Blarn#7 - This is What Elephants are Really All About
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
It is impossible to be a wildlife guide in Africa and not collect a mental library full of elephant stories. Having been the pivot around which much of my career as a naturalist has revolved, elephants take up the bulk of my cerebral Dewey Index. When it comes to compressing three decades of anecdotes, legends, accounts and sagas into one readable Blarn I am presented with a bit of a challenge. So sticking with tradition, perhaps it’s best to revert to the tried and tested method of having a ‘beginning’, a ‘middle’ and an ‘end’ – but also beg forgiveness in the very first paragraph for a Blarn with a larger than usual word count. Before we get going though, it is probably important to address the one elephant question I find myself answering more than any other from safari visitors.
“Are elephants dangerous?” Well, sometimes, yes. But then apparently so are loosely attached coconuts! Prof Google reliably informs me that in 2015 more than 20,000 people were killed in the USA by falling off or out of bed, or being accidently asphyxiated by their bed linen. Does anyone ask the salesperson at ‘Beds ‘R Us’ if today’s futon special is deadly?
No doubt elephants are bigger and more intimidating than a king size posturepedic, even when they don’t mean to be. And yes, people are injured and killed by them every year, but drill down on the circumstances and nearly always it’s because of stupidity. In my humble opinion, elephants and beds are just the delivery mechanism for the consequences of idiocy. If there is one pearl of hard earned wisdom I can, fortuitously, pass on, it’s treat ALL wildlife with respect. No matter what wilderness you visit, trust your guide’s judgement – it’s most likely honed by surviving stupid mistakes. If you are going the self-guided route and your instincts are murmuring, or your wife says, ‘this is stupid’, it probably is. To prevent becoming a Darwin Award nominee, stay away from stupidity at all costs.
In selecting these elephant vignettes, I hope to emphasize the gentle, inquisitive, mischievous, tolerant, and even humorous qualities of the planet’s largest land animal. This is what elephants are really all about.
* * * *
In the beginning….
Growing up in the rural settings of Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, one could be forgiven for thinking that a career in wildlife was cast in stone for me. From my early teens biology fascinated me, and all I wanted to be was a doctor with a licence to ‘slice and dice’ for an insatiable curiosity. However, it took an elephant encounter to detour me off the path into medicine I had envisioned for myself. Well, not so much a detour as one of the legendary ‘road trips’ that marked the semester breaks in my years of academia whilst at university. My ‘beer group’ was an almost inseparable gang of students that believed in the simple mantra of ‘work hard so you can play hard’, and with mid-year exams completed, it was time to take care of the second part of that philosophy. A tour of Zimbabwe was on the itinerary, but details were sketchy and revolved around access to cold beer and as much cheap (read ‘free’) accommodation as we could scavenge. The only definite plan was a visit to Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River.
Five of us clambered into PJ’s pus coloured Nissan, appropriately christened ‘The Zit’, and set off on a never-to-be-forgotten adventure. Along the way we collected our ‘Zimbo’ mates and, after a fitting number of beer stops, our ragged convoy was soon headed north towards the Zambezi with Bob (aka ‘Zon’) and Darren (aka ‘Nought’) bringing up the rear in an old Peugeot pick-up that was laden to the hilt with cases (and cases) of Zimbabwean lager that, thanks to Robert Mugabe’s economic foresight, was the cheapest beer on the continent!
Mana Pools surely ranks amongst the top ten of all African national parks. It is bursting at the seams with wildlife, but has the added splendour of the mighty Zambezi River, the majesty of a rugged escarpment as a backdrop, and the parkland beauty of giant Winter-thorn glades where African giants roam, feeding on the trees’ nutrient rich pods. Our campsite at Nyamepi was slap in the middle of this idyllic scenery. Over the years I have made frequent trips to the Zambezi Valley, yet that sense of wonder that enveloped me back in 1987 when we first pitched our tent at Nyamepi has never grown old.
