what gave us comfort was the fact that the guides called each lion by their name – simply by knowing the sound of their roar. Oh, and the smells! The smells were things we’d never smelled before. The basil and African sage, which had a sweet lemony smell to it, was sweet and very pungent.

Late Night Surprise

One night, we were on safari driving around. It was much later than we usually stayed out, but it was probably only two hours after sunset. Our drivers seemed a little disoriented – like they were lost – but they kept driving. One of the guides was holding a big spotlight, and we were looking for elephants. He was shining the light on either side, and suddenly we saw a campfire in the distance. They told us they thought it was an anti-poaching crew; that they go out there and sometimes catch poachers and keep them in camp until authorities pick them up. There were a couple other trucks parked when we pulled up, and it was clear we were going to talk to these guys. Admittedly, we were a little concerned. As we approached the camp, we could see a fairly large group, shadowed by the firelight, and as we got closer, we realized that it was a group of student guides. Whew! Turned out it was planned all along, and they’d made a great dinner for us, and one of them was showing us how to take night shots.

They had tables, chairs, and table coverings. They had amazing food there – Mealie Pap, kind of like a porridge, or polenta, that’s served with a meat, or a stew. You use your fingers and you scoop it up and just eat it. My family also enjoyed the Mashatu chili, which was a flavorful and spicy chili prepared by two amazing women, Nomo and Rosena. The night before we left, my son’s girlfriend wanted to bring some home, and they gave her a jar of it along with the recipe. Can you believe that? At the next stop, we had to put our food in the storage container, and accidentally forgot it there. That was probably the biggest disappointment of our whole trip.

Dirty Fingernails

Photo by EcoTraining

We’d go back. In a heartbeat. It would be great to go back to the same places for the nostalgia, but on the other hand, we’d probably want to see something different. It’d be great to go to Kenya to see the mass migrations…where they have herds of millions of animals. Now that we’ve gotten a flavor of Africa, we understand there is so much more to see. It was such a wonderful experience, and Jeremy and Kili had so much to do with that. From one conversation where we shared our vision, they took exactly what we described and made it happen. We didn’t want to travel like privileged Americans where we were driven around, etc. We wanted to go where they had good labor practices. We wanted the opportunity to touch the land with the dirt going through our fingers, touch the trees, and smell the environment. We didn’t need champagne and chocolate fountains (well maybe a little), but from the very beginning…the languages, the sounds and the sights, the people, the environment. It was just such a whole medley of sensations.


Here’s Some of Mari & Alex’s Photos


 
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Four Extraordinary Lodges

For this edition of our “Personal Picks”, we’re thinking outside-the-box to share four breathtaking lodges in unique, lesser-known parks and reserves that offer an excellent overall guest experience. 

Magashi  – Amalinda  – Mashatu –  Shipwreck

These areas don’t make it on many bucket lists, but they offer a superb safari with an uncrowded, exclusive feel at a great value.

Amalinda Lodge – Matobo Hills – Zimbabwe

Each of these lodges promises personal service, a wide variety of activities and a solid 4-night stay so you can really settle in and appreciate their distinctive settings. They pair nicely with more well-known safari destinations, and all four would make a great extension or centerpiece for a longer itinerary.

Magashi – Akagera National Park – Rwanda

Magashi is the newest camp in the Wilderness Safaris family located in the northeastern corner of Akagera National Park in Rwanda. This camp is opening on the 1st of December, and it is the result of many years of public/private partnership and local collaboration.
We see it as an excellent example of what’s on the horizon for new destinations where governments, communities, conservation and tourism work together to rehabilitate a wilderness area. Pair this with gorilla trekking experiences from the stunning Bisate Lodge.

Amalinda – Matobo Hills National Park – Zimbabwe

Amalinda is a stunning lodge built into the granite wilderness outside of Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills National Park. It is a wild and historic place full of rocks and rhinos. Through decades of hardship and instability, this family owned and operated lodge has sustained a commitment to this unique place.
There is a huge variety of activities, from hiking and biking to tracking rhinos on foot and exploring pre-historic rock art, and the area is known for its sense of tranquility, rejuvenation and spirituality. This pairs with other destinations in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and there’s a great combo with Mashatu!

