And we’re off for some sightseeing.
We got an early start but had to turn around before we got far down the road to return the keys that remained in my pocket.
Today we are headed to Nata Bird Sanctuary and Elephant Sands. We weren’t far out of town when we spied our first black-backed jackal and then giraffes on the road.
Nata Bird Sanctuary
Friends, Ali and Mark, launched their boat at the Nata Bird Sanctuary in May when the water was high and birds were nesting. Three hundred millimeters in rain in February was a boon that brought the water level up to an impressive level, and they were eager to see how far it has receded. About a meter, they figure, based on our photos.
When we stopped at the gate, the woman tending it said, “You won’t see anything; it’s too hot.”
We’ve heard that before . . . and then been gobsmacked by the quantity and variety of wildlife spotted. Of course, this woman is used to seeing the place full to the brim with birds and other animals, so to her what we saw probably was “nothing,” but we measure with a different scale. We have never seen the place before, and the few animals that remained were fun and satisfying to see. They kept us entertained for a quick two hours. Besides, we were partly there for research purposes, to see how much water was in the pan in early December.
The surrounding area was dry, dry, dry. In fact, a number of fires burned nearby, hemming us in with stacks of black smoke. We thought twice about our plan when we saw orange/red flames. The wind wasn’t blowing toward the road, so we kept going. I don’t know if those were wildfires, maybe caused by lightening, or if they were deliberately set to clear the land of dry brush. No one was attempting to put them out.
Wildebeest, Ostriches, Flamingos, and Pelicans
Winding our way through the parched, sandy landscape of the sanctuary, we first saw wildebeest in the distance. A steady breeze created a Krummolz effect on the mohawks of the wildebeest, which I thought was striking and funny. As we crept closer, one wildebeest walked apart from the group and stood huffing at us, making a sound like blowing across the skinny top of a whiskey bottle. I couldn’t decide if it was a sound made for us or simply a heat-related panting sound. He continued to make the sound as we moved off, so I’m leaning toward the latter explanation. We found yet another group enjoying a small pan of water.
We also spied ostriches, males and females. These are females.
None of the animals were doing much, conserving their energy in the heat of the day. As we watched the wildebeest and ostriches, we scanned the pan and discovered a bunch of flamingos and pelicans, as well as terns, stilts, and other water birds.
The next stop and our destination for the evening was a private camp called Elephant Sands, which offers camping, chalets, a restaurant, bar, and pool. Oh yeah, and elephants. Wild elephants, but habituated to the place and people, to be sure.
According to rumors and advertising, there has never been a problem between the animals and people, and I find that amazing. Much credit to the elephants for their tolerance. Just driving in, we met two other vehicles also arriving. One was another group of self-drive campers and the other was a sedan with a large family. We came upon elephants in the road, and the sedan seemed flummoxed about what to do. Their windows were down and they were loud and excited, bouncing in their seats and gesticulating. I wanted to hush and still them. They backed up, seeming afraid to get too near, but when the other truck moved slowly by, the sedan followed. Except it sped by, or sort of lurched by, eager to get past the ellies ASAP, rather than moving slowly and smoothly. Oy. We watched a bit then slowly moved on. The elephants took it all in stride, loud people and uneven, unpredictable speeds, included.
The Elephant Sands water hole is human made and maintained. Right now, it’s a mud hole with a trough that is fed water. It seems the water-filling speed, however, is slow, slower than elephants can drink, anyway.
We arrived in the late afternoon, in the heat of the day. The dozen elephants milling about the trough seemed only able to drink from one end, in what appeared to be a small hole. Elephants—all of them male—jostled for position and access, rumbling, growling, charging, pushing, blocking, and intimidating others with stare downs.
As we watched from the open platform around the pool, just beyond the open-air bar and restaurant, one bull clearly dominated. He didn’t budge from his uphill position by the hole except to lean on someone else to push him aside, or to occasionally growl and swing about to force everyone else to back off a little. He drank and drank and drank. Others squeezed in downhill and from the sides as they could.
See the elephants vie for drinking rights, or watch on YouTube. The video is 1:20 minutes long.