That’s an interesting phrase - ‘pitching a tent’. It generally doesn’t apply to today’s camper. Thanks to the modern wonders of tent design, ‘throwing a tent’ is probably more apt. Take it out the bag, toss it in the air, and by the time it hits the ground…wha-lah, your tent is up! Not so back then. We had borrowed a ‘cottage’ tent that was reminiscent of the bivouacs used by war-weary infantrymen in some long forgotten military campaign. A delicate balancing act and several pairs of sober hands were required to coordinate the erection of a heavy canvas drape between two wooden poles. Thereafter, a spider web of guy ropes, and a minefield of toe stubbing pegs kept everything upright in a gravity defying rendition of a shelter. It was thirsty work and Zon needed some weight relief on the old Peugeot’s springs, so we obliged by having a few (more) beers and toasting the setting of the sun.
That first evening was filled with camp fire stories, jokes, games, songs (well maybe not songs) and the general joie de vie that is the reserve of carefree students worldwide. Eventually though sleep beckoned if we were going to get up at dawn for a game drive. Alex, PJ, Keryn, Annie, Zon, Nought, Keith, Mark, Auds, and yours truly packed into that 1920’s tent, head and tailing like proverbial sardines to get everyone in. Slowly the chuckles and ribald comments subsided, allowing the ensuing ‘quiet’ to be filled by the nocturnal sounds of a pristine African wilderness. A hyena whooped nearby, a nightjar repetitively preached ‘Good Lord deliver us’, and was that a lion roaring in the distance?
Then it started to rain! That unmistakable patter on canvas every camper dreads.
It made no sense. This was the middle of the dry season. It was a chilly, cloudless, moonlit night and we were in a tent designed to keep nothing out – least of all rain. Lying on the ground I decided to peek outside by lifting up the tent skirt and poking my head out. Still warmly tucked into my sleeping bag, but with my melon sticking out like a pimple from under the tent, I peered into the greyness – a half moon casting shadows from the Winter-thorn trees in every direction.
“Can’t see anything,” I whispered to all those who were still awake, even though a tree trunk by my head was blocking a fair portion of my view.
Then, the tree trunk moved!
“Ohhhh shit! It’s an elephant!” I declared as I whipped my head in like a startled tortoise.
Talk about a sobering moment. In finger-snapping speed everyone (except Mark whose ineptitude at drinking games meant he was more unconscious than asleep) was up and scrambling to untie the antiquated laces that secured the entrance flaps closed. One by one we exited the tent as quietly as a buffalo stampede, shushing each other and staring up at an enormous bull elephant that towered above us and a tent that looked as flimsy as tissue paper. This behemoth, whose weight was thrice that of Zon’s beer laden pick-up yet moved as silently as a whisper, was reaching up into the hanging branches of the Winter-thorn and shaking a shower of sweet pods down to be plucked up by his constantly probing trunk. That wasn’t his best trick though. As he circled the tent, with our huddled group counter circling in a sideways shuffle, he delicately stepped over every guy rope and avoided kicking out the steel pegs – never so much as sending a shiver along the taut lines. His enormous feet settled softly into the dust so close to Mark’s head that he must have felt our friend’s snores through his giant pads.
To say that he was unperturbed by our presence is a gross understatement. He had seen, and no doubt disturbed, more campers in his long lifetime than we had danced around elephants in our short ones. If anything, I suspect he was using the pretext of seed pods to satisfy his curiosity about unruly students and a rather strong aroma of hops and barley! Certainly there were hundreds of other pod bonanzas to be had, yet he chose our tree and negotiated a web of guy ropes to satisfy his appetite? I don't think so.
That night was the beginning of my career in wildlife. It remains with me as the seminal moment where I climbed off the ‘when I grow up I want to be doctor’ gurney and stepped out on the ‘when I grow up I want to be a game ranger’ trail. Time and again I go back to this road trip – a journey that not only introduced me to the bounty of the Zambezi River, but also had me skinny dipping in the croc infested waters of Lake Kariba and weaving between perplexed buffalo after one too many losses at ‘coinage’. All the (mis)adventures aside, standing in the moon cast shadow of an African Elephant, listening to his gut rumbles while he flicked crunchy pods into his mouth, is indelibly etched into my memory. Little did I know then just how many elephants would share equally intimate moments with me over the next thirty plus years.
Game driving in Mana Pools '80's style
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The learning years…..
