In the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, covering 72 000ha in south-eastern Botswana, expert field guides teach bush lovers more about the region’s incredible flora and fauna. At the same time, you might unlearn a few things, writes Scott Ramsay.
We were dwarfed by a baobab tree in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. I stretched out my arms against the trunk, and then walked slowly around it. My rudimentary measurement put the circumference at about 20m.
“This one is just a baby,” said my guide and instructor, Okwa Sarefo. Age and size, it turns out, are decidely relative in the African bush.
“That tree is probably only 1000 years old,” said Okwa. Hold on, I thought, only 1000 years old?
“Baobab trees are the oldest living things in Africa,” Okwa told us. “Some really big ones, with circumferences of 40m, could be more than 4000 years old.”
Okwa is based at EcoTraining’s camp in Mashatu Game Reserve, a 30 000ha property within the Northern Tuli reserve.
Golden sandstone koppies stand above mopane woodland and grassland. Intersecting rivers are fringed by the deep shade of nyala trees (Xanthocercis zambesiaca). Africa’s wild animals wander freely across the ancient plains, largely untouched by modern man.
The EcoTraining camp on the banks of the Matloutse River offers a variety of hands-on nature training courses. I’d joined up to what was essentially a crash course in zoology, botany, herpetology, ecology and wilderness philosophy, all rolled into one.
I’d come here to learn more about Africa’s natural heritage – things large and small, from dung beetles to baobabs. In the process, I inadvertently unlearned a few things that I had been taught in city classrooms.
Needless to say, after a few days, I’d been impressed – and sometimes overwhelmed – by Okwa’s knowledge. A member of the Bayei water-bushman tribe in the Okavango Delta, he has lived and worked in Botswana’s wilderness his whole life.
As a young boy he went to school, but his real education, he said, was the natural world of the Delta – hunting, fishing, wandering and admiring his wild neighbourhood.
He quickly learnt to read and write, and at 12 he started poling a mokoro through the myriad channels, dodging hippos and crocodiles, and developing an uncanny sense of direction. By 20 he was guiding tourists deep into the wildest areas.
Today, at 38, he’s a veteran of the bush, and knows almost everything (by his own admission, you can never know everything about Africa’s natural world).
But he does know every bird, every tree, every mammal, every reptile, and almost every insect… and he knows how they all fit together.
And he’s seen it all. Charged by elephant? Many times. Tossed out of a canoe by a hippo? A couple of times. Witnessed a leopard pulling an impala out of a python’s mouth? Once. Ever had to shoot an animal? Never.
Okwa hardly ever carries a rifle. His understanding of animals is innate, and his identity is tied to the land, the sky, the trees and the animals.
“I grew up in the bush, I live in the bush, and I will die in the bush. This is my home. I can’t be anywhere else. I tried working in an office for a few years. I hated it. I am happiest here among the wild animals.”
As we learned from Okwa, everything here is intricate and complex, from a simple blade of grass to a large bull elephant. And everything is connected to everything else.
“Tell me,” Okwa asked our group as we spotted some dung beetles rolling some elephant dung along the road, “what’s the role of these insects in the bushveld? Besides cleaning up the dung, of course.”
Dung beetles, it turns out, are important dispersal agents, collecting manure into a ball, laying their eggs inside, and rolling the ball into a hole in the ground where the larvae of the beetle can hatch. In the process, the seeds of grass and trees in the dung are also buried.
I had never considered that an ancient, regal baobab tree could have originated from the breeding habits of a poo-loving beetle 4000 years ago. But there you have it – they are connected in some way.
“Without a dung beetle, perhaps this baobab tree would never have grown here,” Okwa said. “But without water, without oxygen, without soil and without sunshine, nothing here would exist. Everything is related to everything else. Nothing survives without the help of other things. Even man.”
Ah, yes, even man. This was the big lesson. For sure, on the Ecotraining course you’ll learn how to identify the birds, grasses, reptiles, mammals and trees. I found it interesting how the ancient geology of the land combines with the weather patterns to determine which species thrive or die.
And I was amazed at how the cultural identity of Africa is rooted in the landscape; how the animals, trees, plants and rivers are intimately woven into the social tapestry of the people. But what struck me most was the lessons the African bushveld could teach people of the “modern” world.
Confronted with the complex splendour of the African bushveld, most foreigners – or those with “modern” educations – are flummoxed and inspired by the immensity of life on display. How do you explain it all?
Consider the numbers: there are thousands of plant species and thousands of animal species, all interacting with each other, each one finding its niche, co-operating with others, being eaten by something or eating something, or being born, growing or dying. The possible permutations of interaction are immense, and certainly beyond statistical modelling.
And here’s the thing: it all works! Year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia, Tuli’s natural ecosystem supports itself, and keeps sprouting new species, of which we are a relatively recent addition.
Everything is in balance, and everything is harmonious. And guess what? There isn’t a professor, scientist or industrialist for 300km in all directions.
