The place: Letaba Ranch Reserve, nestled under jackalberry trees (‘Mtomeni’=’jackalberry’) on the banks of the Letaba River
Co-operative: Selomba Tourism Primary Co-operative Limited (Mtomeni)
Beneficiary villages: Selwane, Lulekani, Mbaula, Phalaubeni, Majeje
The people: VaTsonga, BaPedi
Best known for: Big Five game viewing, birdlife
I’m quite jaded when it comes to game viewing, but my Mtomeni experience was one of the best in nearly 30 years. Letaba Ranch’s 43,000 hectares border Kruger, and the fences between them have come down. Game meanders along the Letaba River, which fronts the camp roughly 15 metres away. Game drives and walks with inimitable camp guides Edwin Muneri, whom we nicknamed ‘The Birdman’ due to his extensive knowledge of and passion for all things bird, and Richard Ramadisha have likely encounters with at least some of the Big Five, and definite exposure to an infinite number of fascinating facts about the natural world.
Mtomeni’s seven new safari tents, raised on wooden decks facing the river, are supremely comfortable. Three-quarter beds, two per tent, and en suite bathrooms with running water and spacious new showers add to the comfort. Electricity is solar, including new charging units in the tents (USB and 12 V/cigarette lighter). The elevated communal open kitchen and dining areas have basic solar lighting, as well as new solar-charged fridges and freezers, gas hob and all necessary cutlery, pots, and crockery. You can also recharge your 12V camping freezer. A recycling waste-management plan has been introduced. A large boma with directors’ chairs and a braai looks out directly on the Letaba River, a fine place to put your feet up on the stone retaining wall and see what meanders past. Guests are advised to bring drinking water and wood, and to take precautions against malaria.
Game Drives – Richard does his absolute best to get you as close to the game as safely possible. Our late afternoon drive yielded herds of buffalo and elephant, as well as nyala, kudu, impala and duiker. Hippo in the river. Several journeys of giraffe. And more birds. Sundowners by the river, and a drive back to camp with Venus and Mercury vertically aligned in a reddening sky, were sensational. If you’re really lucky you might spot wild dog, as the area is a hotspot for the species. With no self-drives permitted in the reserve it’s always a quiet experience.
Birding – Even if you’re not an avid birder, you may be by the time you leave Mtomeni. Edwin’s enthusiasm – “I can identify 714 bird species, 486 by their call” – is contagious. His favourite bird is a hamerkop, he says, but he loves searching for and communicating with them all – scanning the bush, bringing his cupped hands to his mouth and creating a vocal chamber to imitate a bird call. Among many other species, according to Edwin at least 500 total, Mtomeni hosts the grey loerie (go-away bird); African hawk eagle; common green shank; malachite kingfisher; bateleur eagle; grey-headed bush shrike; and saddle-billed stork.
Chillaxing – Peterson Phasha taught us the best word for ‘’leisure time’’ ‘chillaxing’. At Mtomeni the possibilities include gazing at life on the river from a boma camp chair, lying in one’s safari tent watching gorgeous long-tailed green wood hoopoes hunt for grubs in an old mopani tree, or listening to the telltale snap of a tree being munched by an elephant in the dark of night. Among other pleasures.
Game Walks – Our early morning, three-hour trek, mostly along the river, climaxed in sighting a leopard leaping from a tall apple leaf tree in broad daylight. We won’t soon forget the acrobatic cat, legs outstretched, in mid-air. We also saw various buck and buffalo herds, and later a dugga bull which we did our best to avoid. Birds, seen or heard, were too many to name. Edwin, a former teacher, instructed on the walk, often through the Socratic method as we passed different phenomena: “Why is hyena dung white? [the bones they consume]; who knows what the ‘small five’ are? [ant lion; rhino beetle; leopard tortoise; elephant shrew; buffalo weaver]; what does it sound like if you crush the leaf of this tree? [crunching into an apple – the apple leaf tree]”. A fact that wowed guests more than any other was that mopani trees ‘warn’ each other about approaching browsers: once the nibbling begins the trees release ethylene gas to alert other trees, which then produce a bitter substance to deter nibblers.