Smell is the most evocative of the 5 senses. The olfactory pathways along which scent travels are connected directly to the limbic system, which is the area of the brain responsible for emotions, memories and stimulation.  Mood and behaviour can therefore be directly influenced by smells.

The African bush has no shortage of odours. Some of them are subtle, almost undetectable, and they might have an effect on us that we are unable to consciously connect to the smell itself, so unaware of its presence were we. Other smells can hit us like a wave, resulting in an instant reaction from our bodies, like our mouths filling with saliva when smelling the barbecue smell wafting on the night air upon returning to camp after an evening game drive.

Good or bad, smells are everywhere in the African wilderness, so we thought we’d present a few of our favourites to you here. Most of these you are likely to encounter on a visit to Londolozi. All are unmistakeable. All are pleasing to the nose.

And if you do happen to get a whiff of some of them, from then on, wherever you are in the world, if you smell something similar, I can almost guarantee you will be instantly transported back to Londolozi, and the magic of your African safari.

  • The Smell of Rain

I mean the smell of rain before it arrives.
On a hot summer’s day you can see the storm clouds brewing up in the south. The anvil-heads of the mighty cumulonimbus clouds tower above the savannah, promising rain, which the 40-degree celsius temperature seems to insist on disputing. Then as the first rumbles of thunder are heard (and felt), a gust of chilled air comes sweeping in from the direction of the storm. This air is significantly cooler than the ambient temperature, and you can literally smell the water contained in it. These pre-storm gusts carry not just the smell of water, but infectious excitement too. Impala herds start running everywhere, wildebeest snort and become far more animated, and the whole bush comes alive with the promise of sustenance. Interestingly enough, this sharp smell is actually Ozone, which is usually generated by an electrical charge. This makes perfect sense when you consider that a large number of rainstorms at Londolozi are accompanied by a fair amount of lightning.
For us too, this olfactory detection of imminent rainfall brings about a lightheartedness; a fleeting wild optimism, as we revert briefly back to our base animalistic nature, in which we share the simple joy of the wildlife at the promise of a brief cessation of hardships.

  • Petrichor

Linked to the point above, Petrichor is the smell after rain has fallen; that lovely earthy smell that drifts up off the hot dust after a brief deluge. Made up of the Greek words Petra – meaning ‘stone’ – and Tchor –  which is the fluid that flows in the veins of the Gods in Greek mythology – the word was coined in 1964 by two Australian researchers:

…the smell derives from an oil exuded by certain plants during dry periods, whereupon it is absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. During rain, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of certain actinobacteria, which is emitted by wet soil, producing the distinctive scent…

Thankfully, this smell is not limited only to Londolozi, although combined with the excitement evident in the wildlife before the rain, it can certainly be that much more evocative. The appreciation of the smell is believed to be intensified because our ancestors would have been far more directly dependent on rain for their survival.

  • Leopard Scent Mark

Smelling the unmistakeable popcorn aroma of a leopard’s territorial marking will ensure that you never visit a movie theatre with the same mindset again.

The Flat Rock male lifts his tail to squirt urine onto a gwarrie bush. This spraying marks the territory as his, and warns other male leopards to keep away. It also serves to advertise his presence to any females who may be nearby and in oestrus.

Leopards will spray urine on bushes and trunks of trees, which will convey a lot of information about the individual who left the scent; the sex of the leopard, reproductive condition (if female) and a whole host of other facts.
A study published in The Science of Nature attributed the popcorn-like smell in the urine of a small Asian mammal called a binturong to a chemical compound called 2-AP.
Apparently when a popcorn kernel is heated, the proteins and sugars create a chemical reaction that also forms 2-AP. The study did not say if it was the same compound found in leopard urine, but given that the scent-mark of a leopard smells almost identical to that of a genet, in which the compound is found, I imagine it is one and the same.
The molecular nature of the scent aside, the smell – especially once you’ve watched a leopard scent mark and then caught the aroma immediately afterwards – is one you won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
Even if there’s no leopard visible, just to catch the scent and see the animal’s tracks in the sand and know that it is close… that’s sometimes more than enough.

  • Earthy Smell of Elephants

It may seem strange to have included the urine of leopards in our “Top 7 Aromas” list, but we figured why not go one step further, and include the dung of elephants.
Being herbivores, elephant dung is ultimately just plant matter, and with the elephant population in the Kruger National Park and adjoining game reserves being very healthy, the dung is to be found all over Londolozi. Obviously its freshness will determine how pungent it is, but it is more what the smell represents that is what gets it onto our list.