Mashatu – Tuli Block – Botswana

Mashatu is also a family owned and operated lodge located in a truly singular landscape where Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa meet, and it is unlike any of them with grand baobabs, spectacular vistas and a host of rare and unusual wildlife.
It’s perfect for multi-generational families with a variety of accommodation options from lightweight fly-camping to tented camps and a luxury lodge, and there’s a huge variety of activities including horseback riding, walking, biking and elephant toe-nail photography from a waterhole hide! Mashatu works well with other destinations in Botswana and South Africa, and there’s a great combo with Amalinda.

Shipwreck – Skeleton Coast – Namibia

Shipwreck is one of the most remote and far-flung luxury destinations in the world, and it’s an example of a bold statement in architectural design and conservation impact. This dramatic lodge was designed to match the stark, intense beauty of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, with its extreme environment and fascinating history.
The experience at Shipwreck is all about sand dunes, whale bones and wildflowers, discovering shocks of improbable life, and visiting a place very few people have ever been. Shipwreck is on the edge of the world, and it pairs well with other destinations on a dedicated Namibia itinerary.

There’s plenty more places we love that few people have heard of. Get in touch to learn more about these lodges and how to build your perfect safari itinerary.

Magical Mashatu – Kelly’s Trip Report

We got to watch these elegant cheetah brothers move through the beautiful countryside, standing up on massive boulders for a better vantage point – every position was taken with great intention. I was humbled while observing their instincts at play, with all of them watching, always looking in separate directions to optimize hunting opportunities and to continually ensure the safety of their clan.

Kelly mountain biking in MashatuIn the last week of April, I traveled to the Northern Tuli Block in far eastern Botswana, which contains southern Africa’s largest private game area, the Mashatu Game Reserve. I had never been to this region of Botswana before and I was awed by the natural beauty and incredible wildlife that I discovered while staying at both Mashatu Tent Camp and Mashatu Main Lodge.

I flew into Johannesburg, South Africa and stayed overnight at the clean, comfortable, well-priced and conveniently located Citi Lodge business hotel, a short walk from the customs and baggage area at OR Tambo International airport.

After a hearty buffet breakfast at the hotel the next morning, I walked over to check-in for my Angel Gabriel charter flight to the Limpopo airstrip. The Angel Gabriel representative met me at an upright banner near gates 60-65, checked me in and a host escorted me, along with a few others on the flight, through to the boarding area. It was a quick and easy 1-hour flight to Limpopo and the plane buzzed with excitement of a group of women from the UK and France who were arriving to do an overland horseback riding safari.

Mashatu MapUpon landing at Limpopo, clearing customs into Botswana was about as easy as it gets – I simply walked up to the customs window for a stamp. My Mashatu driver, Spike, was waiting for me and within 10 minutes of landing, we were headed on a 45-minute drive towards my home for the night, Mashatu Tent Camp. It started to rain on the drive to camp, so I layered up in my gore-tex and Spike gave me a Mashatu poncho, which I layered on top. My turnaround time at camp was very fast, as afternoon tea was already under way when I arrived. I grabbed my camera gear, had a quick bite to eat and some tea before departing on my first game drive at Mashatu. It was quite wet out there, which is unusual for this area. We stopped to admire giraffe before driving on to a site where an python had been spotted earlier that day. The python had moved on already, so we drove on, taking in the stunning scenery while Marty, PJ and I started getting to know each other. By lucky coincidence, we happened to be staying at Mashatu at the same time, so I got to spend a bit of time in the bush with Next Adventure travelers! We found a huge male leopard just before sunset and got to spend time with him and enjoy a very close sighting before he started moving on. It was a beautiful sight to watch this leopard move through the bush, elegantly hidden by his mesmerizing spotted coat. A hot shower was very welcome before dinner – the canvas tents on raised platforms at Mashatu Tent Camp are cozy and comfortable and have a classic safari vibe, with an outdoor shower and separate bathroom attached to the back of each tent. This is an intimate camp with a welcoming atmosphere, as all guests gather for dinner around a common table for dinner and share stories from the day.

