I hoisted myself into a 4×4 Land Rover as we prepared to embark on a rough and tumble adventure in the untamed, multi-habitat territory of the Sentinel Ranch.
“This place is among the wildest you’ll find anywhere in Africa,” said Vanessa Bristow.
The area’s brutal terrain means it’s the perfect adventure spot for the Safari enthusiast, but that simultaneously means you just cannot venture out alone.
There is definitely the need for a professional guide, or for one of the knowledgeable owners themselves to tag along.
Vanessa and her husband Digby run the Sentinel Ranch, which offer the visitor the most natural of African wild experiences.
Sentinel is set within the confines of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA), which spans the confluence area of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.
The TFCA is a Peace Parks Foundation initiative aimed at helping to conserve the rich biodiversity of this pristine African wilderness for future generations.
The guy with the eye of an eagle
So here we were, being chauffeured (if you can call it that) across the jagged terrain by Vanessa and her erudite sidekick, Robert.
Sentinel’s landscape is a bit hard to describe because it offers so much diversity, from extensive riparian woodlands to stunning red and gold sandstone hills to scrub savannah to mopane forests to . . .
It takes some pretty exceptional driving talent to negotiate these relentlessly shifting terrains.
“Up there, on the tip of that cliff, a black eagle . . .,” shouts Robert.
I follow the direction of his finger but can only see the brown rocky hill meeting the blanked sky.
“This guy’s got an eagle eye,” says Vanessa.
I’m inclined to agree.
Only with a pair of binoculars do I spot the awesome black eagle, which is the size of a . . ., a . . ., oh I can’t tell from this distance and with these sight-enhancers.
Vanessa says something about some new name for the black eagle. Verreaux’s Eagle, I think it is.
A bit of a distance later, we spot (or rather Robert does and directs our eyes hence) several klipspringers gracefully darting across the rocks on the same stretch of hill.
The klipspringers quickly disappear to the other side, but one of these dainty animals strikes a beautiful pose for our cameras.
As we took our drive into scrub savannah territory, the first animal that popped into our line of sight was the Livingstone Eland. The creature lifted its head from eating grass, surprised by our approach.
It quickly darted away into the thick grass, followed by three others which we had not sighted.
The secret to a successful safari drive is listening to your guide, and the key piece of advice: be very quiet when approaching an animal sighting or drinking spot (even as the 4×4 engine is drumming away — I thought that to be a bit strange).
It’s the middle of summer and that makes it a bit difficult to spot animals since the vegetation is rich. The vegetation here seems to have responded to every drop of the earlier rains. It had to — last year had been a drought.
According to Vanessa, the eland is a major poaching target in the area because of its size since the poachers can extract a lot of meat.
Anyway, now having seen the eland I was now warming up to the idea that there are plenty of animals (you really cannot tell with your first look).
I’m now toying with the idea of a real close-up encounter with an elephant or lion.
“Lions here are very transient, they tend to cross the border from South Africa or Botswana and move in and out of the area,” said Vanessa.
Sentinel is core wildlife area in the Zimbabwean component of the Greater Mapungubwe TFCA, which straddles the borders of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana.
It’s sort of ironic that I didn’t get to see the two animals I most wanted to see.
For the rest of the drive we managed to catch glimpses of game including kudu, nyala, zebra, steenbok, baboons, antbears, wildebeest, impala and bushbuck. I’m sure I have missed several others, but then again it’s a healthy game reserve.
Horn stuck in the ground
Somewhere deep in the savannah, we come across an eland horn stuck in the ground.
“An interesting little story about this horn; I came across here last year and saw the spoor of several hyena that had been eating flesh from the horn, and it was stuck in the ground like this. Can’t imagine who put it there because there were no human tracks anywhere nearby. Strange hey?”
Our photographer muses on shooting the strange horn. He fears he might get struck by lightning, just in case it’s a ritual thing. He eventually does. No mishap.
But then I deceive. I really would call our expedition a “game drive” as much as I would call it a “birding expedition”, and I must say Vanessa is a serious birder.
She could spot birds in the most camouflaging of bushes . . . and name them accurately!
When all I saw was a bird dart across the sky as some sort of silhouette, she would scream out: “Oh my, that’s a ‘Little bee-eater’. That’s a really beautiful bird.”
I’ll take her word for it.
Again the reserve’s multi-habitat nature makes it home to an extensive range of bird species.
According to an area brochure, 400 species of birds have been recorded here.
Among them are the ostrich, which roams on one of its last natural habitats in southern Africa, black (Verreaux’s) eagles breed on the sandstone cliffs, and Kori bustards strut majestically.
From Vanessa’s numerous exclamations I’m sure I saw some horn bills, various species of bee-eaters and kingfishers, vulture and kestrels and diminutive forest birds, water birds and seed eaters.
With the wide-ranging game and birds that I have come across here, I sincerely believe that Sentinel should be maintained as is a relatively undisturbed natural area.
There has been pressure from some circles to use Sentinel for cattle grazing, but according to Vanessa efforts at intensive cattle farming and domesticating the area have largely failed over the past 40 years or so.
Sentinel remains a largely successful story of eco-tourism in the country, but I’m sure the surrounding local communities can still accrue greater tourism benefits.