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Trip Report - Mashatu, Pafuri, Ngala Walking Safaris - long

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Sorry for the delay. The pictures are going to have to wait a few days.

20th September - arrive Jo'burg. Pick up rental car and drive to Kurisa Moya Lodge near Polokwane.
21st September - 25th September - Mashatu Tented camp
25th September - 28th September- Pafuri Camp
28th September - 1st October - Ngala Walking Safaris
1st October- Overnight flight to London

Arrival in Jo’burg was pretty unremarkable. Picked up rental car from Budget and drove towards Polokwane. We had planned to stay at Kurisa Moya Lodge about 40km NE of Polokwane. This is an eco-lodge (the eco element to be taken with a slight pinch of salt), which partly lived up to its name. After a 4 hour drive we were shown to our lodge, which is a wood cabin, set in some woodland. The area is well known for its birding, but September isn’t really birding season. We really wanted somewhere to unwind and rest before starting our safari. The lodge itself is fairly basic, but comfortable with a lovely setting in deep woodland. The eco credentials come from solar panels for lighting, but for the price, the lodge was quite good.

Mashatu

Left for Mashatu the following morning and after a little adventure trying to find the right road, we finally set off an hour later than planned towards Ponts Drift. I had some serious time to make up; so much of the journey was covered at a fairly decent speed. At Ponts Drift, Mashatu drivers who had showed up with a fleet of land cruisers met us. Since we had arrived about 30 minutes sooner than planned, there wasn’t much to do but find shelter under some trees and hang about. The drive to Mashatu is a long arduous one over very bumpy terrain and there wasn’t much game around.

The Limpopo River on the south and the Shashe River on the east, which also forms the border with Zimbabwe, border the Mashatu concession. In the dry season, game tends to congregate here. Mashatu tented camp is set in a valley among some woodland along the northern border of the reserve. The tents are Meru style on concrete platforms raised a foot off the ground. Showers and toilets are set about 10 feet behind the tent and the area between the facilities and the tent is fenced off and paved. Tents are comfortable and perfectly adequate, with mains electricity, a pedestal fan, comfortable beds etc. The only complaint would be that the tents could be spaced slightly further apart to afford more privacy. The camp is fenced with an electric wire to keep ellies out, but all other game wanders in and out of camp. A pumped waterhole with a hide provides an opportunity to spend time viewing game. Unfortunately, it was extremely hot while we were there and apart from a few doves and impala there was absolutely no one at the waterhole during the day.