The next morning was cool and crisp – we huddled comfortably under wool blankets in the vehicle as we left camp before sunrise. Our morning was filled with incredible wildlife sightings, beginning with a young injured elephant whose trunk had been caught in a snare, most likely in Zimbabwe, and was now only about 3/4 of the length of a typical elephant trunk. The elephants in Mashatu often times drink water by placing their trunks down through the deep gravel sandbanks in order to filter river water through the earth to ensure greater purity. This poor injured elephant had to kneel down on her knees in order to access water. She was surviving, but clearly her life is far more difficult following this injury and one can only imagine would be shorter than it would have been without this devastating interference of man.

We left our highly adaptable elephant friend and rolled onward, encountering herds of wildebeest and marveling at the giant Mashatu trees, which are the namesake to the area. Mashatu is known as “The Land of the Giants,” which comes from this massive Nyala berry tree and also the many giants of the wildlife kingdom that call Mashatu home. We passed the gorgeous lilac breasted roller (Botswana’s national bird) and stopped to admire this colorful little beauty before driving on to an elusive sighting that our incredible tracker, Goms, was able to spot from a long distance away at the clearing or the edge of the forest – a bush pig! I’ve included a picture below… this was the first time I had ever seen one. Before long, we were treated to some time with a massive black-maned male lion, who is honestly one of the most gorgeous specimens I’ve ever seen. He is eight years old and does not have any notable scars on his body or his face, which is quite rare, as males must fight to defend their territory, sometimes to the death. This male shows such prowess that he has maintained this territory for many years. A hush fell over the safari vehicle while we all sat gazing upon this magnificent creature. He showed such a gentle command of the land, while at the same time exuding extraordinary power and grace.

Mashatu Tent Camp

Very shortly afterwards, we encountered a beautiful, young female leopard. Our guide, Justice, drove expertly through challenging terrain so that we could follow her and watch her move through the wilderness. She walked immediately next to the vehicle and I found myself transfixed, marveling at her intricate coat. We drove through the stunning countryside spotted with acacia trees herds of zebra and black-backed jackals, running alongside their lifelong mate through the grasslands. We came upon a herd of elephant and were able to watch them feed and got to observe the adorable, tiny youngsters following their mothers. I have a soft spot in my heart for all wildlife but eles are one of my favorites. I always take time to study the texture of their skin and to gaze into those soft, gentle, intelligent eyes. Within the herd, there was a massive bull elephant in pursuit of a female – he wanted nothing to do with us and displayed his dominance with loud trumpeting and head swinging. We knowingly quietly drove away, out of respect for this massive and beautiful creature. Our morning drive came to a close and we headed back to Mashatu Tent Camp, where I quickly packed my things and met Justice for the 45-minute trip over to Mashatu Lodge.

I arrived at Mashatu Lodge in time for brunch and was well-fed before settling into my new, quite luxurious room for the afternoon. Mashatu Lodge has a different feel from the tented camp and is a good match for guests seeking more creature comforts and a larger private space to enjoy while at the lodge. The rooms are spacious and very well-appointed, with a sitting area, spa bathroom with double sinks, a soaking tub and a generous shower with waterfall showerhead, along with a full walk-in closet and dressing area. The lodge has a main covered patio overlooking a very active waterhole where breakfast and brunch are served. The food is fresh and delicious with an impressive amount of variety and many healthy choices. The lodge grounds feature a swimming pool, an internet lounge, a curio shop and my favorite – the Gin Trap – a festive gathering place where safari stories are shared over drinks prior to dinner, which is served under the stars, in the glow of torch light in the outdoor boma.

While at Mashatu Lodge, for the majority of the time, I was very lucky to have a private vehicle with Kaiser as my exceptional naturalist guide and Goms as our keenly aware tracker. We had an incredible time together and definitely became friends over the course of those three days…it’s hard not to bond while sharing in such magnificence. Our first sighting that evening was of the same giant male lion that I had seen earlier in the day. We encountered him walking down dirt tracks where safari vehicles had passed, so he was fully visible – it was a special sighting indeed, as he walked directly towards, adjacent to and beyond our vehicle. Our evening ended with a sighting that was particularly special to me – just before dark we got to spend time with a mother cheetah with three female cubs. I had not seen cheetah since my first safari in Kenya, 17 years earlier, so I was thrilled at the chance to spend time with these elegant cats once more. The four of them were lying flat in a clearing on the grasslands. We stayed with them until dark and then drove to enjoy sundowners and getting to know each other a bit more. On the drive home, due to the expertise of our spotter, I got to see a family of African Wildcat, which is quite a rare sighting. The kittens were tiny and peering out of the bush with innocent and curious eyes.

