Mud is an element of the earth. It is comprised of minerals, soil, silt and often clay.
As humans we use mud as a detoxification as well as to exfoliate and nourish our skins. It is said that the Romans were the first humans to use mud baths as a form of therapy as early as 120 BC. It is not written as to how the Romans discovered the powers of mud baths – I would like to think it was from observing our fellow mammals who had been practicing this form of relaxation from a much earlier time.
The “bush,” as we refer to it in South Africa, is certainly not a cool place. The geographical positioning of Londolozi gives rise to some extreme temperatures throughout the year. Our annual summer high is around 35ºC (95ºF) and in winter the mercury in the afternoon hovers around 26ºC (79ºF). These temperatures are certainly not comfortable for some of the larger “thick skinned” animals. The term “thick skinned” is not referring to the animals ability to handle insults, but rather the literal meaning of the thickness of their skin. The three main animals that fall into this category are the larger ones: Cape buffalo, elephant and the rhino. These three heavyweights not only have to contend just with the thickness of their skins, but also the dark complexion of it as well as the lack of perspiratory glands around the body. This means that on a hot day at Londolozi, these three animals feel the heat rather quickly.
In order to combat this over heating, the three heavyweights have devised an ingenious and rather fun way of cooling down, one that I’m sure they have been using for much longer than the Romans – the mud wallow.
The art of mud wallowing starts off with selection. Selection of the wallow is crucial, it needs to have the right amount of water, and obviously mud. Too much water may cool the animals down, but without enough mud, that will eventually stick to the animals, the three heavies will heat up way too quickly after leaving the “spa.” Not enough water – well without water soil cannot be mud; therefore no mud wallow. There is nothing quite like seeing a young elephant realising it’s on its way to the perfect mud wallow, sprinting towards it, most times its back legs moving faster than the front ones, which as physics would have it, causes the “speed wobble” we see all too often.
The next step for the “spa” visitors is the actual treatment. This is usually quite a comical part of the process; certainly my favourite! The animals need to try cover every inch of their skins with mud, this may seem like an easy task for us Homo sapiens but when you are a gigantic 5 ton elephant, it’s not that easy to do a full rotation in three feet of mud. This is why I say it is usually quite comical. To see a massive rhino bull, who usually exudes confidence in everything it does, try to do the roll-over in a pool of mud that would take me up to my knee, is nothing short of hilarious. They do however manage to do it, much to the entertainment of the onlookers. Buffalo often even go a step further. They seem to believe that if their entire head and face is covered in mud, it will help their heat issue, which I’m sure it does. An animal which most people are petrified of, rightfully so, doesn’t look as scary when it has a cake of mud attached to its nose. Nevertheless, it works. However the animals go about the process, by the end of the session they are covered in thick mud.
The last step of the treatment is the exfoliation. The animals will exit the wallow and find a rubbing post. The rubbing post is often right next to the wallow. It is usually a fallen over tree or an old tree stump that stands upright. This is when the animals stride up beside it and start scratching, targeting those hard to reach places. The best way I can try describe their expression when they’re scratching is – that feeling you get when you discover you can reach that itch on your back that has been irritating you for the past minute, pure delight! The main objective of the exfoliation is to remove dead skin and parasites; mainly ticks. They do however try not rub off all the mud and keep some on their bodies to keep them cool and protect their rough hide from the sun until the next mud wallowing session.
So next time you visit the spa and experience a mud wrap or maybe even just see it on the menu, know that somewhere on Londolozi there are animals doing it too, who – to give them credit – have been doing it for a lot longer than us humans.