Elephants have personalities. I am not alone in this bold assessment. It is the opinion of just about anyone who has spent more than five minutes in their company. Yet the zoology boffins tell us that we shouldn’t ‘anthropomorphise’ animals, which is a bombastic way of saying animals are a ‘them’ and not an ‘us’. Balderdash! Elephants have PERSONalities. Some are shy, others are extrovert. There are moody individuals and there are tolerant characters. Then, every now and again, there is a prankster. It seems that wherever my Africa travels have taken me there is always at least one mischief maker who sets himself (it’s always a bull) apart from the rest. Don’t get me wrong, these oversize imps aren’t destructive rogues, but they do seem to have a sense of humour that borders on the wicked.
For those who have followed my previous Blarns, you may recall that I started out as a rookie ranger at Mala Mala game reserve alongside the world famous Kruger National Park. It was in places like this that so many of today’s grey-haired guides cut their teeth (and sometimes soiled their britches) learning what elephant viewing is all about – myself included. One such lesson that comes to mind was discovering just how much elephants hate spotlights.
The new shiny creases had not yet been washed out of my khaki uniform when I answered a radio call to a very special elephant sighting. For a variety of weird reasons, there was only one breeding herd of elephants on the reserve, and getting to sit with them was a rare treat at Mala Mala. These mums with their rambunctious kids (I intend to anthropomorphise to the max!) were a delight to watch, particularly as the matriarch and her sisterhood were about as aggressive as a herd of Jersey cows. I was coming in hot; excited and eager to get to the sighting before the golden afternoon light faded. The shortest route for me to get to the elephants was to negotiate the same fairly precipitous bank that the herd had used to get down into the dry bed of the Sand River. We could go into all the tech speak of 4x4 enthusiasts about angles of attack and departure, but suffice is to say my off-road trigonometry still needed more work. I got down that bank okay, but ended up with all four wheels stuck in soft sand and my rear end jammed firmly in the bank. We were properly stuck. Not to worry, we had a pretty good view of the family and my ranger buddies would come to the rescue when the coast was clear. With the sun now well settled and the day’s last light thinning fast, some guide, whose khakis were crisper and shinier than mine, decided that now was a good time to switch on his million candlepower spotlight and bathe the peaceful dusk scene in blinding tungsten illumination!
The calm, content clan of elephants went immediately berserk and bolted for their escape route. Problem was some twit had wedged a Land Rover full of American tourists into their emergency exit. Suddenly we were surrounded on three sides by a panicked family of twelve elephants less than an arm’s length away, which is substantially less than a trunk length! Amid the deafening trumpets and curdling screams, and whilst we were being choked by the dust cloud engulfing us, my colleagues kept dancing their spotlights over the scene.
“Stations! Stations! Switch off your spots!” I bellowed frantically into the radio.
Eventually all the lights were extinguished and slowly a semblance of composure started to settle over the melee. The cows’ trumpeting subsided and the calves’ screams petered out. The matriarch, who was directly in front of the vehicle, swayed from side to side and lifted her trunk over us in a probing sniff. I guess the smell of fear and goodness-knows-what-else appeased her anxiety. Dropping her trunk, she turned broadside, and in one silent, collective movement, led her family away. Amazingly, in all that panic not one of the elephants physically touched the Landy. Obviously alarmed, and with their vulnerable youngsters present, the mothers made a conscious choice not to squash, maim or gore the obstacle, and its terrified occupants, that blocked their path. Despite this, they still managed to scare the bejesus out of us! Some of the guests had somehow squeezed themselves under the bench seats in a pointless escape effort, and from their impromptu panic room a constant litany of ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Marys’ punctuated the terrified trumpeting. I do not exaggerate – the prayers were real. In hindsight, I don’t believe we were ever in any real danger. The elephants, equally afraid, if not more so, demonstrated a restraint that highlights their intrinsic aversion to physical conflict.
It seems though, that I have digressed a bit from telling you about pranksters. Mala Mala was home to a particularly mischievous elephant whose ‘sense of humour’ could strike fear into the heart of even the most seasoned ranger. The mere mention of his name would send shivers down the spine, elicit an intake of breath and prompt a look over the shoulder in a subliminal scan for an escape route.
His name was ‘Light Bulb’.
