Land of Dust and Giants: The Northern Tuli Game Reserve

Leon Marais is a nature photographer and journalist who covers the wild and wonderful landscapes of southern Africa. He also serves as a guide in partnership with Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris.

Botswana is well known for the Okavango, Chobe and Kalahari, which represent some of Africa’s finest wildlife regions. Remote and unspoiled (well, in the case of the Okavango and the Kalahari anyway), these destinations need very little in the way of introduction for the seasoned Africa enthusiast. Less well known, however, is the Northern Tuli Game Reserve in the south-eastern corner of the country.

Sandstone and Baobab

The 72 000 hectare (178 000 acre) reserve may be small when compared to the Central Kalahari, but it comes with the wild and rugged ambiance that’s at the heart of the Botswana experience. It also forms part of the greater Mapungubwe World Heritage Site, which includes South Africa’s Mapungubwe National Park on the other side of the Limpopo River, and which celebrates both the biological and anthropological riches of the area. Tuli, which means ‘dust’ in Setswana, is synonymous with Martian-like sandstone formations, ancient Baobabs and gnarled Shepard’s Trees, fantastic skyscapes and unbelievable quality of light. The game viewing can be superb, and indeed Mashatu Game Reserve in the north-east shares a spot with the Sabi Sand Game Reserve of South Africa and South Luangwa in Zambia as an excellent big cat venue.

Leopard in tree

Tuli Game Reserve has an arid environment, particularly during the dry winter and early spring period. The Limpopo River on the southern boundary (and the border with South Africa) provides year round access to surface water for the wildlife, as do a few permanent springs scattered throughout the reserve. Along the Limpopo River the area is characterised by fantastic Sandstone formations (including some fossilised termite mounts) and groves of large trees which find a relatively rich growing environment on the alluvial soils. Further away from the river the environment becomes harsher, and is characterised by dry riverbeds and open gravel plains.

Sunset over Tuli

The wildlife to be seen includes predators such as Lion, Leopard, Cheetah, Spotted and Brown Hyenas, Black-backed Jackal, African Wild Cat, Bat-eared Fox and others, while the reserve is home to general game such as the magnificent Eland (Africa’s largest antelope), Kudu, Impala, Plains Zebra and Southern Giraffe. Other interesting species to be seen include Aardvark, Aardwolf, Cape Porcupine, Rock Hyrax, Spring Hare, Honeybadger and others.


Birdlife is also good, and some of the more notable species to look out for include Kori Bustard, Common Ostrich, Verreaux’s Eagle, Martial Eagle, Dickinson’s Kestrel, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, Pel’s Fishing-Owl (rare), Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Southern Carmine Bee-eater (summer only), Pied Babbler, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Senegal Coucal, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Southern Ground Hornbill, Pennantwinged Nightjar, Burchell’s and Namaqua Sandgrouses, Crimson-breasted Shrike and Tropical Boubou, among others. As with the rest of Southern Africa, birding is best in the summer, from November to April.

Crimson-breasted Shrike by Derek Keats

While the fauna is of course the main attraction, the flora, landscapes and pure ruggedness of the place are equally enthralling. On the flora side the giant Mashatu Trees are remarkable, providing food, shade and refuge for many of the area’s animals, as are the ancient Baobab and Leadwood Trees. I have a special fondness for the gnarled Shepard’s Trees, which seem to favour the most inhospitable reaches of the reserve, and the Stink Shepard’s Trees (name notwithstanding!), the bigger specimens of which look like 200-year old Bonsai. And then there’s the Wild Sage which grows in sandy areas and which gives the heated air of mid-day a wonderfully aromatic scent.

Cheetahs and Shepherd's Tree

On the landscape side the orange sandstone towers and domes close to the Limpopo River are fantastic (and make for great landscape compositions), especially in the orange glow of the setting sun at the end of another tough day in Africa. Tuli has great potential as a landscape photography destination.

Solomon's Wall

Crimson-breasted Shrike courtesy of Derek Keats. All other photos by Leon Marais


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