Game drives are conducted at 6 am and 4 pm and last up to 4 hours each. Since the game concentration is to the south and east of the concession, often the first 30 minutes of the drive yielded little to no game.
Highlights of the game viewing were -
-Numerous large herds of eland, up to 20 strong. On average they are slightly less skittish, allowing reasonable sightings. I haven’t seen Eland in such large numbers before.
-At least 10 leopard sightings (at least 6 different leopards) sightings. The animals are extremely relaxed and we got within 10 feet of the animals on several occasions. One particular male was lying up in a tree and we spent nearly an hour with him, following him on ground as well.
-3 lion sightings including a pride of 7, another of 3 and a single female. The male lion seen as a group of 3 was a 23-month-old male in superb health. In general the lions in this area are very healthy and large, but the prides are in flux. Lions crossing over into Zim or SA are often shot in the hunting concessions there, so pride stability is a problem.
-Aardwolf - There is a den known to the guides, so the possibility of a sighting is very high. It was our first sighting of an Aardwolf, but we were able to get within 100 ft of the animal and get some reasonable pictures.
-Kudu - several sightings with some wonderful bulls. Very relaxed.
-Numerous elephant sightings, including some very close ones. The herds are very habituated to vehicles and its possible to get really close to them; as little as 10 ft. The elephants were mainly in the wooded area around the rivers where they'd dug holes to tap ground water.
-Martial Eagle tucking into a tree monitor that it had caught and killed. However this was at a distance of about 200 ft.
-Carmine Bee Eaters nesting in large numbers.
-Hyena den with pups. Spent about 45 minutes at this site with some lovely interaction between a 8-9 month old pup, a mother trying to keep it out of the den and away from her litter of much younger pups. The pup was surprisingly cute for something that’s going to grow up into a real ugly beast. We couldn’t see them, but the guide suspected them to be 2-3 months old. 3 other Hyena lazing out the mound. We finally drove off as a large breeding herd with a large male moved in to feed and it seemed to be the right thing to give them space. Soon after we moved to a safe distance. Another vehicle moved in for a viewing at about the same time the herd spotted the hyena den. This was followed by some interesting interaction between the ellies determined to find the pups and protective parents, finally resulting in some misdirected aggression towards the vehicle. No damage done.
-Wildebeest in fairly reasonable numbers but very skittish
-Klipspringer in the riverbed near the main camp. I suggest anyone visiting should request a drive to this area. It’s stunning with rocky outcrops and large Baobabs where the Klipspringer hang out.
-Hyena and Jackal feeding on a 10-day-old Giraffe carcass. This giraffe had died of old age and since lion are sparse in this part of the concession, much of the carcass lay rotting.
-Zebra is small herds
-Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Impala, Steenbok, Duiker in large numbers.
-Several decent bird sightings including Martial Eagle, Fish Eagles, bush shrikes etc.
-Several close sightings of Black backed Jackals, Ostrich,
- Stripe bellied sand snake - a slender long fast moving non-poisonous snake. A truly beautiful specimen.
- Scrub Hares, banded mongoose and dwarf mongoose
-The unfortunately highlight was a Giraffe mother giving birth. Something had gone wrong and only 1 leg had appeared. The Giraffe was in distress and it was quite likely that she would die along with the calf, which was almost certainly already dead.
Our game viewing was determined by 2 days on intense heat followed by two relatively cold overcast days. The overcast days certainly didn’t allow good photography, which as a theme continued for most of the trip.

Guiding was in general quite good and the guide quite enthusiastic. I set him a challenge to find cheetah. There are a few on the reserve, but well away from the Lion and Leopard habitats so quite rare to find. Our guide Jake, took this on a challenge and at least I can’t blame him for not trying. Simon, the spotter is also a wonderful if quiet fella. We didn’t really see too many signs of active tracking.

Predator Drive - We had booked this in advance. It involves going out on an evening drive with the researcher and a guide. The researcher explains the objectives of the study, the methods used, the equipment used etc. We then set about tracking a collared leopard. She had been collared in a part of the reserve where game drives aren’t usually conducted, so was very shy and moved off. We were shown a cage, which is used to bait and trap leopards that the researchers want to study, and the method used, followed y an unsuccessful attempt to track the leopard in question. Overall an interesting experience, but I didn’t quite see the level of expertise about leopards that I expected. I had intended to go on one of these drives and book more depending on the experience. We stopped after the first one.

Food - Reasonable, although the catering manager at the camp was probably the most unprofessional person I have ever come across. She has a serious lack of judgment. Requests for red-meat free meals for my wife were ignored twice and the substitute provided was baked tomatoes!!! However, once this was pointed out to Monty the Camp Manager, things improved radically. Monty is an interesting character and very personable. Aly, the Admin Manager is a friendly Dutch girl on a 3-year assignment.

Overall Impression - At the prices charged by them, Mashatu has to be a bargain. Getting there and back is always going to be a pain in the ar*e. The reserve is extremely dry and dusty and consequently the game density isn’t quite the same at the Delta, Chobe, Kruger or some of the better know destinations, but again for the price, its superb value for money. How long these prices will be held is another matter, but I'd definitely recommend a visit and I'll be visiting in the not too distant future.

Pafuri -

We got dropped off at the border around 12.30 pm and then drove for about 3 hours through pretty unremarkable country to get to Pafuri.

