Tuli... ramblings of an ageing conservationist
I think my comment was justified. You drive to the designated start point in the reserve to begin a game count. Everywhere you look impalas are leaping past us in their usual hyperactive manner. As soon as the game count starts, they vanish without a trace. The same thing happens when you go out on an elephant ID session. The moment you get out the clipboards and cameras… there’s nothing bigger than a Paradise Whydah in sight. This small bird with an impossibly long tail is very active on the reserve doing its display flight over the scrub — a sitting target for every hawk in the area. Ah… what we do for love!
I arrived weeks earlier under the auspices of African Conservation Experience (ACE), crossing the border in a steel cage, swinging rhythmically above the raging waters of the Limpopo. I was soon transferred to Tuli through the very impressive countryside. My previous forays into the bush have been in Zambia and Northern Botswana. The numerous rocky kopjes (volcanic outcrops covered with huge boulders) are a new experience for me. I developed a love-hate relationship with the terrain. My body does not appreciate being shaken like a rag doll while trying to write down details of a sighting, thanks to all the rocks on the track. However, I manage with the aid of a few choice words under my breath and am soon heaving myself one-handed onto the vehicle, trying to pretend I am not forty years older than some of the other volunteers.
Fortunately, I don’t share the sanitised view of the bush that is so often promoted on television. I love the extreme contrast between beauty and horror in the place I sometimes refer to as the biggest meat-processing factory in the world. I am, therefore, not bothered about being thrown in at the deep end on my first day at Tuli: cutting up the carcass of an impala to use as bait to attract a leopard for capture.
The second day is even more memorable: measuring the tusks and feet of a very dead elephant. The month before there was a wildlife program on the way a similar carcass was recycled by the local wildlife. Without the benefit of “smellevision,” however, it is a very different experience. You can taste it 400 metres away. Yet within half an hour we are on the top of Leopard Kopje breathing in fresh air unpolluted by so-called civilization. The panoramic view is stunning — nothing but bush and rocky hills as far as the eye can see. Not a building in sight.
At Tuli, you can forget the nine-to-five of the world of work. You can find yourself at any time of the day or night out on patrol recording game, or even playing a recording. One of my first-night drives involves playing a recording of predators to draw in predators. Sitting in the darkness with the roar of lions, the insane cackle of hyenas and the hysterical braying of zebras being broadcast at full volume is truly memorable. This vision of Hell fails to attract a single predator, not even a jackal. But that is the attraction of the African bush: it’s not a zoo; nothing is guaranteed.
A day or two later we finish a game drive down by the Limpopo, where the river is shallow, flowing over huge boulders. One of the volunteers suggests there aren’t any crocodiles there as the river is too shallow, failing to notice a deeper pool to our left. Suddenly a large rock is pushed violently aside as something very large swims away without ever showing itself. With the constant emphasis on safety, no one is in any danger.
Our walks to the top of Eagle Rock were sufficient to make my stay at Tuli worthwhile. This overhanging cliff by the Motloutse River is reached by way of a hidden valley — a place of magic and mystery, a favoured haunt of graceful kudu, and once occupied by stone-age Bushmen. As we are near the end of the wet season, the river changes rapidly from a sandy ribbon to a raging torrent and then back to a dry bed. The rock is well named — huge black Verreaux’s Eagles nest up there and can be seen circling overhead. Apart from the stunning view up there, the cooling breeze is very welcome. From up there the mopane scrub looks quite open, but at ground level, it seems much denser.
Mopane trees have beautiful leaves like butterfly wings and tend to be cropped by elephants to a convenient height so the scrub looks almost like a manmade plantation. Game is hard to spot in the scrub, so after passing the first few thousand trees, you can start to weary of their charm. Just as you despair of finding any game to record, you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a herd of elephants. Despite Tuli elephants’ reputation for being skittish around people, these animals prove to be very relaxed, as on many occasions. An immature bull sidles up to us, closer and closer, as if he wants to play.
The birds of prey prove to be less easy to record. Not that they are shy; they just won’t keep still for long enough for us to log. We record all raptors as they drift across the reserve if we can identify them in time. A typical scenario goes something like this: “Oh, look, it’s a goshawky sort of thing. Is it an Ovambo Sparrowhawk or a Shikra? Oh bum — it’s gone!” For a lifelong bird enthusiast from Britain, it's a strange experience to be so spoilt for choice. To see hawks, eagles, buzzards and vultures in one day in one place is pretty remarkable. You find yourself saying, "What’s that? Oh, another Lanner Falcon.” Eat your heart out twitchers of Britain!
It’s Sunday morning and I’m trying to bake bread in a cast-iron pot on the campfire. It’s quite a challenge without my proper oven. I find myself with an audience: a huge Rock Monitor Lizard has scuttled halfway down his tree to check me out. I return the compliment by taking photos of him until he gets bored and wanders off.
It’s great to see everyone trying hard to acquire new skills. From outdoor enthusiasts to “lounge lizards” — they all try to pass the tracker test so that they’re allowed to sit on the “Tracker Seat” in front of the Land Rover’s bonnet. It’s strange how much pressure we all feel learning to identify the tracks and prints. I’ve been interested in Africa for 60 years, so you can imagine how embarrassed I would be if I failed the test.
From the tracker seat, you have the first view of animal prints on the trail. Our particular interest is big-cat prints. We have accurate measurements for most of the leopards’ footprints. We spend weeks trying to trap Leopard B (nicknamed Basil) so that the big-cat researcher can put a radio collar on him. He eludes our best efforts. He even rubs salt in the wound by giving his territorial call 50 metres away while we’re checking the trap one night. It sounds like someone saw a large log. Very impressive in the dark.
A stay at Tuli is not a safari — animals don’t usually line up to be photographed. We have to work hard for our sightings of predators. A night drive that started uneventfully suddenly comes alive when we spot a male leopard with a massive head and neck. Our efforts are rewarded with a very close view of him for several minutes before he wanders off. His footprints turn out to be smaller than Basil’s and much smaller than those of Leopard A (who patrols down by the Limpopo). Within an hour we are treated to a close view of two spotted hyenas trying to sneak up on some ostriches. Nearby a brown hyena keeps us under surveillance, looking for all the world like a dog in a shaggy cape.
It’s a real wilderness experience at Mohave Camp. There are no fences — animals wander through at night. This is a great thrill, unless you want to go out for a wee and a flatulent elephant is outside your door and finding the foliage in camp irresistible. By the way, don’t forget to check the batteries in your head torch! One night I upset a pair of lionesses who were wandering through. I fail to spot them, but I guess correctly that the warning growl means: “Keep your distance!”
Being so close to nature is not for everyone, but most of us will miss Tuli very much. The volunteer with whom I share a hut leaves Tuli to go to a game capture project in South Africa. A week later he’s back. He misses the freedom and isolation of Tuli. Not to mention the enthusiasm and idealism of Stuart, who runs the reserve. His passion for conservation — and his manic laugh — will be impossible to forget.
I must stop now, otherwise, I will ramble on forever. My wife limits me to 20 minutes of talking about Africa.