By our third game drive at Motswari, we had already seen more wildlife than our southern California minds could just.about.handle. and we were starting to feel confident in our animal-spotting skills. But there were still two main things at the top of my wish list:
giraffes and elephants.
We said goodbye to the Brazilian couple that afternoon and learned that there would only be four of us on the evening drive so I knew I could make a "request" for our trackers. Happily, the other two passengers, a French-speaking Swiss couple currently living in South Africa, were also excited about seeing the "hee-raffs" so we were on a mission.
As we climbed into the truck, our driver, Marka, simply gave a knowing smile, as if we had just asked David Copperfield if he knew any "good card tricks". In the Timbavati Reserve, there is a complex network of dirt "roads" that zigzag across 135,000 acres of dense, bushy wilderness, that eventually lead to a few well-known hangouts, like watering holes, riverbeds, and grassy fields. While on our way to find a few elephants and giraffes, Marka took us on about an hour-long scenic drive through the reserve, for a chance to see a lounging crocodile, a family of hippos, and a rather unimpressed hornbill (aka "Zazu, from the Lion King).
It must have been around 4:30pm when we turned off the road and headed down an embankment towards a dried riverbed where the trackers had a good idea we might see a few elephants enjoying their dinner. We spot a small herd in the distance and could see a few large grey shapes moving amongst the grass. Elephants are very curious and if you approach them from the front (so they aren't startled) they will often help themselves to a closer look.
When the herd turned toward our general direction, Marka shut off the engine, and we watched with Christmas-morning excitment as they slowly started making their way closer, taking mouthfuls of food with their trunks as they went. Within a few minutes (they take pretty big steps), the matriarch of the group came swaying through the tall grass and stepped out right in front of us, leading the way for a line of babies and toddlers trailing behind her.
Just remembering the feeling of that moment, tears in my eyes, my hands shakily gripping my camera, still gives me goosebumps. I couldn't believe what we were witnessing, in Africa, in the wild. Tragically, elephants and humans do not have a happy history- between circuses, zoos, and poaching, we've certainly earned a horrible reputation- so to be able to sit there, in the open air, just a few feet from these magnificent, gentle giants was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The mamas were patient and trusting with our presence, and our truck, and after giving their "all-clear" to their babies, a few of the braver ones even shook their ears and trumpeted at us as they ran by. (there's a short iphone video at the bottom of this post)
Elephants are one of the most intelligent mammals on earth, with an average memory-span of 40 years, and even in the wild, they demonstrate complex behaviors like grief, humor, use of tools, compassion, self-awareness, and mimicry. They live in multi-generational herds, care for each other's babies, and mourn their loved ones in annual rituals. Although they are now heavily protected in private reserves, elephant poaching in national parks is at a record high. Forgive my soapbox for a second, but it is absolutely beyond comprehension that in 2015, humans are still hunting hundreds of elephants per day for their ivory tusks (most of which is exported, illegally of course, to Asia for "medicinal" and novelty use). And since I was shocked by this while researching our own trip, I think it is worth mentioning: there are still an overwhelming amount of hunting lodges that allow tourists to pay to hunt their own personal Big-5 trophies throughout South Africa, and beyond. It's also nearly impossible to simply Google images of these animals without a devastating photo of a "hunter" in camo posing with a massive rifle and their victims appearing on the first results page. Come on, humans, let's be better.
We were watching the elephants continue to make their way down the riverbed when,
off in the distance (can you see her, right above the grass in the middle?), we spotted (sorry, safari pun) the other animal we had hoped to find that evening. We headed over for a closer look just as she was making her way across the riverbed and up the slope.
While watching a giraffe in its natural habitat I was struck by two things: how graceful they are, silently gliding across the sand, and how tall they really are! Fully grown, giraffes stand between 16-20 feet, so even in the second row of the Land Rover, we were only eye-level with her shoulders. Since giraffes rarely travel alone, Marka had a hunch that we would find a few more nearby. After a few false-alarms (hint, giraffes look a lot like trees), we turned down a different road just as a mama and baby were walking across up ahead.
We pulled over to watch them for a while and noticed that they were chewing on something hard and white. In our own personal Animal-Planet moment, we learned that giraffes will sometimes chew on bones (in this case, giraffe bones!) for calcium. They reminded us of our own dogs chewing on their favorite toys, which leads me to believe that a giraffe would make a wonderful addition to our family- if we move to a giant African wildlife reserve someday. Dan, thoughts?
After visiting with the giraffes, as the sun was starting to set on the horizon, Marka got a call from another tracker that they were with the pack of wild dogs we had seen that morning. Wild dogs hunt at night, so we were hoping to reach them in time to witness their pack-skills in action. There was a full moon that night, so we had a little bit of light and were able to stay fairly close to the pack as they split up to try and hunt. This particular pack was mostly made up of adolescent pups, who's enthusiasm was no match for their lack of experience, and they eventually went back to their den, and hungry mama, empty-pawed.
Us, on the other hand, had the admittedly unfair advantage of riding comfortably back to camp where dinner was about to be served. Although we still had another full day of adventures ahead, somehow I already knew that this evening would be one of my favorite memories from our entire trip.
Elephants on Parade: