Sights, sounds and smells abound in the African bushveld. A good safari will indulge all of these senses, from the early morning chorus of the birds to the alarm calls of animals that lead you to predator sightings.
While seeing and hearing are the most obvious senses we use in the bush, it is the sense of smell that is often neglected.
Here are a few of our favourite bush aromas in Mashatu Game Reserve.
- Wild Sage (Pechuel-Loeschea)
This strong aromatic herb is synonymous with the bushveld for many. It grows well in semi-arid areas and is prolific at Mashatu Game Reserve. It is also known in other parts of Africa as the Stink Bush and the Sweat Bush, thanks to its slightly sour smell. The grey velvety leaves are used traditionally as an insect repellent.
- Stink Shepherd (Boscia foetida)
Also known as Smelly Shepherd, this bush releases a very distinct aroma during the months of September and October when it produces small green flowers. In the dry months at Mashatu, the tiny leaves serve as a lifeline to browsers while the berries are also a source of food for both animals and birds. Described as unpleasant, the smell is a particular favourite of mine, which strangely reminds me of the scented pencils and erasers of my school days.
- Leopard Scent Marking
If you have ever been driving in the bush and thought you smelled hot buttered popcorn, you are not imagining things. Chances are a leopard has recently scent-marked in the area. Leopards spray their urine on bushes and tree trunks to mark their territory, and convey a lot of information about themselves to other leopards, such as their gender and their reproductive condition (if female). You may not see the leopard, but if you see fresh tracks and pick up the smell of popcorn, it may be seeing you.
- Elephant Dung
Elephants can produce about 100kg of dung a day, and with Mashatu being home to the largest elephant population on private land in Botswana, that amounts to a lot of poop. Elephants are herbivores and they only partially digest their food, leaving their dung full of fruit and seeds. This not only makes for great fertiliser, but is also a source of food for other creatures such as birds and baboons. Elephants can transport seeds for up to 65km, thus contributing to the biodiversity of their habitat. The earthy aroma of elephant dung is a constant reminder that in nature, it is as important to take, as it is to give back.
- An Elephant Bull in Musth
The pungent smell of an elephant bull in musth is unmistakable. The sickly-sweet and rather rancid smell is emitted via secretions of the temporin gland, as well as the constant dribble of urine that accompanies a bull in musth. You would do well to heed the warnings of this smell, as elephant bulls’ testosterone levels are increased by about 60 times during musth, emboldening them and filling them with the confidence needed to challenge other males for the right to mate. Should you catch a whiff of this ominous scent, be on the lookout for a bull elephant walking with a swagger and keep a safe distance.
As your day in the bush ends, it’s time to reflect over a sundowner. Enjoy the scent of the juniper in a gin and tonic before savouring the taste, as you watch the sun set on another beautiful day at Mashatu Game Reserve. As you return to camp, you should smell the fire waiting for you at the boma, where you will end your day sharing stories around the fire with your fellow travellers.
Thanks to Barry Miller and Michelle Stewart, regular visitors to Mashatu, for the inspiration for this blog and our numerous discussions of the smells around us.