Pafuri is a large camp fronting a mile of the Luvuvhu River. The area is extremely green and lush, beautiful with the fever tree forest being a definite highlight. The river bank opposite the main area almost always has some animals (ellies, buffalo, antelope etc) drinking or feeding. 20 tents on raised platforms linked by raised walkways to the main boma at the centre forms the lodge. It can accommodate around 52 guests, which makes it quite large and impersonal. However the service and attention to detail was very good. The accommodation is large and spacious, but as Hari puts it 'focus is on the indoors'. It seemed to me that the camp is targeted towards luxury seeking guests. The camp certainly talks the talk in terms of eco-sensitivity. However what I found disturbing was that a generator that runs 24/7 at the staff accommodation, some distance away supplies the 220v power. WTF!!!! I also couldn’t help wondering what impact the mile long frontage had on the movements of animals accessing the river. While the walkways are raised, I am sure constant human activity must disturb animal rhythm. Being a large camp, the personal element to the stay is brought by the creation of 'teams', where vehicle-mates and their guide are urged to take meals together in groups. Opting out of 'team' dining is possible.

Game drives are conducted at 6 am and 4 pm and last around 3.5 hours. The primary concern is the inability to go off-road, which makes tracking game a non-option. As a consequence there are no trackers on the game drive vehicles.

Game viewing - The area has large numbers of elephants, Buffalo, antelope, zebra etc. This is essentially birding country and we saw numerous birds including various bush shrikes, Orioles, trumpeter hornbill, Racket Tailed Rollers (which are a rarity here), kingfisher (Large, Pied, Malachite), Verraux's Eagle, sunbirds, Waxbills, crested guinea fowl. White backed and hooded vultures. The highlight had to be a Pels owl diving, catching and feasting on a fish.

Among the mammals, we came across bushy tailed and lesser bushbabies, waterbuck, bush buck, Nyala, Kudu, impala, zebra, several large ellies, pride of lions at a kill about 100 yards from the road (this is where the inability to go off-road was felt most), crocs and hippo.

The absolute highlight of the trip had to be an evening spent at crooks corner. This is where SA, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet at the confluence of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers. While driving to the spot before sundown, we came across a herd of about 6 ellies feeding in the bushes, slightly out of sight. The guide parked the vehicle to prohibit access to the riverbed while we went down for a look, but he decided against sundowners there due to the proximity of the ellies. About 30 min we went back to the vehicle to find that a large bull was showing off and trying to access the path. He was shooed off and we got into the vehicle. As we started to drive off, we realized that the access road (bordered by dense bush on both sides) had been blocked off by elephants and they were all very large bulls. We had blocked off their access path and they had blocked ours. This was post sunset and the full moon was rising behind us. What followed was a tense 45 minutes during which the elephants passed us, no more than 5-10 feet away, one by one, very cautiously. Each one did a bit of showing off as they moved off. We could hear them breathing and their tummies rumbling. Each one would pass the vehicle into the clearing behind us and flap their ears and raise their heads with a rising full moon behind them. You couldn’t make it up. We finally counted 18 bulls in the herd. Its was only after the incident that we realized that no pictures where taken. We were all too spellbound to move and cause a distraction.

We also made a trip to the Lanner gorge. Is a 45 min drive to the gorge on a very bumpy track, but well worth the effort. The views are stunning, but don’t expect to see game here. Apart from a Verrraux’s eagle, there were no other sightings.

Food – Pretentious but lacking in quality. Not bad overall, but I would have preferred simpler food well made.

Overall – Certainly a birders paradise. Not mammal country, though we were assured that leopard, Lion, cheetah and even wild dogs are to be found in the area. The natural beauty of this region itself is a reason to make a visit to the camp and it combines well with Mashatu. I personally am unlikely to make another trip to Pafuri.

