(But first, 20 hours in Botswana!)
Limpopo. I have loved the word since reading Kipling's Just So Stories as a boy. The Elephant's Child, "full of 'satiable curiosity", wants to know what the Crocodile has for dinner, and is sent by the Kolokolo bird for an answer to this question to "the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River". At the time, "the Elephant had no trunk". You can probably guess what happens next - Crocodile tries to do what crocodiles do, and he returns home with a long trunk.
The province of Limpopo, South Africa's northernmost, is named after the river which encircles its northern half, providing a border with, from west to east, Botswana, Zimbabwe and, just, Mozambique. It is wild, beautiful and incredibly diverse, with a rich archaeological record and living, thriving cultures. I worked on a nature reserve in the Waterberg in the 90s when the province was still Northern Transvaal and its diversity less celebrated, and have always wanted to come back. Finally, I am here. My trip will take me in a clockwise loop, starting and ending in Johannesburg. Ideally, it would be a two-week family holiday, but I only have one, having booked flights for the only gap I had. But I will be back with the family because, really, it was a wonderful, life-affirming trip.
First, I drive northwest to Tuli, just across the Limpopo in Botswana, a collection of privately-owned land which together makes up a roughly 72,000ha game reserve. I have included it on this trip as is far more accessible from South Africa than from anywhere in Botswana. It is a remarkably smooth journey. I reach the Pont Drift border post border at lunchtime, having had breakfast on a plane into Johannesburg. As I approach the border, I think of Kipling's Elephant Child as a bird crosses the road in front of me. It is a red-crested Korhaan rather than a Kolokolo bird, which Kipling invented, but I take it as a positive - my curiosity is about to be rewarded.
My hosts for the first night, Tuli Safari Lodge, are happy to pick me up on the South African side of the river, but want to drive myself to the camp, across the sandy river bed. Crossing the border is very smooth and quick. I take photos of the cable-car which operates when the river is in full flow, hard to imagine in July. Away from the green edges of the river, the landscape is dusty in this dry season and I follow the lodge car along the sandy main road past acacias, which become more stunted away from the river. I see giraffes in the distance, impala, a steenbok, roaming gangs of helmeted guinea fowl, and scattered elephant dung by the road. After 10 minutes I take a sharp left towards the riverside camp.
A family of elephants is grazing near the gate, supremely relaxed. Depending on the season, there are 400 to 2000 in the wider Limpopo valley, the largest population on private land in Africa, and the long-term plan for the area is to create a wildlife corridor all the way along the Limpopo to the Kruger ecosystem. It has been suggested that some bull elephants still move up and down the river past Kruger, and indeed up along the Shashe river, the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana.
Elephants are definitely moving in increasing numbers between here and Mapungubwe National Park across the river in South Africa, restoring a wider, more natural range for elephants, and it would be great to think that it could get bigger. Although there is intensive farming in places along the river, with water drawn for anything from Macadamia nuts to Lucerne grass, these borderlands remain wild, and are becoming wilder still with co-ordinated conservation efforts and increased tourist numbers. There is abundant game in Limpopo province, and although a lot of it has been raised to be hunted by idiots with crossbows and assorted guns, there is an increasing trend towards photographic and wilderness, walking safaris. Well-done, as I think it is here, it goes hand in hand with rural uplift, economically, and this is why I am here.
I move on eventually to the lodge, a beautiful collection of buildings and - very - posh tents set around a lush, shaded lawn running across to benches overlooking the river, with the main camp buildings built up on decks around huge Nyala-berry trees, and a pool at the foot one of the striking red sandstone boulders which dot this landscape. Semi-tame bushbuck roam the relative safety of the lawn, and vervet monkeys observe me from a safe distance. It is a fenced camp, and safe to roam during the day, though leopards do still wander through after dark. In daylight, Children will love exploring its various corners, from the star deck to the nature trail. The large pool will be quite enticing in summertime too, but it is a little cold today.
