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  • Shelley Dark

6. The Hunt Continues

When I woke this morning in the dark, just before the alarm at 5am, I'd had very little sleep. Unlike Mrs Thatcher whom I think could manage on that every night of her life, I was tempted to roll over and miss the game drive just to catch up. But I have the rest of my life at home to snooze!

I am so, so glad I listened to my wiser self. But let's go back to yesterday afternoon.

This heron stood motionless for well over half an hour during brunch, at the edge of the waterhole below the dining terrace. I guess he was waiting for a fish, any fish! I hope he caught something after we left.

The land at Mashatu is fairly arid looking open veldt country with red or chocolate coloured soil and some very rocky areas where vehicles cannot go. Low thorny trees and bushes dot the undulating landscape, crossed by wide dry water channels. The open passenger vehicles are incredibly agile at going up and down very steep banks.

The open areas are largely devoid of tall trees or dark green foliage, so the mashatu trees growing along the bigger water courses are a joy to behold. They're home and food larder to many animals and they live for 300 to 600 years!

Elephants love to eat their leaves and berries. Baboons love them too.

Because Mashatu is just so rich in wild life, I'm ashamed to say we're becoming a little blasé about many of the animal species like giraffe, kudu and impala. We've seen very quiet warthog feeding inside the high stone walls of the the lodge in the garden. These were wandering along the river bank.

This one dramatic rock face is quite close to the lodge. See the lone baobab tree? And the tall tree-like euphorbia named after candelabra?

Nearly all of the larger tree types along the edges of the dry river beds are stunning. The nests in this tree belong I think to the red-backed shrike. Or perhaps the red-breasted starling as Radiance laughingly suggested. The list of birds at Mashatu takes up 8 pages of 11 in a book listing all the mammals, reptiles, birds and trees there.

Soon after we set off we came upon the mother cheetah and her three boys again, with a fresh kill. We were surprised they'd eat again after they'd had such a huge feed the day before. They're young males, said Eric, full of energy. They love to give chase.

We passed baboons, but my photo was taken from a long distance. Eric promised we'd be closer before our stay was over.

Eric screeched to a halt to show us the white-backed vultures high in a mashatu tree, their amazing nest suspended from a branch.

Kudu have discreet striping and pretty twirling horns.

We didn't know it but we were on our way to see the leopardess and her cub again. Her fresh kill was against the trunk of a tree, but she was taking a break from eating to groom her beautiful daughter.

By the time we'd seen her, it was time for sundowners out in the open plain again. Or more accurately one sundowner.

Goms poured our gin and tonics as we ate the most delicious fried spicy corn kernels prepared by the kitchen. I forgot to ask Annah for the recipe!

Later back at the lodge, Helen said to Lyf (pronounced LIFE), I don't know what you are putting in the gin here, but it seems to be causing Shelley and I to laugh uncontrollably like teenagers. Lyf looked very serious, and said yes, something very good.

Each evening the staff take it in turns to come to our table to tell us what is being served that evening. Not all are totally fluent in English. They're carefully rehearsed and speak beautifully. Last night the darling girl began 'Tonight we are having garden, and peas, and mint, and soup.' Did I tell you the food is sensational? They should have a cookbook available.

This morning we were on our way before dawn, Eric at the wheel. The sun rose as we drove along. It's very cold at that time - we had scarves around our ears and a blanket over our knees.

Doesn't he have the biggest shoulders you have ever seen?

Erica and Goms. They're both highly intelligent and immensely knowledgeable. Not to mention very loveable.

We drove up to a couple of jackals, eating someone else's kill or perhaps a natural death. They couldn't enjoy it because they were nervously looking around constantly, frightened that the owner would come back, or a predator would approach. I'm sure they would have had indigestion!

This was our first destination in the red light of dawn: a hyena hide. We gradually realised there were about 8 adult hyenas, sleek and fat.

They had as many cubs running around, popping up and down into the den.

It was such a treat to watch them playing.

This mum was very proudly carrying around a huge bone, like a toy.

I've always had a dislike of hyenas which is very unfair. I was starting to feel quite attached to this lot!

Then we were off again, to stop beneath this mashatu tree. It was impossible to see what we were looking for, at first. Can you guess what was up the tree?

Try as I might, I still couldn't see what it was.

You probably guessed it?

A mother leopard sound asleep on a branch! But where were her two cubs?

We continued on along the track, keeping a watchful eye out for them. The eland with those huge straight horns is the largest of the antelope family. And this one was massive! Actually if you cut off his head, he could almost be a brahman bull, with dewlap and hump.

Half a kilometre down the track we saw one of the cubs also high up in a tree, Eric said he was where his mother would have left him.

As we watched he changed from lying on top of the branch, to hanging all four legs down over the sides. Too cute!

I had said to Eric that I'd like to photograph some tracks for you. Bottom right is the spotty footed human, very rare in this area. But who do you think owns the middle right?

You're right. Lion. Erica and Goms followed their tracks for a couple of kilometres and after a little cruising around, we saw them.

Still tuckered out. The male and female from yesterday.

They'd been joined by the lioness' sister. Three lions! I didn't have a wide enough lens to have them all in the photo.

Such a pretty black nose he has!

Everyone's tummies were rumbling for breakfast. This was the ostrich that got away!

We saw these monkeys and some baboons, which are dark grey and just a little larger.

We were soon home for a huge breakfast, cooked and served by these gorgeous people. I was about to take a photo of three, when KB on the left here said rather hesitantly, my friend is missing. We soon had Lesh (spelling?) on the right in the frame, with Gosego and Dipotso. A full complement, yayyyyy!

There was time for a special dispensation for the briefest of visits to the kitchen to say goodbye to Annah - though sadly much too dark to photograph.

Say goodbye to dear Lops, the assistant manager.

And to this wonderful team too. From the left, tracker and spotlighter Goms, guide Eric, photographer extraordinaire Janet (who will be world famous), then Tefo, organiser of good things. We couldn't thank them enough.

The wildlife at Mashatu has been amazing. Even so, it's not the wild life that makes Mashatu. It's the people. Happy, smiling, cheerful, caring, kind, generous, willing, sensible, reliable, dependable, energetic. I could go on. They're a truly magic team and it's a magic place. If I ever come back to Africa, Mashatu may be top of the list.

Back at the Limpopo Valley Airfield so soon.

Johan and Paul, the pilots of our Cessna caravan.

A platinum mine right on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Then back to Johannesburg to our favourite hotel.

And now dear buddies, that bed is calling! As I said last night, I'm not sure when I'll be able to post again. So take a rest from all this reading and I'll be in touch again as soon as I can. .

Radiance and I are having the best time. In fact, she thinks she has broken her rib from laughing.

Until we meet here again buddies, I'm giving you a South African handshake.

shelley dark, writer 

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