Ngala Walking Safaris
We had a long drive ahead of us from Pafuri to Ngala and it was a safe bet that the drive would take at least 5 hours outside the park or 7-8 hours inside. We chose to forego the morning game drive at Pafuri in favour of a longer drive inside Kruger where we hoped to see wider variety of game. And Kruger delivered. We came across massive elephant bulls with tusks of lengths that are rare to find these days, large buffalo herds, a dead tree covered in white-backed vultures, a surprisingly large concentration of white fronted and little bee-eaters on the road at a spot near a river, several Fish eagle.
We arrived at Ngala after a 7 hour drive which mostly delivered and was worth missing the drive at Pafuri for. The Ngala concession borders Kruger in the Timbavati area and sits just outside Orpen Gate. We parked at the Southern African Wildlife College campus inside Ngala and were picked up by Eliott, our guide. The Southern African Wildlife College sits on land donated by CCA foundation and si jointly run by WWF and another conservation organisation (cant recall the name). More on this later.
It was a 20-minute drive to the walking safari camp. The camp itself is set on a bend in a dry riverbed in a shady grove. The camp accommodates 8 guests in 4 Meru tents with ensuite toilets and bucket showers. Overall, the accommodation is simple, comfortable and private. The main area is set around the dining tent, a truly wonderful location.
Ngala operates a morning walk/evening drive system. Walks are led by the tracker followed by a guide. Steven, our tracker was excellent both on walks and during drives. On our first day there we were joined by a S African family that had spend a few days at the Main Camp and were keen on walking, so transferred to the walking camp for 1 night. As a consequence, the evening drive was going to be a walk, which we were fine with. An Italian couple on their first Africa trip also joined us. The Italians had been missold this part of their holiday by a Cape Town based agent and they where extremely unsure and uncomfortable about the tent/walking experience. Unfortunately, we saw no game on this walk, but it was sure nice to be walking out in the bush. The next morning’s walk was given a miss by the S Africans??? But we had a truly memorable walk. Sightings included a herd of breeding ellies, a black rhino bull on foot. We got within 20 metres of this animal and our presence was betrayed by some indiscreet talking/moving by the Italians. We slowly backed off and approached the bull from a different direction and for the next 45 minutes he stood still looking at the bush that made a noise. This was followed by a spotting of a giant Eagle Owl in a tree nearby. What followed was amazing. The Eagle Owl flew off and was promptly attacked by a pair of Tawny Eagles. Luckily the Owl managed to fend itself. But the sight of 3 large birds flying around was stunning.
The Italians cut short their trip and left the same day and we had the camp to ourselves for the next 2 days. Unfortunately incessant rains wiped out the walking, which was a shame. Luckily the evening drives were on and delivered sightings. Highlights -
Lioness with 2 6-month old cubs feasting on a fresh impala kill
single young male lion with a couple of nasty wounds, very possibly inflicted by the lioness with cubs
Leopard
Elephants
2 large herds of Buffalo
Rhino bull marking his territory
Wildebeest
Zebra
Kudu
Giraffe
Some important observations about Ngala - I felt that the concession is actually quite small (14500 hectares) and crowded for the amount of accommodation that’s provided on it. Further, the concession hosts the college and an anti poaching unit on it. One never really gets a wilderness feel here. Signs of human habitation are absolutely everywhere - driving tracks, power lines, cell phone and communication masts, generator going 24/7 at the anti poaching unit and audible some distance away, constant movement of vehicles, artificial dams, fences. Moreover, the focus is well and truly on the big five. One of the drives at the end of a very wet day was a very quiet one and we could hear the radio controller (or a lady whose role seemed to be coordination of game drives in some form) putting pressure on finding the big 5. Another time, the guide went out of his way, half way across the concession and scoured a riverbed where a leopard had been seen. He drove through immense amounts of vegetation to find the leopard and I am not sure it was worth it. Then again, it would be worthwhile to visitors who're after the big 5 and care little for everything else out there. I also felt that the guide was stressing out the rhino bull marking his territory by driving off-road and aggressively to get to the animal. I finally had to ask him to back off and leave the beast in peace. This isn’t my idea of a safari. I'd happily accept a smaller number of viewings for a relaxed, easy and wilder experience.
Food and service - Excellent. Perhaps the best we had anywhere on this trip. Little consolation for the washout that occurred from the rain and the overall disappointment from the concession.
Overall - Ngala is one of the leading operations in the SSGR/Timbavati area and operates in a fiercely competitive market. I suspect that they have to tailor their operation to counter the competition to ultimately satisfy the requirements of the big 5 seeking guests that I suspect form a majority of their clientele. While I don’t want to paint all operations in the area with the same brush, I'd find it difficult to justify another trip to spend any more of my time and money visiting reserves in that region in the future.

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