Checkout this 24/7 live feed video from Pete’s Pond on Mashatu

The following morning started with a long-distance sighting of a leopard crossing the massive, dry riverbed that we were driving through. As the sun continued to rise, we followed her on a seemingly impossible driving route up the very steep riverbank and into the heavily wooded terrain above. Kaiser thought that there was a possibility she might be moving her young cub, which would’ve been really exciting to see, but it turns out that she had apparently already moved the cub earlier in the day. We stayed with her for a while and drove a carefully executed route that our tracker recommended, in order to follow her through the bush. Our sighting culminated with the leopard starting to hunt an impala that was just off her track and out of sight. The leopard determined that the impala was too far away to be worth expending so much effort, but we did get to watch her position into a crouch and begin the process of what would have been a hunt, had the conditions been more favorable. Thrilling!

After this very exciting start to our morning, we continued through the beautiful landscape and came upon a mother cheetah with three sons. The young males were playing with each other and exploring the area for a bit before the mother got up and prompted them to follow her, at which point they all walked off through the bush. Almost as soon as we left this family of cheetah, we came upon another family. The Mashatu terrain of open grassland, dotted with acacia trees, which provide shade and excellent cover, is perfect hunting terrain for cheetah so they thrive in this area. We watched this family under a tree and I was just mesmerized by their markings and their affectionate behavior with each other. After a full morning of cats, we stopped in yet another beautiful spot for coffee and fresh baked goodies, surrounded by ostrich walking in the distance, paired off with their mates.

Kelly Mountain Biking SafariDuring my stay, I had a unique treat in store – I got to mountain bike with my guide Mario, riding on the ancient elephant trails that cross the reserve! This was such an exciting adventure and a beautiful way to experience the area. In some ways, it was even more intimate being on a bike, as we peddled across the landscape with herds of impala running through the bush, crossing in front of us and running alongside as we peddled. On our ride, we encountered a herd of elephant almost immediately, so Mario and I stopped and admired them from afar (with my heart pounding), making sure that we weren’t causing them any distress before turning to ride the other direction. One of the unique qualities of staying at Mashatu and being on the private reserve, is that you do have the option to ride mountain bikes and also to choose walking safaris, providing a huge amount of flexibility and variety to your experience. Mashatu is an excellent option for travelers who are interested in being more active while being on safari. At the end of my mountain bike adventure, Mario and I met up with Kaiser and Goms and the vehicle. I said goodbye to Mario and my bike and drove off to end the evening enjoying sundowners and listening to the call to the calling lions. We followed the calls of three females and spent sunset and the transition to complete darkness next to the pride listening to this beautiful, resonant and utterly primal sound.

One of my most memorable sightings at Mashatu was following a coalition of three mail cheetahs who have been together since their birth and are now 15 years old. They look very healthy and are obviously so bonded to each other, it was really heartwarming to see. I’m sure this brotherly bond is one of the reasons for their success as a coalition of hunters and for their long, successful life together. We got to watch these elegant cheetah brothers move through the beautiful countryside, standing up on massive boulders for a better vantage point – every position was taken with great intention. I was humbled while observing their instincts at play, with all of them watching, always looking in separate directions to optimize hunting opportunities and to continually ensure the safety of their clan.

Mashatu Main Lodge

My final wildlife sighting at Mashatu was extremely special, especially for me, because it was the first time I have seen a pack of wild dogs. I am a self-professed “dog freak,” and it was such a joy to see this newly introduced pack of seven wild dogs, who appeared to be thriving after just two months on the reserve. Mother nature seemed to be celebrating with me, Kaiser and Goms when she delivered an absolutely stunning sunset to close our days together on safari at Mashatu. A magical time, indeed!