Chasing the Giants of Botswana’s Mashatu & Savute
A Private Photo Safari with Penny Robartes
It started with a message on my Instagram account. A message filled with curiosity, hope, and a lot of commitment and excitement. My soon-to-be guest is an Elephant lover and had a desire to visit Botswana to witness and photograph the gentle giants that are found in this country. Having never been to Bostwana before, nor any other African wildlife destination besides some areas in Kenya, this was a thrilling journey about to unfold for them.
A wildlife photo tour that was to commence in a few month’s time was suddenly upon us as I boarded my flight to Johannesburg where my guest and I would meet prior to departing for our Botswana Private Photo Tour! This 8-day photographic exploration was going to take us to two iconic Botswana wildlife areas with the main photographic target being the African Elephant.
Destination 1: Mashatu Game Reserve
In a land where large herds of Elephants roam free, where ancient and mighty Baobab trees pierce the sky and Leopards are not as elusive as their nature describes, our Botswana Photo Safari to Mashatu Game Reserve began on a high and was nothing like anything my guest had previously experienced in Africa.
The landscape was dry and scorched from the lack of rain that was meant to have fallen earlier in the year. Our first afternoon game drive gave us a good indication of the topography of Mashatu as well as how beautifully varied it is. From red, hard sand to volcanic rocks, white sand and pebbles, savannah grassland to woodland areas and Mopane trees stretching out far and wide, it is a beautiful area waiting for the traveller to explore its treasures.
With our main photographic aim being the Elephant herds, we headed out into the wilds with the hopes of finding these gentle, sentient creatures. Whilst en route to an area our guide was sure we’d have luck, our spotter spotted some spots in the distance! Low and behold, there was a female Cheetah with her 4 cubs, busy eating a Steenbok!
Having never seen a Cheetah at such a close distance, let alone a female with cubs, my guest was in awe at the incredible spectacle before us! After spending some time with these cats, we moved on to find some Elephants before we lost the last remaining light.
And we were further rewarded.
A small family was making their way to the marsh where they would spend the rest of the evening and night eating the soft grass. Positioning our vehicle a good distance in front of the Elephants on an Elephant path which they were on, we waited for their arrival. This not only gave us time to prepare for the photographic opportunities ahead of us, but allowed the herd to see us and calmly walk right by us without them feeling threatened or nervous by our proximity to them.
After capturing some beautiful images, my guest turned to me and smiled. It was a beautiful Elephant experience; calm, tranquil, intimate and close. It resonated deeply with us all.
Mashatu is very well-known for its underground photographic hide which is one of the many reasons we chose this destination. The proximity to the wildlife is inspiring, and it attracts wildlife of different sizes and species. We were welcomed shortly upon setting up our camera equipment to a Black-backed Jackal that quickly had a drink before darting off. And then the Elands came along with massive numbers of entertaining Helmeted Guinea Fowl up to various antics. The stars of the show were most certainly our mighty beasts that rushed in to quench their thirst, offering close-ups difficult to imagine, but a joy to photograph!
We spent two consecutive morning’s at the hide and had very different experiences at both. As this was my guest’s first time on a photo tour and learning her new camera as well as getting off Auto, these sessions provided us the perfect opportunity to look at different angles, composition, technical adjustments, becoming familiar with her camera, and most importantly; finding her own photographic voice and being able to start creating her images.
Our afternoon found us exploring the lay of the land through game drives, which is a definite must and not-to-be-missed activity! Here we saw Leopards, a Brown Hyena and cub, Pearl Spotted Owlet, Lion, Elephant herds in their environment…you get the picture.
Mashatu’s access to varied habitats and diverse wildlife viewing opportunities within this biodiverse region guarantees a superb photo safari experience, and we most certainly received that.
After an exciting morning game drive consisting of a Leopard and some colourful birdlife, we caught our flight to Maun and onto our flight to the final leg of our safari.
Destination 2: Savute
A land of golden grassy plains, small pans and vast broad-leaved woodlands with a few characteristic low hills. Savute is a visual delight of soft, complementary colours and a paradise that teams with wildlife. It is a wild and remote corner of Chobe National Park that is famed for its large Elephant herds that offer plenty of interesting photo opportunities at waterholes, the large Marsh Lion pride and the vast Savute Marsh.
Our welcome to Savute consisted of a herd of Elephant drinking, bathing and having a great time at a water pan not too far from camp. In front of our lodge, the Elephant festivities continued as it has a waterhole which see’s these large Elephant herds racing to the quench their thirst and bathe.
Like many regions in Botswana, Savute did not get the generous rains earlier in the year that the Earth and wildlife rely on, leaving the landscape much drier than it is meant to be at this time. Where Mashatu was pretty stark with little to no grass, Savute was the opposite. It was most certainly dry, but the long dry grass and plants became a gold field that softened the landscape. The Apple Leaf tree’s yellow leaves created a soft golden haze to its light bark, or a liquid golden stain at the tree’s base if its leaves had fallen. The sand here has a blue/purple tinge that is very noticeable in the mornings and evenings, and all these colours complement each other to no end. Leading ORYX’s scheduled Savute & Khwai photo tours has given me a lot of love for this destination and it simply did not fail to impress us this time either.
Whilst our photographic goal, like at Mashatu, was to photographically explore the Elephants here, we did find it difficult to locate them when they were not at the water pans. With the early onset of a dry winter, the Elephant have been travelling further around in order to find food, making the only way to track and see them is by waiting at the water pans or following tracks on the roads as much as possible. We did come across a breeding herd that were eating in a Mopane thicket, leading to interesting and intimate captures as we sought to tell the story of these hidden giants.
There is always a lot to be learnt and experienced on my photo tours, but a private tour is personalized, more intense and focused. This tour was constructed to offer a variety of Elephant sightings and experiences. Ensuring that we did not ignore the rest of the interesting wildlife found in both Mashatu and Savute and the multiple learning opportunities each and every sighting produced, we explored and discovered in the comfort of our private vehicle and the knowledge that everything is crafted to my guest’s needs where possible. Our daily editing sessions continued the learnings of the day (and previous) and further honed in on discussions and reviews on composition, technical skills, and preparing for the photographic activity.
It was intense. It was exhilarating. It was truly fun and filled with many memories, experiences and shared laughs.
If you are looking to capture a specific photography portfolio, if you have certain photographic needs, or if you are just looking for one-on-one tuition and assistance, I am here to be a part of this exhilarating journey with you!
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Stay passionate and explore the world!