Kyle returned for our fourth game drive and we had heard whisperings about the elephants, guarded radio messages and vague comments that they had been near the camp, along with the lions, days before but were now moving west. Would we ever see them we wondered, catch them up and experience up close their enormous presence and controlled movement? Also a young male cheetah had been spotted on a termite mound not too far away, so these two factors determined our route for the afternoon.
Tick free and wearing a different pair of trousers I walked with Rob to the vehicle, a warthog giving us a friendly send off and again, within minutes we were soaking up the beauty of new birds to us, two Wattled Lapwing picking along the shore of a waterhole, not a ‘desert’ as a multitude of lapwings are called, just a pair with Yellow Billed Stork preening themselves in the trees above. The little yellow bird I believe was either an Oriole or a Weaver bird. He wasn’t the Golden Pipit who was becoming increasingly illusive so that Jady was thinking they would have to start cancelling twitchers’ reservations if it appeared the rare little fellow had moved on.
Suddenly Kyle brought us to a stop as a Spitting Cobra started out across the road ahead, we waited until it decided to continue and disappear into the bush. On our bush walk Darren had told us about his step granddaughter who loves snakes. She has watched her grandad handle them and learned to do so herself, without fear. She would even go so far as to kiss one until it thought she was being over familiar and bit her tongue. She is a little more respectful of their wildness now.
Numerous radio exchanges with other rangers resulted in our hunt for the cheetah and very soon Kyle spotted him lounging without a care in the world on his little hill. He was so chilled it was difficult to get a picture of him with his eyes open. We came with an open mind to this safari, more than grateful to see whatever was going on and we remained so, but I can see how easy it is to get more particular and want the cheetah to get up and move so we could see his whole beautiful body, to hope the eagle would take off for a view of its flight feathers and the hippo would take a trip ashore so its whole rounded body would be revealed to us, but we were just grateful to be witnessing our own encounters with the lovely like-minded company of Kyle and Leticia.
The rangers that morning had been disturbed by the news that a young male cheetah had gone to a waterhole the night before and been taken by a crocodile. This was indeed a shame as there are not many on the reserve and the loss of this one as a reproductive male would alter the balance for a while until the latest cubs grow up. We watched ‘ours’ ignoring us completely for a few more minutes before moving off to allow another vehicle to come and take in his relaxed beauty. As the night drew on this chap took down an impala for his latest feed.
Yippee we were heading westwards to where the elephants had been seen. Downwards towards a valley of thick lush grass that would be up to most peoples’ knees, and my waist and in which there must have been lots of small fauna. There was an air of excitement in our bouncing vehicle, were we at last going to be in luck?
Emerging from a corridor of grass and round a bend and Rob and I exclaimed in unison, “Elephants!”
They were crossing the same dry riverbed that eventually runs by the Lodge and the ‘tail’ end was being brought up by a male, it seemed to be his role as he stayed behind throughout our encounter. At one stage he became sandwiched on the track between us and another vehicle but was very calm about it and to pass us he just wandered off the track for a few paces and rejoined it ahead of us.
The sun was well down by now and with it behind us and shining directly onto them they looked magnificent; charcoal coloured in the shade and light oak brown in the sunlight against the rich green grass that they grasped in clumps as they walked and fed into their pointy lipped mouths. They are on the move most of the time, grazing and drinking copious amounts of water to keep their great bodies going.
The matriarch was busy pushing loiterers onwards to keep the herd moving and give the two young ones space. Then they came to a temporary stop and so too did we at about a fifty metre distance. There was a little argy bargy going on between two of them and then one turned briskly around and effectively chased the other one back towards us. Things suddenly became very interesting and fortunately I caught it on film. They were heading straight for us. When the chasee arrived he peeled off to our right but the chaser just kept coming. I think maybe it hadn’t registered our presence because when she saw she was practically on us she let out a terrific trumpet alarm, ears flared and then calmed down instantly. Exciting stuff. They could so easily harm us but their angst seems to be reserved for their own kind, here where they are free to roam and nowhere near human habitations.
It’s interesting how we can be so misled by the media as far as animal numbers are concerned. I was led to believe that there would in the not too distant future be no elephants left the wild in Africa, as indeed there are no leopards left in the wild. Then there were the 350 who died having fallen forward, tusks still on near a waterhole, and that was thought to be an immense tragedy for conservation. They died from blue/green algae poisoning. As Darren said, a tragedy yes but out of 100,000 elephants hardly a threat to their future survival.
We moved on a little way and stopped again to see one of them reaching high into a fig tree to pluck both fruit and leaves for an alternative meal to grass. Some of the figs are unripe and will pass through the elephant undigested. The food an elephant eats is digested and passed out within 20 minutes(!) so they have to keep grazing. Other animals and birds like their droppings because they are still packed with goodness. If ripe figs are discarded it is a good way of spreading the seeds; another way in which elephants help maintain their habitat.
They were now re-crossing the dry river bed and climbing up the very steep bank on the other side. Kyle told us that if we wanted to escape a rampaging elephant then climbing or descending a steep hill was the best way as they slow these big creatures right down. Just not be there in the first place was a better bet I thought.
This was the entire herd of 35 elephants that live on the reserve and they were on their way for a drink. Most of the waterholes were dug when this was a cattle ranch and of course the wildlife know exactly which ones have water in them all year. The hippos rarely budge from theirs where they act as fishing islands for the grey herons, as you will see.
The youngest baby loved the water and ambitiously reached further than the others for his drink. Then I noticed something on the pictures while preparing for this blog that none of us had spotted when we were out there communing with the gentle giants. Take a look at the next picture of the four elephants re-joining the track with the baby in the middle. Just above the little one are two hyena watching the proceedings, but we were so distracted we didn’t notice them at the time. Giraffes kept their distance too, wary and watchful and two of them were play fighting, swinging at each other’s necks with their own, ready for when they need the skill for real.
Most of the herd had moved off by now over the grassland but we couldn’t continue down the track because a male was walking slowly towards us, trunk swinging, ears splayed, footfalls precise. We all wondered what was on his mind. He came right up to us, sniffed around the front bumper, rolled his trunk across the bonnet, somehow satisfied he then turned left to join the others.
The two antelope are a male and female Nyala, the most dimorphically opposed animals in the animal kingdom in that they look as if they are from completely different species.
We spotted an ostrich pair with their three young just before we pulled off the track for sundowners and to help Leticia with a project she had been given by a client to publicise the green, thermos insulated food box provided by ‘Wild’. There, I’ve done my bit too.
The light was fading fast as we sipped our complimentary beer and wine, munched on cheesy puffs with dips and beef jerky (for some) and chatted and posed for photos around ‘the box’, so we hadn’t noticed that our big afternoon companions were making their way up the hill in our direction. Kyle was in mid verbal flight when his _expression_ suddenly changed. We were on the ground and some elephants were walking directly towards us. We packed away in haste and climbed into the safety of the Toyota, the elephants now dark encroaching shadows barely discernible in the enveloping dusk.
Jady was awaiting us with three Sherries and guided us to the lodge for supper after a truly incredible game drive. It must be nice for the staff to witness the reverential joy visitors feel in being up close with big wildlife. The experience was certainly giving me optimism for the future of African wildlife as there are countless reserves like this around, teeming with animals living their natural lives in a protected place.