Touring Tuli

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Tuli special
This month’s destination is just across the border, in Botswana. Hannes Koekemoer finds some mountain-bike – and mental – peace and quiet.

Visiting the Tuli Game Reserve with a mountain bike is not your average bush experience. Here, you come to understand, under the gaze of eagle and elephant, why a mountain bike is shortened to MTB: multi-terrain bike.

Boy, was I glad I visited on a fatbike this time – not that a “normal” mountain bike would be a problem, the fatty is just purpose-built for soft, varying under-wheel conditions, which abound here. At Tuli, I enjoyed river crossings and rocky climbs like never before. The reserve is huge – 70 000ha – and you can cycle for days without repeating the same route.

Guided cycle safaris offer so much more than riding around in a vehicle. You’re not just looking at the animals from your bubble of safety – you hear them, smell them and (almost!) bump into them. The animals nearly always run away to a safe distance and then stand and look back at you. It’s the perfect time for a photo (even with a mobile phone), while we’re staring at each other.

Coming back from our visit, I realised Tuli is like a magnet for mountain bikers, calling us away from our desks to its spectacular vistas with its rugged elephant trails in the land of giants.

Animals crossing
Arriving at Pont Drift, we were welcomed by the extraordinarily friendly border control staff on both sides of the river. Unfortunately, the mighty Limpopo was dry and we had to pass in a Land Cruiser, robbing us of the excitement of crossing the river in the cable car. Buti, the Land Cruiser driver, went out of his way to treat us in every possible way. Just transporting us to the Santhata Camp, some 27km from the border, was considered by him as the first game drive.

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Even after the long trip – five hours or so – from Johannesburg, we enjoyed the viewing on this first game drive so much that we weren’t in a hurry to get to the camp. The zebras were the first of many critters to welcome us, and gave us a chance to warm up our cameras for the rest of the trip.

The main reason for our visit to Tuli was to cycle – what else? The riding fun started off with Moosa, Tuli’s own pro bush-mountain-biker, who gave us a brief introduction as to what we could expect, outlined a few rules and explained some hand signals. This is not your regular Saturday-morning training ride; when he signals turn back and pedal, you turn back and pedal!

We rode through endless landscapes in silence, on natural elephant trails or on no trail at all, navigating our way through thorn bushes, tall grass and rocks. With Moosa guiding us skilfully, rifle on his back, we felt remarkably safe while he entertained us with his impressive bike skills during our few animal encounters.

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The terrain saw some of us buying land in Tuli, and others just had a quick flirt with the thick sand that we so often got stuck in. There are no manicured trails; there’s no rushing to get back to do your morning shopping, and no Strava sections to compete for. At Tuli, you ride and drink in the freedom you can only experience in the African bush, where time is no factor.

Moosa didn’t use jeep tracks – he just crossed over them into singletracks. He never stayed long on a singletrack either, and would just shoot off on elephant track without warning – mostly, he led us straight on through the bush.

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Rock on
Geologically, Tuli is part of the Bushveld Igneous Complex – full of granites. The soil is made of decomposed granite, and the reason for all the dust. In fact, “tuli” is the Setswana word for dust, and the cyclists riding behind my fatbike soon learned this. Because Tuli is on top of igneous rocks, mainly granite batholiths, underground water is scarce.

On the second day, we cycled further east to Pride Rock camp, where we encountered beautiful, colourful sandstone formations sticking out through the granite basement. We had to stop every few metres for a photo opportunity.

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As there is no soil whatsoever, the trees actually grow on top of the rocky formations – you really feel sorry for them – and their roots extend all the way down the side of the formations for metres to reach the soil at the foot of the mountain. And then there are the colossal boabab trees, which are another must-stop for a group pic.

The guides are good – very good – and they really know how to ride. They often cycle through the bushes and trees to confuse you, but they always know exactly where they are. An armed guide always rides in front. Between the trees, you can’t always see the elephants in time, and often you’ll skirt a bush to find one right in front of you.

I always tried to ride just behind the guide, but every time we had to turn around, I’d find myself at the back. It wasn’t really a problem, though, because by the time I’d turned my fatbike around, the others were gone and nobody was in my way.

It was interesting to see that the guides were more wary of elephants than lions or leopards, but they told me that it’s because they’re less predictable. And, let’s face it, they’re big

Game for a ride
You don’t only have to ride a bike here – you can join those who don’t ride on a game drive as part of your fee. Tuli Game Reserve offers various day- and night-time game viewing options. There are hundreds of elephants, as well as impala, and eland and giraffe are plentiful. During the day, you have the opportunity to see – if you’re fortunate – leopards, cheetahs, lions, kudus and a variety of small buck, crocodiles, jackals, warthogs, and if you’re extra lucky, snakes.

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We also had the privilege of seeing the very scarce elephant shrew, which, although it looks rather like a mouse, is not. Added to the diverse range of animals is a number of bird species, including vultures, eagles and hawks (and even the African hawk eagle), korhaans, huge kori bustards, and storks.