Light Bulb's reputation was such that some rangers, although desperate to show their guests an elephant, would suddenly defer from coming to a sighting of this infamous bull, “…because my guests are scared of elephants…”. Yeah right! Obviously not named for his glowing character, Light Bulb was instantly recognisable because of a cut in his ear that came straight out of Thomas Edison's blueprints. Although no-one was immune to his mischief, Light Bulb had a particular penchant for singling out rookie ‘Snots’ for his brand of elephant baptism. A favourite trick was to set up an ambush if he heard a vehicle approaching, then charge out from the thicket he was hiding in and chase the startled ranger as far as he could before peeling off in a cacophony of blood curdling trumpets and roars. The longer you worked there the less likely Light Bulb was to prank you; perhaps the steady supply of unsuspecting trainees helped, some of them deciding afterwards that maybe a life in accounting wasn’t so bad after all.
Light Bulb got me once; only once, but man it was a goody.
The khakis had faded a bit, and each day the experiences under the belt added to my knowledge and understanding of the African wilderness. By now I had been seconded to Kirkman’s Kamp – the reserve’s ‘#2’ but possibly one of the finest lodges in the southern hemisphere. Its situation, high above the Sand River’s southern bank, meant that to access the prime viewing areas to the north, a game drive would have to negotiate one of the several crossings along the river’s course at some stage. On the afternoon when Light Bulb and I would become acquainted, a couple of grey backs were visible down in the reeds from the lodge’s elevated vantage point, and this prompted me to head straight to Kirkman’s Crossing. This deep, sandy ford is less than five minutes away and I wanted my freshly arrived guests to start their safari with a bang. Oh boy, little did I know.
‘Deep’ and ‘sandy’ doesn’t satisfactorily convey how the fine silica grains of the Sand River suck at the wheels of a 4x4. Even walking in this sand is a struggle, so getting two tonnes of vehicle and people to move through it challenges the best four wheel drive engineering. High revs, first gear, and low range is the only way to go forward, but at a pace that is unlikely to make a snail’s head spin. Once moving, it is inadvisable to stop as momentum is lost and the wheels settle down in the sand like four lead anchors.
Halfway across the slow grind of the crossing, there were the two bull elephants we had glimpsed from above. They were a hundred yards or so up river and busy having a sparring session out in the open with the afternoon sun in just the right place. What a great sight! I stopped the Landy, and switched off, making a mental note that getting going again would require some nifty sand skills. However, it was worth it; the scene is exactly what I wanted my guests to experience as their introduction to a safari. Before calling in the sighting, I lifted up my binoculars to assess the situation. Surprise, surprise, one of the bulls was Light Bulb, and he seemed to be on the losing side of the sparring session. Halfway through the ‘stations’ announcement, Light Bulb stepped back from his head butting antics and seemed to pause for a second or two. Perhaps he was checking his mental list to see if I was on it. I knew I wasn’t, and it seemed so did he. His attack was sudden and without hesitation!
How five tonnes of animal can go from dead still to full tilt charge in the time it takes to a key a mike has to be seen to be believed. Light Bulb was a hundred yards away so best I make my escape – and make it snappy. The Landy started, gear engaged, clutch released and we lurched forward. Looking back now I believe 99 year old Captain Tom, whose his record walk to raise money during the Covid crisis earned him a knighthood, would, even without his Zimmer frame, have pipped us in a fifty yard dash that day. It was pointless to run. Light Bulb was closing down those hundred yards in high range and fourth gear; the sand causing no problem to him. The only course of action was to make as much noise as possible. I revved that old four cylinder engine till it was screaming blue murder and banged the side of the vehicle like a Grateful Dead drummer. Light Bulb didn’t baulk, if anything his swaying head, flailing trunk and outspread ears just got more animated. A charging elephant has a truly frightening aura. Muscles bulge and shake, kicked sand erupts in plumes, and dust flies loose from wrinkled skin with every seismic stride. Sitting beside me was a delightful English gentlemen who was first in line to take the full brunt of the charge. To his credit he didn’t flinch; he just watched Light Bulb get bigger, and bigger, and bigger. When Light Bulb was a car length away and showing no signs of quitting I braced for impact…..
Then he stopped! Again, I am baffled how an elephant can do that. He was at full pace with only metres to go and came to a dead halt; seeming to completely thumb his long nose at Newton’s take on momentum! Light Bulb now loomed above us, and his dust trail, having caught up and overtaken him, enshrouded the British fellow alongside me who was staring at his own lap in fateful resignation. For several long, very long, seconds Light Bulb held his ground. Then he reached down into the river bed with his trunk, scooped up a couple of handfuls of sand and showered it over us like someone tossing confetti at a wedding. I imagine him winking and saying, “gotcha!”
