Northern Tuli Game Reserve

The Tuli block

For many years I have wondered how the Tuli block came to being. How could such a perfect semi-circle be added to the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana? Why not just follow the Shashe River all the way?

The Tuli block (tip of the pencil) at the south-west corner of Zimbabwe.

Apart from seeing it in the map, we had driven through the Tuli block a few years back when travelling to South Africa. So, we decided to go and explore it. With little knowledge about the area on the Zimbabwe side, apart from comments that it was a hunting block, we decided to return to visit the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NTGR) in the eastern part of Botswana.

Briefly, based on the history of the block from http://www.notugre.com, the first European explorers and missionaries arrived early in the 16th century and the area was used for hunting, trading and mission work among the peoples then living here. In 1890 Cecil John Rhodes commanded the “Pioneer Column” to annex Matabeleland and Mashonaland for the British Crown and established Fort Tuli (in Zimbabwe). At the same time, the Bangwato and Matabele tribes of the area were involved in a power struggle for the land until Chief Khama of the Bangwato tribe won control in 1895.

It was Chief Khama that, with other Chiefs went to England, saw the Queen, and stopped Rhodes ambitions. An agreement was reached that only the Tuli Block be given to the British South Africa company for their use to build the rail link and that later it would be divided into farms to protect the Bangwato and Botswana from the expansion of the Boers from the Northern Transvaal.

Much more recently, in the late 50´s and early 60´s, probably realizing that the area did not have much potential for livestock (my comment), ranchers in the area decided to literally “block” their lands into a large area for wildlife conservation and tourism. Today, 36 properties form the NTGR with an area of over 70 thousand hectares.

Clearly, the NTGR is much less known that the classic Botswana wildlife areas we had visited earlier such as the Makgadigadi and Nxai pans, Chobe National Park, Moremi Game Reserve and the Kalahari reserves, to name the main tourist areas. However, our aim was to see how the Tuli block was.

We usually are independent travellers but this time -strangely- we arranged the trip through a travel agency. Our search for accommodation quickly ruled out the well-known lodges such as Mashatu and Tuli for economic reasons but we found a much more reasonable place called Serolo Safari Camp located in the NTGR where we booked self-catering accommodation (see: https://tulitrails.com/?page_id=38).

So, with the NTGR as our first destination, we put into practice one of the advantages we saw when we bought a house in Zimbabwe: to be able to travel to several neighbouring countries. We headed South-east, first to Bulawayo for the night and the following morning drove the 100 km to the border at Plumtree and then to Francistown, just a further 90 km into Botswana.

We were happy to see that very few people intended to cross the border that day and we made plans for an early arrival in Francistown that would allow us more time for shopping. Things did not work out as planned… However, before I give you more details, let me explain that, this time, I travelled with two passports: the old one that would expire while we were in Botswana and a new one that I obtained a few days earlier, aware that this would happen.

Our visa for Zimbabwe was expiring the very day we crossed, and it was in my old passport. I was not concerned as I expected that the immigration would have looked at my visa in the old passport and place my exit stamp in the new one. It was not to be! The officer, insisting that the old passport was still valid, placed the exit stamp in it and, immediately I knew we were in trouble!

My fears were confirmed when we arrived at the Botswana side of the border, sited after about 2 km of “no man’s land”. A kind immigration officer explained to us that the Zimbabwe immigration should have stamped my new passport! So we were sent back! We were about to know something I had always wondered: how do you go back half-way through a border crossing! Well, the answer is with difficulty!

We turned around and, of course drove against the flow of traffic all the way back trying to be extremely friendly and greeting people and saying “sorry” every time we faced a car coming head-on towards us, not expecting to find a car going the other way. Eventually we arrived back at Zimbabwe, did a completely illegal manoeuvre to get the car pointing towards Botswana again and, trying to appear as calm as possible, we entered the building, again.

We explained the situation to the immigration officer that was still reluctant to stamp my new passport until a higher authority gave its clearance. Clearly the answer was positive so, after quite a wait, my new passport was stamped, and we managed to complete our crossing without further difficulties.

We arrived at Francistown later than expected, and rushed to buy the essential stuff for our self-catering stay at Serolo Safari Camp as well as getting new Botswana SIM cards, an essential item these days! Despite being a Sunday, we managed and, after a restful Sunday night at Francistown and a good breakfast on Monday, we headed for the NTGR, located at about 290 km to the South-east. We drove up to Serule and we turned for Bobolong and later Mathathane. Soon after the asphalt ended, and we headed in the direction of Platjan, the border post with South Africa, and turned into our camp following the signposts.