But that is only the air temperature. The welcome, from Cecilia and manageress Eloïse, is very warm, and after settling in and grabbing a savoury muffin, I am sat with two Dutch visitors and our guide, Thato, for the afternoon game drive which starts with some of the smaller highlights of the reserve near the lodge. We all want a 'feel' for the landscape, rather than the Big Five (in any case, there are no buffalo or rhino in the reserve, so only three are possible). It immediately becomes clear that Thato knows his environment intimately, having been here over a year and worked across this wildest of countries for over a decade. He points out a brown hooded kingfisher, and then two indicators of compass points (in case you're ever lost!): a wide-browed sparrow weaver nest, always built on the western side of a tree, to shelter from harsh easterlies, and a termite mound, always aligned from east to west, and leaning to the west, as they dry and harden in the morning sun and termite activity continues in the western, shaded side, which remains moist. Pregnant women crave this soil, apparently, possibly for the protein in termite eggs. We move on to watch a pair of pied kingfishers as they dive into a water hole near the lodge (there is a hide here for birders), a heron stalking across it, and two small resident crocodiles. As we drive up away from the river into the acacias veld, we find another elephant family near a large baobab.
A mournful old bull with broken tusks stands apart a little, studying us carefully as we watch the group and its various techniques for stripping the spines from acacia branches. Some use their trunks, others lay them on the ground, hold the branch with one heel and pull back along the branch with the other. Moving further up the hill along a dry river bed into Mopane woodland, across an undulating landscape we spot herds of blue wildebeest, skittish eland, countless groups of impala, a magnificent male ostrich, and interrupt a pair of black-backed jackals trying to nap before a busy evening.
We stop on a hillock for sundowners, that most relaxing of game drive rituals - a drink in the evening light. Thato folds down a table from the grill of the landcruiser, spreads a small cloth across it. We murmur contentedly as giraffe necks rise above the bush in the middle distance, catching the last of the evening sun and keeping an eye on us. It is magical, this light, and suddenly it is gone, and we are crossing the landscape with a spotlight, looking for eyes. We find the jackals again, busier now, and see many more large herbivores, as well as groups of impala out in the open, forming defensive circles against the night. There more are curiosities such as scrub hares and genets, but no more predators.
In the evening, I meet a couple who saw every kind of predator at Tuli the day before, but I am not jealous. It is the rich, varied environment I am drawn to, from riverine bush to the sandstone outcrops (kopjes) we will explore tomorrow. In the meantime, dinner and a show - with the Tuli choir performing a joyful, proud after-dinner medley. They have even recorded two CDs, which I will buy from the shop in the morning. Dinner tonight is on the deck and there is a convivial conversation and a fire (it is often in the camp's boma, around a bigger fire). But I realise I have slept one hour in the past 40, and I retire to bed.
It is only me with Thato the next morning, a rare treat. We leave at 630 after a bowl of porridge and a muffin, in search of more 'peculiarities' of the reserve, moving along the river past a pair of half-finished thatch houses in idyllic locations on the river, an ongoing project for the lodge and a passing fantasy for me. The birdlife "is much richer in summer," says Thato, but we are not doing badly. We pass hornbills everywhere, a solitary crested barbet, and plenty of lilac-breasted rollers, beautiful birds it is hard to get blasé about, before spotting a nesting pair of Verreaux's Eagles, in a stunted fig tree high on a basalt outcrop. "There used to be dassies all over these rocks", Thato says, "but they are more shy nowadays."
"What do the Eagles eat?" I ask Thato, before realising he has answered my question already.
We move up into the cracked red sandstone landscape, watching the ebb and flow of a gang of dozens of helmeted guinea-fowl across the rocks as we approach. Guides can drive freely in the reserve, though they do so responsibly, and it is great to be off-road but causing no damage - our tracks leave no mark on the rocks. Here and there, fig trees have sunk their roots into fissures in the rock, and their stunted growth speaks of an obstinate clinging-on through winter.
Deposits of soil in dried out cracks suggest more bountiful summers. "This can be a cascade in summer," says Thato. Such is the seasonal change in this part of the world. In January 2013, for instance, much of Tuli lodge itself was washed away as the rains came, in some of the worst floods the area has ever seen. But it is back, and running very smoothly and confidently, even exuberantly.
Also on these rocks we spot plenty of impala, as well as herds of wildebeest and eland, the latter skittish, seemingly keen to keep to a distance of no less than 100 metres at all times despite excellent camouflage, although we do manage a few moments closer to them as we surprise them around bends. Climbing a little further, away from the bare red rocks, we spot several groups of giraffe, their heads above the stunted acacia. As we drive, Thato sees one off on its own, unusually, in a mopane thicket. His curiosity aroused - "has she had a baby?" - we head towards it. One slow, circular approach later, we are rewarded with one of the loveliest sights in the bush, a baby giraffe, less than a day old, walking alongside its mother.
