Seeing wild African elephants in their natural bush habitat graces the bucket list of most travellers. At Rainbow Tours, we know the best places to maximise your chances of meeting a herd (or two) on a game drive or bush walk. Here our Africa Travel Specialists shares some of their most memorable elephant encounters in Kenya and Malawi.
I still remember the first elephant I saw it was the start of a long day’s journey from Moyale to Marsabit in Northern Kenya. I was cold, damp and had been up since before dawn, definitely not looking forward to the 12-hour journey over what can only be described as the most horrific road I had travelled across so far. About an hour in, we spotted two majestic grey creatures in the middle of the green bushes to the left. There was a buzz in the truck that had not been there before we had already been on the road 2 months and this was our first real encounter with wildlife. We could not stop long but it was enough for me to become enthralled with these beautiful creatures. Over the years I have had the privilege to encounter elephants in a variety of different settings; these are just some of my favourite encounters.
If you want to get close to baby elephants and help with a worthwhile cause at the same time, then without doubt the best place is The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust based in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. This amazing and special trust takes in orphaned elephants and rehabilitates them back into the wild.There are many reasons why these elephants may be orphans, but increasingly poaching is the main cause.
At 11am every morning the general public is welcomed into the trust to see these babies being bottle feed and learn more about there plight and history. Everyone vies for the best spot behind a rope demarking the barrier between human and elephant, waiting in anticipation for the next hour to begin, then out of the bush walking in single file , with there ears and trunks flopping from side to side in excitement these adorable babies enter. As they get closer they start to run to the keepers waiting for them with the their milk in hand, shoving and jostling for the best position and if possible stealing milk from each other before being noticed and told off. They are full of character; elephants have a similar life cycle to humans, and nowhere is this more evident than here in the orphanage. Where rampant two year olds constantly cause mayhem and mischief. After spending time in the Nursery these elephants are taken to Tsavo national park where they are slowly released back into the wild. Tsavo now has wild herds of orphaned elephants definitely a success story and a opportunity not to be missed.
I have had the pleasure of coming across many elephants while on Safari and can spend hours watching them as they traverse the wonderful plains of the Masai Mara or Serengeti National Park. However two encounters always come to mind above all others when I think about my times in Africa. The first one was in South Luangwa National Park. This park is a jewel that few get to appreciate as bigger named parks in East Africa get all the attention. However it has an amazing diverse wildlife and an opportunity to do night game drives make it a wonderful destination. The river acts as a natural demarcation for the park boundary, with most camps and lodges situated on the opposite river bank. During my first visit to South Luangwa I was lucky enough to encounter wild elephants at very close quarters. These elephants are renowned for walking through camps any time of the day or night.
While cooking dinner on my first night a small group of 5 elephants rounded the end of the truck, having been pre warned I had only what I needed out and managed to throwthe potatoes I was peeling into the back of the truck, and close the door. However another group in the campsite had not heeded the warning, with all their lockers open and food everywhere. The bull slowly meandered over to the truck as people ran in all directions, and diving on to the back of the overland truck. I watched as he methodically made his way through all the food, throwing away what he did want, tearing open bags of sugar and cornflakes. Having decided that he had taught us all a useful lesson he turned and continued on his was with the rest of the herd. We sat around the bar that night recounting the story; we could not believe how lucky we had been with such a close encounter, however the best was yet to come. I feel asleep quickly that night excited for what the following morning game drive might bring. I awoke with a start about 5am and to my wonder, awe, and amazement an elephant was stood a foot outside the tent looking right through the door. A full grown elephant is large enough at a distance, at ground level and looking up at these enormous creatures you truly appreciate their stature and grandeur. Time stood still as we watched each other, I could feel him breathing, his tummy rumble and the world stood to attention in respect of the great beast. And then he was gone slowly moving off as the sun rose over the horizon. I felt privileged that he had decided to spend this African sunrise with me, one that will stay in my memory for as long as I live.
Malawi is not known as a safari destination those who do come tend to spend time on its beautiful lake shore. However if you take the step and travel away from the lake you will be rewarded with some spectacular wildlife opportunities. Vwaza Wildlife Reserve is a beautiful park with few visitors, (as I signed in at the gate I was the first person in 2 weeks to visit), the rangers and staff can not do enough to help you and are very proud of their little piece of paradise. We were allowed to camp in the flats by the river and got to work setting up camp, with the river 150 metres in front of us and the sun lowering, it was the perfect picturesque view. I had just prepared the beef fillet for dinner and had it slowly roasting on the coals when a lone bull elephant appeared from the bush to right of our camp. We watched as he moved along the bush line and disappeared back into the bush. A few moments later we could hear the bush behind us moving, our friend was back keeping a close eye on us. We could see that he was wary of us and unsure what we were doing in his home. Suddenly he had decided and enough was enough, we were not welcome!
He came crashing through the bush straight for us ears and trunk swinging from side to side. In a split second three of us had dived through the same open car door, hearts beating and adrenaline pumping. He stopped short of the car and trumpeted his annoyance at us. For an hour we watched in awe as he inspected our cars, camp and my make shift kitchen were by now my lovely succulent beef fillet was well done! Once satisfied he sent out a brief trumpet we had finally passed his approval! Out of the bush came a female with a small calf probably only a few months old, they greeted each other turned to greet us and then slowly moved of into the bush. Finally we removed ourselves from our cars, no one needed to say anything we just stood silent for a moment absorbing what we had just experienced. Later that night after I hastily put together dinner, we were sat around the camp fire, beer in hand relaxing after an eventful day, in the distance just past the camp light on the flats of the riverbed, lighted every now and again by sparks from fireflies, we could hear the elephants splashing in the water.
I believe I have been lucky with elephants and have great respect for these creatures who roam our earth with us. Things can turn in an instant and you must always remember this when in their habitat we are their guests not the other way round.