As we watched him turn away and saunter off, our stunned silence was broken by the clipped English tones of my passenger as he turned to me and asked, “Do you have any whisky in that cooler box?”
* * * *
Becoming a veteran…..
By the time we got to Botswana, I like to think the dampness behind my ears had dried out completely. However, I was ill prepared for the elephant experiences I was about to have. Indeed still have, even as I sit here putting these Blarns down in bits and bytes. Botswana is, without a doubt, the beating heart of Africa’s elephant population. Whereas in Mala Mala we got a kick out of finding a single small breeding herd, on any given day you can encounter upwards of a thousand individuals on the floodplains of Botswana’s Chobe River. These mass aggregations aren’t coincidental. They are planned and coordinated through an infrasonic communication network that we are only just beginning to grasp. Yes, you read right. Elephant communication is complex and extensive enough to bring thousands of individuals and families together to predetermined sites for mass social gatherings that would make a MAGA rally organiser green with envy.
Not unlike a London tube ride during rush hour, it is quite hard to get to know individual elephants in such a crowded environment. Nevertheless, it may be easier to make personal acquaintances with elephants in Botswana than it is to strike up a conversation with a fellow Underground passenger because there are always characters who will make themselves known to you. There was Dennis (the Menace) at Chilwero whose favourite trick was to set up a road block on the entrance road and do his best Black Knight rendition by strictly enforcing a ‘none shall pass’ rule (any Monty Python fans?). There was Dereck at Selinda Camp (named after the proprietor because he thought he owned the camp) who preferred to feed between the tents than out on the lush floodplains, terrorising the poor housekeepers and mock charging anyone who tried to chivvy him along. And then there was my all-time favourite old bull – Nelson.
Nelson was missing an eye and had an ‘amputated’ right tusk. Like his namesake, both were probably lost in battles with arch rivals. Although I speak of Nelson in the past tense, back in 2013, after not having seen him in the flesh for quite some time (amidst 150,000 other elephants), the grizzled warrior filled my camera lens once again – leaning against a stump whilst catching a nap next to a waterhole in the Savuti region of Chobe National Park. Although he was aging gracefully and looked in good health then, I suspect his twilight years may have flickered out by now. Hoping I’m wrong, I still scan each bachelor party that gathers around the Savuti waterholes, looking for a distinguished one-eyed, one-tusked pachyderm war hero.
Nelson 'taking a load off' - 2013, Savuti
The years spent at Selinda Reserve as a camp manager and walking trails guide were some of the best any wildlife guide could wish for. As I write that I think, ‘Wait maybe my days at Harry’s and Kirkman’s were the best, or what about now, when I get to guide across the continent, or even the world; aren’t these the best?’ The fact is those times are gone. The industry has evolved and it is increasingly difficult to find similar experiences in today’s safari landscape – not impossible, just harder and rarer. During that time, my guests were treated to many personal encounters with Nelson. His easy-going nature allowing for up-close studies of his every wrinkle and hair – but only if you approached him from his good side. Be that as it may, one was always aware that this bull, massive even by elephant standards, had the power to snap a tree like we snap a twig. His patience over our inquisitiveness was a rare and privileged concession. Even when he was in the hormonal storm of musth, a condition that often turns elephant bulls into cranky, sex-crazed tyrants, Nelson’s mood was a constant ‘chilled’. I had spent a lot of time with Nelson, but up until the day we shared a game trail, it was always from the relative safety of an open game viewing vehicle. I hadn’t been near him on foot before.
‘Knob Hill’ was by far our favourite walking trails camp. It was a raised, palm studded island that looked out over the hippo packed waters of the Zibadianja Lagoon. Apart from being a thirst quenching focal point for wildlife, it had natural salt deposits that attracted a constant relay of elephants, particularly during the full moon, making a good night’s rest near impossible. A short distance away from Knob Hill was a wide sandy beach that boasted the imprints of just about every large mammal on the reserve. For our post siesta afternoon walk, my near fool proof game plan was always to head down to the beach and make use of a natural hide to watch the procession of elephant, giraffe, kudu and impala that would come down like clockwork to slake their thirsts. The hide was not much more than a thin patch of reeds on the outskirts of the beach where elephants had waded through sucking black mud during the rains. As the mud dried, the minefield of deep holes left behind became perfect bleacher chairs. We’d sit on the ground with our legs and feet inside the elephant foot holes and watch in comfort as wildlife to'd and froe’d down on the beach.
On this particularly hot day, it was an elephant fest. Herd after herd after herd came down to drink and mud bathe in the lagoon. Elephants are normally very habitual in their behaviour, and their beach etiquette that day was no different. Each herd would drink at one spot where the water was cleanest, then they moved over to a communal spa to lather up with gooey, cool mud before heading off to feed. A well organised rota system was obviously in play and every family group was getting their turn. This was perfect because it gave us a comfortable, safe distance to watch from and the elephants remained completely undisturbed by us.
“Ground!” Letota, my erstwhile tracker and de facto teacher called me by his version of my name in his best stage whisper. “Tlou ena buya, an elephant is coming.”
I looked behind us and quite some distance away was a big bull who was heading straight towards our position. Convinced he wasn’t coming to the area we were seated because it was pockmarked with deep craters that elephants prefer to avoid, we held our position. He didn’t veer away; he didn’t head towards the sweet water and cooling mud, he just kept plodding inexorably towards us.
Hang on…that’s Nelson! I thought as his distinct features became more apparent.
Despite his calm reputation, I am not ashamed to admit there were doubts in the back of my mind as to how he was going to react to us on foot. Nelson never deviated from his path; a path we had used as well, and the only feasible route in and out of the hide where you wouldn’t turn an ankle. It was inevitable that the half blind giant was going to stumble upon us any moment and I needed to do something before he got a surprise he may not have taken kindly to. Telling everyone to stay seated in their elie chairs, I got up and stood in Nelson’s path, by now close enough that I could make out his sunken eye socket in scary detail. Lifting the rifle above my head, I gently tapped my wedding ring against the magazine cover. This quiet, but extremely unnatural sound stopped the old guy in his tracks. We stood there. Me looking up at him, tap, tapping away, whilst he stared down at me; table-top ears spread out, giving me the once over with his trunk and one wide open eyeball. Then he did something I never expected nor had ever experienced before. Nelson stepped off the well-worn path and stood to one side amongst all the potholes. The communication was crystal clear to me, I knew what to do.
“Okay everyone lets go!”
Rousing our charges, Letota and I calmly and quietly led our small group of gaping walkers in single file right past Nelson – I could have prodded him in the butt with the rifle barrel as we went past he was that close. After passing him we turned and looked back. Nelson stepped back on the pathway and continued down to the lagoon to his own private spa spot away from the hub-hub of cows and frolicking calves. Every time I tell this story, I well up just a little. The trust, tolerance and mutual respect shown by this wise old bull towards a group of human strangers hardly seems fair. After all have we, as a species, reciprocated in kind?
You may be thinking ‘Oh, this is a one off. Nelson was an anomaly.’ Yet a surprisingly similar occurrence happened to me a year later with a much younger bull whom I had never knowingly come across before.
The morning’s walk had been a massive test of wind navigation to avoid elephants. It was October and the sweltering heat pulled elephants from miles around to the cool fresh waters of the Selinda lagoons and channels. We had dodged and weaved between and around herds for hours, always quartering with the wind to avoid being detected. Camp was quite literally within sight – we just had one last herd to get around and we would be home. This sounds scary, and certainly is exhilarating, but really it is trails guiding 101, and of course the experience of Letota was with us.
The herd in front of us was upwind and slowly moving away. Our group of six stood on top of a termite mound in the meagre shade of a leafless mopane tree, safely monitoring the herd as they moved on.
“Psst, Ground!” I knew that stage whisper well by now.
Turning to Letota he pointed back up the trail we had just walked. As you might have guessed, an elephant was strolling along the path straight towards us. It was a different scenario this time. Just in front of us was a potentially dangerous breeding herd and I was loathe to give our position away in case the protective mamas took exception to our presence. This bull had our scent up his elongated nostrils and he was purposefully following our odorous trail with intense interest. It was obvious he wasn’t going to stop until he found the source of the curious smell and the distance was closing fast. Repositioning myself on the termite mound so Letota and I were between the elephant and our guests, we waited for his imminent arrival.
