The magnificent cultural landscape in which the Northern Tuli Game Reserve and Mashatu is located, is jointly conserved by Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. This part of southern Africa is steeped in history, and is home to some of the most significant paleontological and archaeological remains on the subcontinent, including the dinosaur footprints of Vhembe and Sentinel (estimated to be 50-100 million years old). The archaeological evidence in the area includes middle and late stone age tools, rock art and the legendary Mapungubwe Dynasty. Mapungubwe means “Place of the Jackal ” in the Venda language. This dynasty existed around 1220 AD. Other aspects of Mashatu’s history include old hunting relics of the Frederick Courteney Selous period, the records of Cecil John Rhodes and the most northern battle fields of the Boer War – a South African War of the late 1800s and early 1900s between the British and the Boers.
The area’s geological history is fascinating. Around 100-183 million years ago it is said that volcanic eruptions, initially induced by the breaking up of Gondwanaland, caused large amounts of lava to be ejected. The remnants of this can clearly be seen in the capping of basalt (extrusive volcanic rock) over the sandstone along the Limpopo River. There are also numerous dolerite dykes in the area, including the well-known “Solomon’s Wall” on Mashatu spanning the Motloutse River. There is also a very visible dolerite dyke in the Mapungubwe National Park within view of the now infamous Mapungubwe Hill.
Earliest evidence of the presence of man in Tuli can be seen in the numerous stone tool quarries. These stone tools date back to the Middle Stone Age, some 100 000 to 200 000 years ago. Many Late Stone Age tools can be found scattered around the Reserve, where the San people practiced their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and nomadic pastoralism. These small Boskopoid people (also referred to as “Boskop Man”) hunted on the rich, game-filled plains, their hunts inspiring them to produce scores of rock art depicting the magnificence of the Limpopo River Valley. The disappearance of these nomadic people coincides with the occupation of the region by the early Iron Age civilisations.
About 1200 years ago, the silence of the Limpopo Valley was broken by the sounds of the arrival of the Bantu-speaking people who arrived from further north in Africa. Known as the Zhizo or Gokomere people, this civilization saw their men sweating over small furnaces to fuse melted ores for weapons, tools and ornaments. Women dug into smooth clay near the streams, and made thousands of pots – used for storing meat, beer, plant foodstuffs or water. The Iron Age in Tuli had begun. These people brought about many changes, including agriculture, livestock domestication and complex social structures. The first of these people were the Zhizo or Gokomere people in about 800 AD, followed by the Leopard’s Kopje A or K2 people. Later the Leopard’s Kopje B or Mapungubwe people arrived in approximately 1050 to 1250 AD. The Mapungubwe later formed the world famous Kingdom of Mapungubwe, and traded extensively with civilisations as far afield as East Africa, Arabia and India. The influence of these traders can be seen in the stoneware, gold ornaments, iron tools, garden roller beads and pottery artifacts found in the area. On discovery of the Mapungubwe civilisations in 1933 and the subsequent excavation of these graves on Mapungubwe Hill, over 22 pounds of gold came out and are now on display in the Mapungubwe Museum in the national park.
On Mashatu is the Mmamagwa Ruins of a similar period to Mapungubwe. A beautiful area of elevated sandstone ridges in the south west of Mashatu, these ruins remain unexcavated and have been left alone. A most spiritual place. It is conceivable that similar treasures could be buried here. Guests visiting Mashatu would do well to request a visit to this area of natural beauty and cultural significance.
The first European explorers and missionaries arrived in Tuli in the early 16th century, and the area was used for hunting, trading and mission work among the tribes and people living there.
Enter Cecil John Rhodes at the end of the 19th Century. He, along with a group of men under his command called the “Pioneer Column”, were sent to annex Matabeleland and Mashonaland for the British Crown. On 1 July 1890 Fort Tuli was founded on a small kopje along the banks of the Shashe River. The first crossing over the Limpopo – Rhodes’ Drift – was established in 1890, and is situated in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. A few months later, a second drift was constructed about eight kilometres upstream from Rhodes’ Drift, as part of the Zeederberg Coach Route. This drift was known as Pont Drift, and is the point through which many of Mashatu’s visitors cross into the reserve.
Rhodes had a dream of building a railway line from the Cape to Cairo, and his intention was that the railway be built north of, and adjacent to, the Limpopo River through the Tuli Block. Whilst his plan for development in the region appeared honourable, his alleged attempt to transfer the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) to the British South Africa Company, was deemed inappropriate. In an effort to counter this, Chief Khama, Chief Batho’en and Chief Sechele travelled to England to put their objections to this conspiracy to the Queen. Their efforts paid off, and the Queen was able to intervene on their behalf. She decreed that Rhodes should continue to build the Cape to Cairo railway, but that only the Tuli Block may be allocated to the B.S.A. Company for this purpose. Later, when it was established that the Cape to Cairo Railway was a logistical nightmare, the Tuli Block was surveyed and divided into farms which were allocated to British owners in an effort to protect Botswana from the northward expansion of the Boers out of the then Northern Transvaal area. The territorial aspirations of the British and Boers’ expansion came to a head, and various confrontations between the Boer and British forces took place in what is now known as The Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Engagements were numerous – the first taking part on the 20th of October 1899 when the Boers attacked the British who were controlling access to the only reliable water source in the area. The most famous of these attacks was an attack on Bryce’s store. The store, built by an enterprising British subject by the name of Bryce on the western banks of the Pitsani River on what is now Mashatu Game Reserve, consisted of three buildings – the store, a house for the proprietor and a small circular hut. The store served as a staging post for the Zeederberg Coach, which ran from Pretoria to Bulawayo, a four-day trip. The Boers shelled the store from Pitsani Koppie, where the emplacements can still be seen. During the engagement Bryce’s store was destroyed and today bullets, buckles and other remains can be found in the rubble around the store.
The Northern Tuli Game Reserve forms part of the Limpopo drainage system. The mighty Limpopo River runs from west to east and forms the southern border of the reserve with South Africa. The two large feeder rivers, which flow into the Limpopo River in this area, are the Shashe and Motloutse Rivers. The Shashe River forms the reserve’s northeastern boundary with Zimbabwe and flows in a southeasterly direction, joining the Limpopo at the point where the three countries meet. The confluence area is a woodland wonderland, where some of the largest specimens of Leadwood (Combretum imberbe), Apple-leaf (Lonchocarpus capassa), Sycamore Fig (Ficus sycomorus) and Ana Tree (Acacia Albida) can be found.
The Motloutse River also flows in a southeasterly direction and in some areas forms part of the reserve’s western boundary. The Motloutse River has played a significant part in Botswana’s history, as it was in this riverbed that the first diamonds were discovered in the 1960s. This discovery transformed Botswana from a subsistent and largely destitute recently-independent protectorate of England, into a successful, vibrant and responsible democracy with the highest per capita GDP on the African continent.