Elephant encounters

My wife, Helen, and I have just spent a few days wandering around Manyaleti Game Reserve with friends, Neville and Sue Kelly, Mervin and Joan Gibb and Pat Donaldson. We were based at Pungwe Camp in the Manyaleti Reserve. Manyaleti means “the place of stars”. It is located adjacent to Kruger Park in South Africa between the Timbavati and Sabi Sands. The entrance to Manyaleti is right next to the Orpen gate in the Kruger Park. There are no fences between Manyaleti and Kruger, Timbavati or Sabi Sands, only on the western boundary with Acornhoek so the wildlife is free to wander through the four reserves unhindered. 

“The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’. In reality, except as a geographical appellation Africa does not exist.” ~ Ryzard Kapuseinski

Pat Donaldson was our guide. He has guided in this area for the past forty years and his knowledge, understanding and love of the bush and its wildlife was inspirational. For “townies” who go it the bush for a few days, a wildlife guide is invaluable as they can read the sounds and signs of the bush far better than you.  This improves your chances of seeing the game/wildlife and your  guide is better able to read the behaviour of wildlife  which is necessary for the wellbeing of the animals and the visitors.

On our first morning we had our traditional cup of coffee and a rusk before setting out on our wanderings. This time of the year is mid-winter in South Africa, so it is cold for us, but I guess for those from the northern hemisphere who are used to colder climes, the temperatures would be considered mild. The saving grace is the clear blue skies with mist wafting through the trees before the sun rises and the knowledge it will be warm around mid-day.

We had not travelled for ten minutes from the camp when we came across a small breeding herd of elephants – with a few youngsters. A female (in the centre of the next image) came around a large anthill and immediately started to walk towards us. Nothing unusual about that….

Then, all of a sudden, with no warning, she charged us. We were sitting quietly in the game vehicle not making a noise, though Pat had the vehicle idling.

“Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.” ~ John Muir

After the first charge she must have been about 30 metres from us but she did not back away. I have never seen it before but she rocked from side to side lifting her left front leg and then her right front leg. Almost as if deciding what to do next.

After lifting her right leg she decided to charge us. I had my telephoto lens on a focal length of 70 mm, not far from normal vision, so when she filled the frame she had really caught my attention.

During the charge she had moved to about 20 metres from us. Then, she stopped, stood for a short while, and backed away. As she walked away she kept an eye on us with a side glance.

After walking away about five or six steps she whirled around and, in full “trumpet mode”, charged again, this time to within 10 metres of the vehicle. I think it needs a practiced wildlife photographer to keep shooting in this scenario. I decided her tusks were about 700mm long and she was swinging her trunk wildly so I moved my butt from the closest seat to her into the middle seat of the vehicle.

Pat then decided it was time to move because something had annoyed her and she was likely to hit the vehicle – which would not have been good for her or the vehicle! She  chased the vehicle for a short while and then gave up. Pat casually said “are you all wake now?”  We were fully awake with hearts racing.

“Trees intrigue me. They give me a sense of the soil and geology below. Some live for thousands of years, some for a decade. They tell me what birds I might find in them. They provide food and fuel for many, Their shape is definitive and has a purpose. Their leaves, branches, trunks and roots have an energy transfer system and fluid dynamics which we are still trying to fully fathom. They are the earth’s lungs and many of us find great soothing when they talk to the wind.” ~ Mike Haworth

On a more sedate note winter is a time when the leaves of the Tamboti trees turn red. Tambotis seem to grow in groves so the browns yellow and greens of the bushveld you will often find a splash of Tamboti red.

The Tamboti has a distinctive dark bark pattern of rectangular blocks in rows. The leaves have a toxic milky latex. This is a type of wood you do not want to use as fire wood as  it will it cause headaches and vomiting. Porcupines seemingly love the bark of Tambotis in winter.

Late the first afternoon, we found a mature bull elephant, approximately 50 years old, just standing – he looked to be in distress. He had an abscess on his right front foot which had infected his whole right leg causing it to be very swollen. Nobody knows exactly what caused the foot wound but it was thought to be from natural causes so the wildlife managers who initially looked at the leg, decided to not intervene further. He was really struggling to walk and was hopping on his left front leg, which as you can imagine with six tonnes was no easy task. He has had this problem for over a month but seemed to be able to feed himself and get water so hopefully he will recover.

“I just wish the world was twice as big and half of it was unexplored.”~ David Attenborough

A typical sunset in the African bushveld with the dusty orange glow silhouetting a knob-thorn tree which had lost its leaves for the winter. The air temperature was considerably warmer at sunset than at sunrise.

“Softly the evening came with the sunset.” ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Sunset is sundowner time. We found a dam close to Buffelshoek camp and got off the vehicle to stretch our legs and get a drink. On the ground at twilight you get a sense of the changeover in the bush when the diurnal wildlife look for shelter and the nocturnal wildlife begin to stir. I wandered with Pat down to the dam to get this image of a lone young bull elephant drinking in the last light with the moon above.

It was a few minutes after I had taken the previous image when we were back at the vehicle that a lone elephant walked passed us down to the dam. He was dead quiet, surprising quiet, as he moved through the bush. After the leader had passed, the rest of the breeding herd followed, accompanied by two large bulls. There was no fuss or commotion and it was very quiet and relaxed. If I had tried to record the sound of the herd passing you would have only heard the Pearl Spotted Owlets in the adjacent trees.

The light was all but gone when another game vehicle drove past the drinking herd. The vehicle lights give you a sense of the fading light.

As quickly and quietly as they arrived, the herd was gone. It is hard to describe the sensual experience of these enormous animals walking past you so quietly. One bull elephant hung back and just watched us. He started to walk towards us but not in a threatening way so Pat just started talking to him so that he knew exactly where we where and shined torch so he would not get a fright as he walked by. With no fuss he then walked past us down to the dam. It is only when you are on foot  that you get a full sense of the size of large a bull elephant.

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. there is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” ~ Jawaharlal Nehru

With drinks packed away we climbed back on the vehicle and made our way back to camp with images of the ghosts in the evening light swimming in our senses. On his way back to camp Pat likes to stop the vehicle in the dark, turn the engine off and just listen to the sounds of the bush and stare up at the canopy of stars above. It was a full moon so the bush was quite light at night and the full spender of the night sky dimmed somewhat but the moonlight.

“We sit still in the game vehicle enveloped by the darkness. Above was a canopy of twinkling stars beckoning us to look up. In the distance was the whoop of a patrolling hyaena. Close by was the “chirrrup” of a Scop’s owl. The cloak of our urban life was falling away.” ~ Mike Haworth

I  love the animated chatter around the fire and dinner table after the day’s wanderings in the bush. It is a time for discussing what we saw and stories new and old.

“The warmth of friendship, the imagination stirred by the stories and the wildness of the place all dance in the flickering flames of the campfire.” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


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