Elephants have an interesting way of seeing their world – mental images are conjured up from aromas and sound waves rather than from colours, shades and shapes. Sight is to an elephant what smell is to us, something we seldom pay attention to. Consequently most elephants walk around with their eyes closed or slightly hooded until they actually need to look at something! So this young bull, paying max attention to the smell he was tracking, wasn’t really looking where he was going. That was until I tossed a handful of dried mopane leaves into his face. Now I’m not sure what the dry-leaf-throwing world record is, but I doubt it’s much more than a few yards. As intended, he stopped with a dust shedding shudder. Opening those beautiful copper-coloured eyes he proceeded to give our group an intense look-over.
Hearts were hammering in our ears, and I’m sure the guests were experiencing some other unexpected bodily reactions, but this young bull’s calm demeanour didn’t change for second. The stare-down dragged on for a hundred deafening beats. Then, without even an ear flap, he turned as if he had all the time in the world, and sauntered off to join his two bachelor buddies a few hundred yards away.
Luck? I don’t think so. If that bull had been afraid, or had negative memories of humans, he would have hightailed it the moment he crossed our stinky path. And he would have raised a vocal alarm that could have put us in a far stickier situation with the breeding herd. No, he was 100% inquisitive without a single malicious intent; a trait we should throw every anthropomorphic adjective at. Maybe if that was the normal zoological protocol, our species would start to appreciate that we don’t hold the sole patent on intelligence, and that creatures like elephants, dolphins, parrots and even octopi possess levels of smarts we don’t have the smarts to fully comprehend.
Having a close look
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Coming full circle……
We have known Mike and Sue for many years. Back in the 90’s, Bachelor Mike used to visit us at Harry’s Camp at least twice a year for a regular Big Five fix and to single handedly keep Fujichrome financially afloat. Married Mike has dragged Sue, happily I should add, all over Africa in his endless pursuit of the perfect male lion photo and award winning Wild Dog shot. Both of which have apparently alluded him. Whether that’s intentional or because his camera apparently isn’t up to scratch (workman and his tools and all that) the fact is, the quest continues. Just as well because it means we get to hang out with them at least once a year (2020 doesn’t count) and do wildlife things together. So when they extended an invite to join them and another friend, Adrienne, on a camping trip to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, we snapped it up.
Hwange is Zimbabwe’s flagship, and biggest, National Park. It is diverse, wild and rugged with a wildlife population that includes spectacular male Lions and lots of photogenic Wild Dog. Strategically dotted across the park are public picnic sites that park management has very wisely decided to double up as private camp sites. Their popularity is legendary and getting a reservation nailed down is no easy task. Well Mike and Sue had managed to wrangle a three night stay at arguably the most popular of them all – Ngweshla.
Ngweshla is the home of Cecil’s bloodline; its sweet grasses feed thousands of buffalo; cheetah and wild dog hunt its open woodlands, and elephants flock here in their hundreds for the delicious pods of the impressive Camelthorn Acacias. In short, it is a wildlife Eden. Oh, did I mention elephants flock here?
We timed our arrival at Ngweshla to coincide with our hosts’ and we pulled in simultaneously through the giant steel gates that guard the entrance to the picnic, slash camp site. These gates are truly impressive and would likely be capable of keeping King Kong himself out of the camp. They certainly give the impression that campers are quite safe from any potential marauders. One small problem though. Ngweshla's perimeter fence, the construction of which dates back to the invention of barbed wire, had, shall we say, fallen into disrepair. It was no surprise then that our coordinated arrival was greeted by two brawny individuals. Binga, the camp keeper/fire lighter/dish washer/toilet cleaner and all round Man Friday – and a big bull elephant. Binga assured us he, the elephant that is, would leave and didn’t pose a threat. Adrienne cast Binga a sideways look as if to say, ‘You sure?’, then asked him, “You sure?”
“Yes, madam, but eish, that elephant is a problem! He stole my maize meal, but he is not a problem for you.” The mixed message was as clear as mud and probably did nothing to quell any jitters that Adrienne and even my own Sharon may have had.
We wanted to set up camp quickly then head out on a sundowner drive to get a feel for the area. Mike did his set up in a flash – took one tent out a bag, tossed it in the air and before it hit the ground….wha-lah tent #1 was up. He did the same with tent #2, then stuffed them full of the necessary bedding, and was ready to go. That is convenient for sure, but these ‘pop-ups’ are tiny and cramped despite being rated as two-man tents. One surely must question what size man they use for these ratings. It certainly wasn’t Mike; he's six foot plenty with enough elbows and knees to fill a tent twice the size.
