What a wonder is walking in the bush. The thrill of being out of the vehicle, exposed. Going back to our roots as we once again become a participant in nature; no longer day dreaming on the back seat of the Land Rover with the warm sun on our face and wind in our hair, sedentary.
No. Now you are breaking a sweat on foot, on high alert and on top of a termite mound, crouched in silence, watching and listening to a four-ton elephant bull pulling up bits of vegetation 30 m from you. You can hear it breathing as the swish, swish of its tail goes in time with the flapping of giant ears that crack against muscular shoulders to cool its mammoth body.
This was where we found ourselves on a bush walk recently with a group of guides who had the afternoon off. Five of us set out, mostly to enjoy the sights and sounds and being out on foot together in the late afternoon bush, but also hoping with excitement vibrating right down into our veldskoen that we might come across one of the big five.
We had been traversing the banks of the Manyelethi River with Bruce Arnott and Pete Thorpe in the lead, when Greg Pingo spotted a single elephant up on the crest across the river about 750m away; a great spot I must say for the shortest member of the group.
After a brief discussion on how we should approach this elephant we crossed the river, walking with the wind at our backs. We planned on doing a big half-moon sweep to get downwind of it. Elephants don’t have the best eyesight so as long as you can remain quiet, stay downwind and keep a reasonable distance, there is a good chance the elephant will not detect you. This scenario also seemed to be one of the safer ones in which to approach an elephant as we knew this to be a bull. If there had been a few elephants, chances are they would have been a breeding herd comprising mothers and calves. This is generally considered a situation in which to keep your distance as the mothers will likely be protective of their young.
As we started to make our way upwind to where we had last seen the elephant (we had lost sight of it as we dipped down to cross the river) we found ourselves in some thick bush which blocked our view. We proceeded with caution, peering around each corner, stopping and listening. As we approached the exact area we had last seen the elephant about twenty minutes prior, our hearts began to sink. Had we missed it? Had it wandered away further up the crest in search the newly-fruiting marula trees or perhaps headed down to the river for a drink?
Then a soft “Click” came from the rear of the group. John Mahoud had snapped his fingers to alert us that he had spotted the large bull. Natural sounds like finger clicking or short whistles are used by members of a walking party to alert the lead guides.
The bull was in a thicket and John had just spotted the curve of his rump in the shade, swaying slowly among the Tamboti trees as he fed. We were positioned perfectly downwind so that the elephant could not smell us, and Bruce had done a good job leading us from termite mound to termite mound; safe waypoints when one is on foot in the bush as they give one cover as well as a height advantage. A mound was nearby so up we went and all five of us sat and watched as the bull fed about 50 metres away. After about five minutes he emerged slowly out of the thicket and walked into the clearing in front of our mound. He looked very relaxed completely unaware of our presence.
With the wind still in our favour we sat for the next half hour in the presence of this great wild animal of Africa completely comfortable in his natural environment.
Refreshed and in awe we descended the mound and I could feel the positive energy we were all storing from the experience come bubbling out as we stopped a distance away to share the experience out loud and out of earshot of the elephant.
Experiences like these are humbling, giving me the same feeling I get when staring up at a clear starry night sky. I find myself naturally reflect on my life. What path led me to this wonderful moment I am experiencing right now? How fortunate I am to witness this! Thoughts often go one step further as I think of the stresses of everyday life and suddenly realize how trivial they all are in the greater scheme of things. I see this in my guests that I take on safari as – day by day – they relax into the rhythm of the bush, away from rush of modern life.
Perhaps subconsciously following the example of the wise elephant, slowing down and appreciating the simple things in life; a meal, a beautiful evening and – in our case – a few good friends.