And then a more dominant bull arrived and the first Big Bully stepped away. He put up no argument at all, just moved around to the downhill side and staked out a new position there.
How does it work?
Strategically placed concrete pyramids with re-bar sticking out of them prevent elephants from walking onto the platform or getting close enough to the ablution blocks to reach inside to toilet tanks and shower heads. The system is rather like the spikes people put on window sills, roofs, and moorings to keep birds off them: These are spikes on the ground that elephants don’t care to walk on.
Other than keeping the elephants away from buildings, though, there are no barriers. Walking from the vehicle to the platform or a cabin or an ablution block, you can cross paths with an elephant. An elephant can park anywhere a car can park. Elephants can even sit around the campfires or use the braais (BBQs) if they have a mind to.
Watch them come into the water hole here or on YouTube. The video is 1:12 minutes long.
We set up our tent with the truck on one side and a braai behind, giving us more solid barriers on two sides, in case, you know, an elephant couldn’t see the tent or something. On one hand, I was fairly confident that an elephant would walk around a tent rather than through it. We trust moose and bears to walk around tents in Alaska, after all. But we also own tents with bear prints and claw holes in them. Wild animals are a gamble.
The other two campers had roof-top tents, as many campers here do. While it’s true that an elephant isn’t likely to walk on a roof-top tent, it wouldn’t be protection from an angry elephant. An angry ellie could push over a truck or pull down a tent from the top if it were so inclined. I do not believe ground camping to be comparatively unsafe. Not at all.
We took several breaks while setting up our tent to hold still and be quiet as elephants walked by to the water hole. A couple were a mere fifteen feet away from us at times. At one point, I was squatted inside the tent, laying out the bedding, when two elephants having a tiff shoved one another our way. Mike suggested I get out when it was convenient, until they moved off. Getting shoved into the tent by a pushy mate . . . well, maybe.
And for the record, no elephant took issue with our tent raising, but one did turn to face, stare down and shake his head grumpily at one of the roof-top campers when the noise of the hydraulic lid disturbed him. So there. Clearly, elephants prefer ground campers.
We set up our chairs in front of the truck and spent the evening watching the elephant channel. The main ellie highway went behind the ablution block, but ellies wandered in and out from every direction, between cabins and tents, around the restaurant and platform, and fifteen feet away from where we sat. Seriously. That’s close! At one point, I was stading by the truck with my arms full of water bottles and I don’t know what, and Mike was coming back from the ablution block. I was watching the highway behind the block when Mike nodded at something behind me. An elephant approached from the other side of the truck. He walked casually around the truck and turned to face me head on. He, too, was a mere fifteen feet away, so close I was compelled to talk in my quiet, calm, calming voice, “Hello there, fellow. It’s all right. Everything’s fine.”
I wasn’t wrong. He appeared completely relaxed—more so than I, most likely—just checking me out, maybe saying hi. He didn’t pause long before turning and heading to the crowd at the water hole.
As night came on, more and more elephants arrived and left, arrived and left, with over 20 at the hole most of the time. With more elephants present, the pushing and growling increased. While we watched, none of the elephants stumbled blindly into the tent, alleviating Mike’s concern, so eventually we brushed our teeth and went to bed. We continued to hear close footfalls, more distant stomping, growling, and occasional trumpeting well into the night, but by cool morning all was silent, and the elephants were gone. We broke camp leisurely and hung around a bit but saw just two elephants before we left; each had the water hole to himself.
The second fellow had either an injury or birth defect toward the end of his trunk. It looked as though something had taken a couple of big bites out of it, though it was well healed now. At the top of the gap in trunk was a hole that went all the way through so that liquid spilled out when the elephant sucked water in or blew it into his mouth. At first, we thought he was just a messy drinker, but closer inspection revealed the flaw.
Wow! What a treat to be so close to such enormous multi-ton wild animals. But I have a question: Why don’t other animals come into this water hole? Is the trough designed in such a way that only elephant trunks can access it? I should have asked someone there, but I didn’t. I’m asking you. Ideas? Anyone?