Every now and then a lilac-breasted roller assures you from the roadside that you’re still on the right track – or are you? It’s worth taking a good bird book along, or download a birding app on your mobile phone.

There is no way that you can drive around in your own vehicle, unless you live here, and not many people do. The roads aren’t built for private vehicles – there are no direction signs at all – and only the drivers of the Land Cruisers know which ones to use. All the game drives are exceptional, following the breathtaking Limpopo, through the bush, and into the foothills of the rocky mountains.

There are many tree species here, but of all of them, the mashatu, also known as the nyala tree, stands out like a castle overlooking a small town. All the lodges are placed next to large mashatus or around them. It’s also worthwhile getting a tree identification book, and there’s an app for trees too.

Where to stay
The lodges are all first class. There are tented options, but we chose two different brick-and-mortar lodges, with comfortable, spacious rooms (most rooms have an en-suite bathroom and air conditioner). All are equipped with good cooking facilities – self-catering facilities keep costs down to South African levels of affordability. You can bring your own food, or the staff will order it and have it ready at your lodge for your arrival. If you’re nice to them, they’ll even prepare it.

Riding the Tuli was a bike-riding revelation – no racing pressure, and no riding for time. Six hours on a bike doing only 40km is nothing, really, considering all the stops we made to take in the experience and witness the animals in their natural habitat after riding among them.

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www.tuligamereserve.com
jeandre@tuligamereserve.com
086 111 TULI (8854)

Guided cycle safaris
(All trips start and finish at the Pont Drift border post with Botswana.)
Devil’s Thorn Ride
7 days – R10 500 per person
Tail Grabber
5 days – R6 800 per person
Taste the Dirt
3 days – R3 950 per person

When to visit
Take at last three to four days to fully enjoy Tuli Game Reserve’s offerings.

January to April
Average temperatures during these months range from 18°C to 40°C. December rains make provision for the high temperatures and vibrant shades of green that are evident during this period. As the clouds accumulate in the late afternoons and evenings, the heat decreases, and you may experience one of Botswana’s refreshing thunderstorms. The Limpopo River will, however, not complain, as it may be flowing robustly during January.
February is one of the most sizzling months at Tuli. Afternoon thunderstorms are characteristic of this time of the year. Later during this period, the severe, luminous heat of summer starts to evaporate.

April is a truly captivating time of year in the Tuli block as autumn makes its way with milder days and nights. Although green plants and thick bush are still visible, the Tuli bush paints vivid colours that gradually turn to gold. There will still be occasional, unannounced rains.

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May to August
Average temperatures during range from 8°C to 29°C. The Tuli valley transforms from summer to winter very quickly, with crisp mornings and evenings. Golden leaves dance with the Tuli winds as the trees shed them, and in June, thanks to the heightened concentration of fauna and the refined flora, you’ll be guaranteed to see Tuli’s animals of prey in action.

August offers spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and you can expect pleasant weather, with temperatures slowly increasing daily. It’s the ideal time of the year to snuggle in your fluffy gown and enjoy a steamy drink on Tuli’s porch, overlooking Botswana’s vast landscapes.

September to December
Average temperatures range from 16°C to 33°C. The winds blow in from the west from September through October. Trees begin to blossom and flowers appear, as temperatures rise and the rains reappear during this time. Visitors may experience a dense humidity while the bush starts to liven up in preparation of Tuli’s traditional thunderstorms.
December is energetic and lively, with pouring rains and thunder. The morass and lowlands along the Limpopo River fill with water, which allows water birds to take advantage of the explosion of insects, reptiles and amphibians. Whistling migratory birds return in flocks, the grasslands fill up from the valleys below and the lions’ growl can be heard loud and clear.

So when is the best time to visit Tuli Game Reserve? The different fluctuations in temperature, weather, and seasonal vegetation all have their own beauty, so the answer is simple – always.

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What to pack
January to April, and September to October: light, short-sleeved clothes, and warm clothes for mornings and evenings; walking shoes; sandals; hat; sun block; sunglasses; swimwear; binoculars; camera; insect repellent; windbreaker for wind or rain.

May to August: warm clothing, thick, warm jacket; hot-water bottle; walking shoes; hat, sun block; sunglasses; binoculars; camera; windbreaker for wind or rain.
Other things to consider
Keep your clothing colours neutral and light, so you blend in better with the surrounding environment.
Tuli Game Reserve is in a malaria area, so remember to bring anti-malarial medication along.
Electricity at Tuli Camps is 240V AC. Wall plug units take a BS 546 3-pin plug, so bring the necessary converter or adapter to charge cameras or laptops.
Cellphones are not permitted on game drive vehicles (they’re considered intrusive).
There are curio shops at all the lodges, which also stock basic travel accessories.

  • Snowy

    Your description does the Tuli true justice