"It's so FLUFFY!" I want to shout. But I don't, because I am a 43 year-old man, and the peace of the bush around us does not need this. But Thato and I are both smiling. It is gorgeous. We sit and watch for a while, enraptured. As the mother and baby head into thicker bush, we drive back to camp, past more herds of eland, wildebeest, impala and giraffe, and another of the many elephant family groups of Tuli. No predators, but a great morning.
Back at the lodge, a delicious, extensive brunch awaits. The routine here is similar to most bush lodges - four meals a day, but no 'lunch'. Instead, a brief early breakfast is followed by a game drive, brunch at around 11am, a high tea of savoury and sweet treats at around 330pm before a game drive, and a full dinner from around 730pm. For longer outings, for instance an all-day trip to the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo opposite Mapungubwe, the routine changes a little, but you will not go hungry!
A moment of recollection later, on the bench overlooking the river, and it is time to leave. 20 hours in Tuli is not nearly enough time, but it is better than none, and I will be back.
Each season at Tuli brings its own delights.
In winter it is warm enough in the day and cold at night, with the bush increasingly dry from May onwards and predator sightings certain as game congregates at water holes and by the river. 4 nights for the price of 3 is the deal this July/August (2018), and will possibly be repeated in future.
In summer it is baking hot in the day, and warm at night, the river flows, birds abound, and the ground can be carpeted in wild flowers. It can look like Eden but occasionally also rains, a lot. 3 nights for the price of 2 is the Dec/Jan/Feb deal, excluding Christmas and New Year.
Tuli is 5 hours' drive from Johannesburg airport, along largely uncrowded highways (unless you hit the Gauteng rush hour in the morning, which slows things down only a little). The airport is on a junction of the motorway - I was out of the airport and cruising on the highway within a minute of exiting the underground car park, itself right next to arrivals. I booked with Budget/Avis, and they were great, offering me a free upgrade (NB I can't guarantee this will happen to you!). It is an easy, scenic drive at first, with a flatter second half.
I used Google Maps on my phone throughout the trip, with a £5 a day all-inclusive data roaming charge from O2. Coverage was excellent. Check with your operator before you travel, however, as this may not apply to you. South African signposts are quite reliable, however, if you'd rather use a map. Polokwane, about halfway, is the only place you could take a wrong turning, but even then it's relatively straightforward.
If you don't fancy driving, Tuli offer fly-in packages to a nearby airstrip, which obviously add to the expense: $2310pp for four nights with flights is the latest fly-in price, but discounts may be available in certain seasons.
I would strongly advise combining Tuli with the many attractions of Limpopo Province itself: the wild and beautiful Makuleke area of Northern Kruger, the rich cultural mix of Venda and the mountain trails of the Soutspansberg, to name but a few. Well, the few that I visited this time. 10 days-2 weeks would make an amazing holiday, especially for a family. See Parts 2 and 3 of 'A week in Limpopo' for more details.
Mapungubwe National Park in South Africa, which I would thoroughly recommend for its history, archaeology, wildlife (rhinos!) and landscapes, is opposite Tuli. The confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo river, where Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa meet, can be visited in a morning trip from Tuli Lodge, but for longer stays, a good, welcoming alternative next to the park itself is Mopane Bush Lodge.
Other activities at Tuli (or things I was sorry I didn't have the time to do):
Tuli is also great walking country, with beautiful vistas and many 'small highlights' (my favourite is the elephant shrew), though obviously this is done with a guide. You can do the walk around the lodge perimeter on your own, however, which is as far as I got, but I did see bushbuck and vervet monkeys.
A visit to the nearby village of Mothlabaneng gives an idea of the wider human context of Tuli - employment at the lodge, as well as some of its outreach work, supports large numbers of people. Lala-palm wine tasting sounds good too.
Hides: sitting still and waiting for game and birds to come to you is surprisingly thrilling. There are several around the reserve.
Night drives with spotlights: you do a bit of this at the end of afternoon game drives, but you can also head out with a guide after dinner to see some of the nocturnal species in action.
Finally, if you really want to try something different, you can cycle around Tuli on mountain bikes during the winter. I am looking at this for a future trip and will write it up.