There’s something mystical in just knowing that these magnificent pachyderms have trodden the same ground upon which you are now standing. And the distinct aroma of their dung becoming fresher and fresher as you follow the tracks of a herd that has been moving through Londolozi creates a unique build-up, that makes a sighting of them – if you eventually find them – that much more special.

  • Gardenia Flowers

There is a small pan not far from Pioneer camp, ringed by gardenia trees (Gardenia volkensii), which have the local name of Tsalala. The pan is named after these trees and is the place from which the Tsalala pride of lions derived their name.

Gardenia flowers are white but yellow with age. Photograph by BT Wursten

The flowers of this tree, in their bright yellow and white, supply a beautiful background to whatever wildlife may be coming down to drink (when the flowers are in bloom), but what is even more appealing about them is the soft perfume-like scent they emit, not dissimilar to a Frangipani/Plumeria flower. It is only for a month or so that these flowers are blooming in large enough numbers at the pan for their scent to filter across to the road that skirts it, but it is unforgettable, almost out of place in the wilds.

  • Wild Basil

Driving across a clearing to view some high-profile predator will often result in a familiar, herbaceous smell drifting up around the vehicle. Most of the time this will be the scent of wild basil, the flowers of which release the scent strongly if driven over. Simply rolling the flowers around in your hand on a bush walk will also have the desired affect, but it is often quite a surprise – particularly for overseas visitors – to have a smell that they normally associate with their kitchens or the local Fruit and Veg market, to now be permeating the air as they watch lions move through the woodland.

Wild basil abounds in clearings like this, which the Tsalala pride (pictured her circa. 2014) frequent. I’m pretty sure there’s some in the foreground, but because it’s out of focus I can’t confirm.

  • Dinner Cooking on an Open Fire

There’s no set dinner time at Londolozi. Game drives return after dark, and dinner is ready when you are. But there’s nothing quite like driving in through the camp gates after a particularly exciting game drive, and having that delightful smell of barbecue drifting through the night air as you enter the car park; you know you are in for a wonderful evening of good food, wine, and storytelling around an African fire.

The bush is about far more than just what you see. As evidenced above, it’s about what you smell too. And touch, and taste, and hear.
A truly authentic and immersive bush experience should engage all five senses, so no matter what sense you are using the most of, make sure you allow the time to let the other four play their own roles too.

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

View James's profile

11 Comments

on The 7 Best Aromas of The African Bush

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Marinda Drake

Lovely blog James. Just love it when we drive through the bush early in the morning and you can “smell the bush.” Nothing like smelling the rain. The beautiful gardenia flowers. Got two trees in my garden. Not flowering yet but hopefully soon. Folowing the Tambotie female all we could smell was the wild basil as the vechiles crushed the plants releasing the scent. We were fortunate to smell a leopard scent mark. Another plant that is so typical of the African bush that I have encountered a bit further north is the Pechuel-loescha or wild sage. It has got an amazing scent.

James Tyrrell

Hi Marinda,
Yip, the wild sage is also a good one. To be honest there were plenty more we could have included. Maybe we’ll put out another list sometime soon…

Denise Vouri

Wow! Your blog really refreshed my “scents “ memories from my stays in Africa. You’ve highlighted some of my favorites and one not so much (fresh elephant dung). I also find the wild sage to be intoxicating whilst out driving around, especially during a sundowner stop. I’ve always traveled to Southern Africa during your summer and so the smell of the trees, earth and animals warmed by the 35c heat has always stayed with me. I live in Northern California where the summer can be 100F plus, and the scent is not the same whilst I’m out hiking and photographing. I’ve learned smells are an inherent part of a place’s identity, like Indian markets where the spices can be overwhelming or Vietnam where the smell of fish sauce permeates the air during fermentation season.

Each of our senses is important and plays a role in our life experiences, but the sense of smell transports me more quickly than any other. Thank you for this Sunday wake up story and the memories it evokes for me.

James Tyrrell

Thanks for the comments Denise! I agree, the smell of a place is often inherent in its identity!

Ian Hall

The wonderful smell of an uncorked bottle of Luddite Shiraz

James Tyrrell

Agreed! Had one the other day…

Gemma Kemps

The only aroma I have yet to smell is the leopard. Someday when I come back to Londolozi it will be one of the first things I seek out to do.
Thanks James for the great blog

James Tyrrell

You’re welcome Gemma.
The leopard one is one you won’t forget! 🙂

Mauricia Neeley

I must say the earthy smell of elephants and buttered popcorn smell was my favorite aromas.

Karen Cleary

Love the smell of rain… and how about the potato bush?

James Tyrrell

Coming in part 2… 😉

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