Close encounters in the African bush at Elephant Sands Campsite, Botswana by Ramdas Iyer
01.06.2013 - 07.06.2013
The African bush is never quiet at night. The growls of lions and the laughing cries of the hyenas are commonplace. But to hear elephants outside your humble chalet, chomp and tear barks all night is certainly an exhilarating experience . On the large tract of land between Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and the world famous Chobe National Park, Botswana lies Elephant Sands, an open camp site on 16000 hectares of private land with absolutely no fences. It is a wild life corridor connecting these national parks.
I arrived at dusk at the very sandy campsite, impassible without a 4X4 in the rainy season. Two large tuskers were blocking the entrance to the campsite. We waited until they moved away, but this was just the harbinger of things to come. No sooner we arrived, excited to see a small herd by the water hole I ran straight to set up my equipment to capture the incredible animals at such close proximity. In the process I had failed to register which could have almost turned me into a "open-air"khakhi tented camper instead of being inside the confines of a thatched hut like a registered guest.
Four hours later, I was still watching these creatures, having missed my call for the communal dinner. It was getting dark and my photographic quality was suffering, with the constantly moving animals in the dark. Sipping wine with my guide on a fabulous moonlit night, I figured out a way to take some decent snaps with my Lumix X-5 by setting the timer at 2 secs . Once the excitement of photography had abated, I simply enjoyed the comings and goings of different herds. They would arrive as a big group, have a brief stand-off with another group at the hole, after "introductions" they would mingle and depart quietly. Occasionally there would be skirmishes amongst the young bachelor males resulting in prolonged gentle jousting.
Elephant Sands was opened by Oom Ben, who converted his private lands for eco-tourism in 2008. Botswana has done a great job of managing its wildlife and improving tourism. In fact it is Africa's destination for high end safaris. Elephant Sands is located in the fringe of the sandy desert of Nata area, where the great Nxai pan and the Makadgadi pans form a contiguous natural habitat. The pans themselves are salty desert whose only plant life is a thin layer of blue-green algae. However the fringes of the pan are circled by grassland and then shrubby savanna.
The water in the camp is so brackish that sweet water is transported from 30 km away to quench the visitors and the elephants. Every day over 6 truckloads are brought in during summer months. Many ecologists do not like the idea of attracting wildlife with unnatural water sources, since they are on a collision course with human safety. There have been many instances where the elephants simply walk into the lodge and sip from the pool while startled guests cower on one end of the pool.
Jeffrey Barbee, South African photojournalist writes in his blog about Oom Ben, the elephant loving owner: "A small injury from an angry and confused female elephant has done nothing to deter him. Earlier this year a baby elephant fell into his swimming pool. The mother jumped in after it, but the pool was too small for her to turn around. In the resulting chaos, Ben jumped into the pool and helped the baby elephant to safety at considerable risk to his own life. The mother made it out but not before damaging the pool and getting very worked up. Later in the evening she came to the bar, cornered Ben, and charged him -lifting him up off the ground with the force of her impact and sending him flying across the bar floor. Only the solid roof of the structure prevented her from trampling him. In response, Ben widened the pool and made big elephant-sized steps for the beasts to safely get out. He also grudgingly made a small fence around the bar area to protect clients from what he calls "the possibility of future confusion". He does not regret the attack, and feels that people and elephants can get along with mutual respect and understanding. He blames himself for not making sure his trunked guests were as catered for as him two legged ones"
You should see this URL from YouTube " http://www.wimp.com/elephantpool/".
When I arrived at Elephant sands in June of 2013, the pool had already been widened and a small wall no higher than 18 inches erected around the fire pit to separate wilderness from humanity.
This lodge has been trampled upon , ripped apart and made treeless by the elephants that surround it on a daily basis. Many guest complain about its rudimentary offerings not realizing that they are in an absolute wilderness area where the elephants rule.
I used this new berm for some interesting shots on a moonlit night with the seven sisters appearing in the sky on many shots. There was a moment when I had a close call. My constant presence near the berm had irritated one of the larger males as he had raised his trunk to sniff my presence. My driver/guide Coleen warned me to back off a bit after the big male took a couple of quick steps in my direction.
Elephants are very dangerous animals. They may not appear aggressive on first sight but may react to their environment in a very unpredictable manner. Having travelled in the African bush for 7 weeks in the last 18 months, I could see minor differences in elephant populations in different parts of the continent. Despite being the same species, their environment must have an effect on their appearance. The Etosha , Namibia elephants were large and stocky, theHwange, Zimbabwe elephants were tall, the Tanzanian and Ugandan elephants were thinner and of medium size while the Botswana variety looked very healthy. This is my personal assessment and may be factors such as poaching, nutrition and disease could be the reason for these perceived differences. Coleen mentioned that the Hwange elephants due to rampant poaching in Zimbabwe are always more aggressive in the presence of human beings. Something I noticed while driving through the park there.
After several hours of enjoying these wonderful animals, I wanted to get some sleep but was unable to retrieve my luggage from our car. There was a big guy standing right next to the car. Elephant sands has its share of lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs walk through its facilities. Recently a pack of 16 wild dogs chased one another while guests were scurrying for safety. In fact a black backed Jackal was skulking around the kitchen area.
After a brief night's sleep, I was up at sunrise to see these beautiful creatures in daylight. Once again they arrived like clockwork to get a 200 liter drink each from the man made waterhole . I saw beautiful birds and a mother and baby Kudo coming to the hole to drink water. The moonlit night was magic and so special that a future visit may not grant me that same joy .Reluctant to leave on one hand but excited on the other on the prospect of visiting Hwange ,I made my way through the Pandamatanga gate into Hwange and Zimbabwe.
Earlier this year, I read that Oom Ben was hospitalized after taking a fall from a ladder while trying to fix a radio antennae that the elephants had ripped apart. In July 2013, The Daily Telegraph, UK reported that 325 elephants were poisoned in water holes by poachers in Zimbabwe along with a host of Lions, antelopes and hyenas. I hope that one of the hundred odd pachyderms that arrived from Zimbabwe which I saw that moonlit evening was not a victim of this disaster which happened only a month after my departure. The End.
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