Sharon and I camp in style, with a proper cottage tent – a far cry from the Boer War affair of Mana Pools. Sure it requires some construction, but once up it has space aplenty and doesn’t need all manner of strings and pegs to keep it upright. I immediately started setting it up under the one and only available tree – a huge Camelthorn Acacia. Sharon was quick to ask, “Is that a good idea? What about that elephant?” gesturing to the jumbo still lurking in the background. I pointed out that Binga, who lives here and knows best, has assured us the elephant isn’t a problem. She cast me a sideways glance as if to say, ‘You sure?’ …… Luckily, almost on cue, the elephant deftly stepped over the remnants of the unsecure security fence and strolled out of sight.
The first night of these camping trips are always special, but this one was even more so. The moon was bright, the air was crisp, and old friends sipped red wine around glowing embers. To top it off our cheery conversation was suddenly interrupted by the full throated roar of a lion just beyond the now chained and padlocked portcullis. What a sublime start to the safari! Adrienne, however, cast me a sideways glance as if to say, ‘Are we okay here?’, then asked, “Are we okay here?”
Mike and I stood behind The Gate like forlorn refugees and peered through the bars into the moon washed grasses beyond. Not able to spot the lion in the moonlight (who would want to be an antelope?), we decided to call it a night and hope an early start in the morning would turn up another chance for Mike to get that elusive lion picture. Mike and Sue got into pop-up#1, Adrienne, after many assurances that all would be fine, into pop-up#2, and Sharon and I retired to the mansion under the tree.
Our light hadn’t been out long enough for us to nod off to sleep when it started raining. Déjà vu!
The no-problem elephant had silently snuck back into camp! Standing next to our tent, he had leant against the tree and given it an almighty shove. This is an elephant’s standard way of harvesting acacia pods and is an impressive show of power. With the tree’s natural elastic resistance, an elephant shove, trunk on trunk, results in an amplification of movement in the upper branches that violently dislodges the ripe pods to rain down like manna from heaven. Sharon’s immediate worry was not the elephant, but rather having a bough come crashing down and rearrange our comfortable, yet still flimsy, cottage. Moving house would have required going outside and I wasn’t volunteering. Instead we lay there listening to the sounds of pods being hoovered up and consumed in a lip-smacking, crunchy serenade that had me drifting off. Then Sharon prodded me back to full alert.
“Listen!” she said.
Right next to our heads, separated by a few microns of rip stop nylon, was the unmistakable sound of deep breathing. A drawn out inhalation, pause… then an extended, soft whoosh of expelled air. The big old maize meal thief had fallen asleep! Elephants nap several times a day, and usually do so standing up. When the trunk muscles relax, the end of the proboscis usually lies slack on the ground. This now is what our visitor was doing. With our heads no more than a foot or two from the end of his trunk, our scent surely wafted up his nose with every breath - yet he slept!
My zoology professors would be appalled, but I honestly believe that this elephant hankered after human company. He was attracted to Binga by more than maize meal, and he was certainly attracted to our tent by more than acacia pods – there were thousands of pod-showering trees around Ngweshla, but here he was. How accepting and comfortable must he have been in our company to go to sleep? Being equally comfortable, indeed glowing with the incredible privilege of sleeping with an elephant, and contemplating how life comes full circle, I too nodded off.
Alas, our friends were having an altogether different experience! When the tree got its first gargantuan shove, Mike, Sue and Adrienne’s voices could be heard from their corner of the camp site. Although we couldn’t make out what they were saying, the tone was pretty clear. There were no assurances on God’s green Earth that would convince Adrienne that everything was okay; that this elephant wasn’t a problem, and that the lion we knew was somewhere close by wasn’t a man-eater. Pushed beyond a comfort zone that had been rapidly eroding since arriving at Ngweshla, she swiftly abandoned pop-up#2 and joined Mike and Sue in pop-up#1. Apparently claustrophobia and Mike’s poky knees and elbows were far better options than dying alone!
* * * *
Are elephants dangerous? Yes, potentially. However, they are definitely intelligent, absolutely compassionate, unquestionably gentle, undoubtedly inquisitive, undeniably humorous, and occasionally naughty. That is what elephants are really all about.