The area was very dry but, unlike other areas of Botswana, it was quite hilly and rocky although some greenery in the distance revealed the passing of the Limpopo River, not that far off. We both thought that it would be difficult to spot game in this terrain, but we decided to wait and see and continued until we got to the camp a handful of km farther on.

It was very hot but the camp had some magnificent large trees that provided with good shade, particularly around the central part known as the lapa [1]. There were five not so shaded tents overlooking a ravine where we were told game passed and one concrete hut at the back, not so nice as it overlooked the tents’ car park! Our hearts sunk when we were told that this was the accommodation for self-caterers. We looked at each other and knew that we would not stay there. It was a change or looking for another place to stay!

We presented our concern to the manageress and, after a few phone calls a solution was found. Another couple would be moved from a tent to the self-catering unit with the lure of the latter having air conditioning and we could have their tent, provided we paid the difference between self-catering and full board that, luckily, was not very high. We accepted.

Our tent.

I would call Serolo a no-frills lodge that could host a maximum of ten people on full board and two more on self-catering so it was never crowded. Staff were extremely kind and attentive and we enjoyed the cooking of Kennedy, the Chef, that managed to produce some truly good food in the bush.

We were not allowed to go on game drives in our car, but the accommodation included two game drives per day. To our horror, we needed to be at the lapa by 05:30 hours for the morning drive. Luckily, the afternoon one started at the very civilized time of 16:00 hours, after having enjoyed a “high tea”.

We are not used to be driven as part of a tourist group, so we needed to adjust to the new methodology. We did this with some degree of difficulty as clearly the aim of the drive was to find big cats, particularly leopards. Elephants were watched from a distance and birds were almost ignored. Luckily the intense heat made driving on an open car very bearable.

By the second game drive it became apparent that the area was more restricted than we expected, and we just repeated our route day after day. Part of the drive touched the Limpopo River with its beautiful riverine forest. There we saw abundance of impala and greater kudu grazing under some truly large trees. Ficus and Acacia species were the outstanding ones and we contemplated them in awe while enjoying their dense shade during the heat of the day. As it was the dry season, the river was not flowing (at least on the surface), but we saw still some large pools and probably abundant water under the sand.

The rest of the driving was done through dry, often bare earth areas with patches of Mopani trees (severely damaged by the elephants). Several rocky formations were clearly ideal places to find leopards but, unfortunately, we had to be satisfied with klipspringers. Our drivers tried hard to find cats and they often drove through rough roads that involved a lot of low gear efforts by the aged Land Rover Defenders used by the camp.

A curious female greater kudu.

It was in the hilly area that we spotted five lion cubs, the offspring of two resident lionesses that were sired by one male lion. Later, we found one of the females resting by an old eland kill, showing signs of being very hot. Mabel caught a glimpse of the second lioness but the rest of us did not see it. During a later drive, we found the male lion resting and surrounded by the other members of the family. Probably the whole group was together, but we could not see them in great detail as they were far and hidden by both rocks and bushes on the other side of a gorge where we could not get to.

A young lion watching us from the rocks where they stayed.
A hot and sleepy lioness.

During the second day of game driving, we found an injured male impala. One of its hindlegs was in an unnatural position and it was unable to stand up. Interestingly, a black-backed jackal was lying down a couple of metres away. We agreed that the impala’s future appeared grim as it would have been an easy prey for a leopard or hyena, and we thought that the jackal was waiting for a larger predator to arrive and benefit from the leftovers. After waiting for a while, we left the pair and made a note to return in the evening, but we run out of time, and we did not know what happened until the following day.

First thing the following morning we returned to the impala and found it dead and the jackal (we assumed it was the same we saw the previous day) was feeding on it. Although we cannot know how the events unfolded, judging by the injuries that impala showed, I believe that it was killed by the jackal during the night. Jackals are ruthless killers, often tackling prey much larger than themselves.

The black-backed jackal feeding on the impala.

We saw elephants at a distance and our drivers seemed to be very wary of them keeping a good distance, perhaps because of the cars being open. Oone night a few elephants visited the waterhole adjacent to the lapa and leopards walked past the camp a couple of times but, of course, we were out on a game drive when that took place!

Elephants watched from a distance.

Oh, I forgot about the Tuli block semicircle. Well, it was not easy to find out the reason but, eventually I did. It happened in 1891 when then Mashonaland districts were established and Tuli was given jurisdiction over a 16km radius of the village, a perfect disruption to what otherwise would have been another river border between two countries!

[1] A lapa is usually an open structure that generally consists of a thatched roof sitting on wooden poles. These are usually used as entertainment areas in southern Africa.