It got me thinking about an American teacher named David Orr, who gave a remarkably insightful talk to a bunch of students way back in 1990, when the concept of global warming was relatively new. The gist of his talk was: how come, when there are so many seemingly “clever” people in the world, the Earth’s natural environment, on which we depend, is being polluted, damaged and in some cases destroyed?
It was a very good question. The modern world has the most advanced technology, the best scientific studies, the most data, the most knowledge, internet connectivity and the finest universities, but every day the natural world, on which we depend for our survival, is being increasingly destroyed.
We consider our modern society to be the apex of civilisation, as though we are on a linear path to an ever more successful future. Whatever is “modern” has wrongly been assumed to be “best”. But as is plainly obvious, we are in fact regressing, by destroying the very thing that has borne us and sustains us: the environment.
“The truth is that many things on which our future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy,” Orr said. “Climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity. This is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSCs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs.”
For example, in the 1930s the Germans were the best educated people on Earth, “but their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to the barbarity of the Holocaust. What was wrong with the German education? It emphasised theories instead of values, concepts rather than humanity, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience.
“The same could be said of the way our education has prepared us to think about the natural world. It is a matter of no small consequence that the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any length of time could not read, or do not make a fetish of reading.”
“My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom,” Orr wrote. “More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival…
“It is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind. For example, we routinely produce economists who lack the most rudimentary knowledge of ecology. This explains why our national accounting systems do not subtract the costs of biotic impoverishment, soil erosion, poisons in the air or water, and resource depletion from gross national product.”
As we walked back to our camp on the edge of the Matloutsie River, surrounded by a chorus of woodland kingfishers, I thought how it might do the world some good if all economists spent some time with a person like Okwa. Or if all politicians and businessmen could sit on top of a hill in Mashatu, simply admiring a breeding herd of elephants. Perhaps they would realise how there was more to “success” than money and industrial economic growth?
Perhaps they’d realise that although the modern world offers many benefits, not everything that is “modern” is necessarily “good”.
Maybe these well-meaning icons of business and politics would also realise how connected they are to nature – that they themselves are a product of billions of years of exquisite evolution, and they have a right to be here, on Earth. Of course, along with this realisation, logic dictates that all other species also have a right to be here, and that “modern” people are depriving other species of that right.
Confronted by the African bushveld, they may realise that despite man’s remarkable achievements, humans are not the only impressive life forces. That title also belongs to any number of other living things: the baobab tree, the elephant, the crack of lightning, the flooding river, the black mamba and the roaring lion.
And what about the humble dung beetle? In the process of doing all his dirty work, he happens to sow the seed of the mighty baobab tree.
Ecotraining has several training camps around southern Africa. The camp on the Matloutse River in Mashatu Game Reserve is in the south-west of the reserve, about 20km from Main Camp.
Ecotraining operates within one of the most scenic parts of Mashatu, with several sacred sandstone koppies in the vicinity of the camp.
Other Ecotraining camps are located in Pafuri in the beautiful Makuleke region of the northern Kruger National Park. Further south are two camps, at Selati Game Reserve and at Karongwe Game Reserve, both on the western edge of the Kruger Park. There are also Ecotraining camps in Kenya and Zimbabwe.
Contact – www.ecotraining.co.za, email [email protected] or tel 013-752-2532.
Mashatu Game Reserve is one of the more famous wildlife destinations in the region, with superb elephant, leopard and lion sightings (although there are no Cape buffalo). There is a variety of accommodation. The luxurious Mashatu Main Camp comprises 14 luxury chalets in mopane woodland, overlooking a small river and waterhole. A restaurant, bar and lounge ensure that no-one goes hungry or thirsty. Cost: R2600 per person sharing, including all meals and game drives.
About 45 minutes drive away from Main Camp is the Tented Camp, where eight large, comfortably equipped tents and a central dining boma allow visitors a more authentic bush experience. Cost: R1904 per person sharing, including all meals and game drives.
Mashatu’s photographic hides are popular. They include Elephant Hide – a metal container that has been sunk into the ground next to a waterhole. The robust hide can take four photographers.
Although elephants are the main photographic subject, the waterhole also attracts leopards, kudu, impala and baboons, and a variety of bird life. The best time of year is June to November, when elephants visit the waterhole every day.
Contact – www.mashatu.com, email [email protected] or call 031-761-3440.
Year in the Wild
Following on from his first Year in the Wild, photojournalist Scott Ramsay is travelling from July 2013 to October 2014 to some of the same parks (but in different seasons) as well as to many new parks and nature reserves in SA. He is also visiting the transfrontier parks in southern Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Again, his goal is to create awareness about protected areas, and to inspire others to travel to these natural wonders.
Partners include Cape Union Mart, Ford Everest, Goodyear and K-Way, with support from WildCard, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Globecomm, National Luna, Outdoor Photo, Safari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom. For more information, go to www.yearinthewild.com.