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Africa's boundary-breaking safari park

By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Times, 27th September 2008

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Stanley Johnson crosses the mighty Limpopo into Botswana and the heart of the Peace Park - a vast area where wildlife will roam unchecked across three frontiers

Africa's boundary-breaking safari parkThe Tuli Block, sometimes called “Botswana's best-kept secret”, is a great sweep of land at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. Climb to the top of one of the high kopjes (rocky outcrops) in the middle of the block and you will see the mopane veld stretching to the far horizon, broken only to the south by the dark forests of the Limpopo Valley.

Tuli is the heart of the Limpopo-Shashe transfrontier protection area - or Peace Park. The park, the result of an agreement between Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, will allow animals to roam unchecked across national boundaries in a vast area of southern Africa.

Africa's boundary-breaking safari parkJust getting to Tuli is an adventure. After a five-hour drive north from Johannesburg, you leave your vehicle with police at a tiny border post on the banks of the Limpopo, then pile into a makeshift cable car before being winched across the swirling water. Because of late rains this year, Kipling's “great grey-green greasy Limpopo” lived up to its billing. As you ride across in the metal cage, you are just a few feet from the surface of the river, keeping a wary eye out for lurking crocodiles.

We were met on the Botswanan side by Richard Modeme, a guide who for the past 15 years has worked for the Mashatu Game Reserve, a private company that owns about 30,000ha (74,000 acres) within the Tuli Block and runs the Mashatu Main Camp (14 suites) as well as the Mashatu Tent Camp (eight twin-bed tents). Hoping to be as close to Africa's wildlife as possible, we chose the tents.

Over the next six days Richard became a firm friend. He woke us at 5.30am, ready for the morning's first game drive at 6am. He drove us each day with impeccable skill and courtesy in our open-top four-wheel drive. He brought us back in time for brunch - about 10.30am - and took us out again for the late-afternoon excursion. He always made sure, when the sun was close to setting, that we were parked in some auspicious spot - in the shade of a giant 1,000-year-old baobab tree, for example - where it would be safe to get out and enjoy a ritual sundowner.

Because the space is so vast and the number of visitors so (relatively) few, you can drive anywhere you like, terrain permitting. On two successive mornings, we encountered a pride of lions. There was just one other vehicle in the area on the first occasion. On the second, the only company we had were hyenas, jackals and vultures drawn by the carcasses of the elands the lions had just killed.

The time we spent with the elephants was altogether special. Not long ago, elephants had been virtually shot out in Tuli. Now there are probably 1,400 elephants in the Central Limpopo Valley and as many as 600 in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, including Mashatu.

On our last morning in the reserve, we must have seen well over 100 elephants. First we saw two troupes, each consisting of about 40 animals, coming from different directions to drink at the Majale River, a tributary of the Limpopo. Then, when we couldn't believe there were still more elephants waiting to be seen among the mopane and leadwood trees, we came across another, smaller herd.

Indeed, we found ourselves surrounded by elephants on all sides, including mothers suckling calves and one huge bull who clearly had other things in mind. He gave us a cursory glance, then lumbered off in pursuit of a female. “She'll give him a good run for his money,” Jeanetta Selier, the game reserve's resident biologist, told us. “But if she's ready, she'll let him catch her.”

Lion, elephant, leopard, cheetah, zebra, kudu, eland, impala, giraffe, waterbuck, warthog, hippo: apart from rhino, Tuli has most of what you could want to see as far as the land mammals of southern Africa are concerned. It also has an amazing variety of birdlife. If you are looking for the kori bustard, Africa's heaviest flying bird, go to Tuli. The lilac-breasted roller, Botswana's national bird and another denizen of Tuli, so enchanted King Mzilikazi of the Matabele that he decreed that he alone could adorn himself with its feathers.

Miraculously, wild dogs, southern Africa's most endangered carnivore, have been reintroduced to the area. Seeing a wild dog hunting in the mopane veld in Africa is equivalent to, say, seeing a blue whale in the middle of the Pacific. You just don't believe it is ever going to happen. Well, it did. One evening, as Richard was casting about for a good spot to crack open the cool-boxes and fix our sundowners, we found ourselves watching, amazed, as a score of wild dogs, hunting as a pack, criss-crossed the surrounding terrain.

Forgoing our evening drinks, we followed the pack as closely as we could without disturbing them and, when darkness fell, Richard's assistant, Ona, stood up at the back of the vehicle shining a spotlight. We didn't see how that particular expedition ended. Wild dogs can hunt for hours without stopping and, in any case, dinner was waiting for us in the boma (enclosure) back at the camp.

Tuli is magnificent, but it stands for so much more. I had read about the Peace Park before I arrived, but you can understand the extent of the vision only by seeing the place for yourself.

If the three countries involved can now move ahead with the plan, the Limpopo-Shashe Trans-Frontier Conservation Area will ultimately include national parks, privately owned ranches and communal land in an extraordinary act of political, social and ecological co-operation.

Over dinner, with the stars of the Southern Cross shining overhead, Jeanetta gave us her appraisal: “This is a tremendous visionary concept, which could set a new pattern for wildlife management in southern Africa. We're all ready to go forward, but events in Zimbabwe, as you can imagine, are holding things up.”

The Mashatu Tent Camp is a stone's throw from the Zimbabwe border. As I gazed across the stream bed towards the official frontier, I found myself wondering whether Robert Mugabe and his henchmen knew or cared what a priceless asset they were putting at risk.


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