Among the Elephants

“There’s ellies there and ellies there,” Lee, our guide at the Imfolozi Game Reserve, told us this afternoon, pointing in turn to both sides of the dirt road.  In fact, our visit to the park, once the exclusive hunting ground of Zulu kings, brought us into the presence of approximately 50 elephants, by my estimate–maybe more.  They were of all ages–from babies still nursing (see the photo above) to bad-boy teenagers chasing guinea fowl, to elder elephants bearing the wrinkled hides and scars of their long years.

The driver of a private car made a wrong move and briefly spooked some of the elephants closest to the road. “They don’t know the attitude of the elephants,” Lee explained. He has been learning that attitude over the past year as he begins his guide training.

[CORRECTION on 10/28/10: Darlene this morning read my account of the dents in Lee’s Land Rover and exclaimed, “That was a rhino that did that, not an elephant! — He said he would never let an elephant get that close to the vehicle, because they’re just too big.”  I realize she’s right, so here is the corrected version of the rhino story (my original post about elephants resumes after the brackets): …, and his Land Rover had two big dents on the bumper to prove it.  They THE DENTS IN THE LAND ROVER’S FRONT BUMPER were the result of an elephant A RHINO making it clear the vehicle was too close to her family. She simply walked over to the Land Rover and pushed it with her tusks away from the other elephants RHINOS.  It wasn’t a dangerous charge, but it gave Lee’s passengers an unforgettable experience of the elephant’s power and intelligence.  Lee had taken the vehicle out of gear to make it easy for the RHINO to move it to what she considered its proper location.]

With elephants on all sides of us, it was difficult to know where to look or point our cameras next.  The babies kept very close to their mothers, and they were too cute for school, precise miniatures of their massive kin. At one point we watched a wide line of elephants move across a hillside, a mini-migration with apparent purpose and awesome presence.

I’ve always known elephants can learn circus tricks, but Lee provided an entirely new appreciation for their intelligence.  He was once in a herd of elephants like the one today and noticed a female watching him as he was sitting in the Land Rover.  He happened to be filming the scene at the time, so he was able to replay it to confirm his belief that the elephant pointed at the vehicle with her trunk to alert a large male to possible trouble.

“As she did that, he came right up towards the car,” he continued. “He didn’t do anything, just as a policeman. He stopped here, and he chilled – ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ Everyone else crossed the road, and then something happened and one of them squealed over there, and he turned around and looked at us – ‘Was it you?'”

Lee told us elephants also have a sense of humor, which we could see with our own eyes as two adolescents began chasing a guinea fowl along the grass just for the sport of it.

The attitude of elephants expresses itself in individual character, as was the case with one well-known middle-aged female who caused Lee quickly to back up our Land Rover when he spotted her.  “She’s a bit cheeky,” he explained. “She might like to chase us or scare us, so I don’t want her to go behind us.” He kept restarting the Land Rover and backing up to make sure that wouldn’t happen.

Lee said the elephants respond to voice commands, especially when you swear at them, which I can imagine is sometimes appropriate.  Nothing happened on today’s drive which led him to raise his voice.

An elephant can eat up to 120 kilograms of food a day, and of that, it will “poop out,” as Lee put it, 90 kilograms.  It takes only 36 minutes for the elephant’s food to pass from one end to the other.  He shared other intriguing information about the animals which you could find on Wikipedia. But what can’t be replicated in any medium is the sensation of being in the midst of elephants, hearing them trumpet and break branches and snort close enough to make your skin tingle.

Lee, our guide from umHluhluwe Safaris

Darlene appreciated how our guide, who happened to be a stunningly handsome young man with dark brown hair and blue eyes, did not rush us. We lingered among the elephants for a good half-hour, with Lee stopping the engine so we could hang out with the herd without adding our own noise.  As they moved on, he restarted the Land Rover, anticipating where the next good location would be, and he didn’t drive further into the park until we’d all had our fill of the elephants.

We also saw giraffes, white rhinos, Cape buffalo, beetles wheeling small balls of dung along the road, vultures in a high nest, impala out the wazoo, wart hogs, and zebras.  But I’m sure the ones I’ll remember the longest are the elephants, and how we found ourselves smack in the middle of their afternoon with no need to rush away for anything else.

My Tilley’s off to Lee of umHluHluwe Safaris for an unforgettable few hours in the second-oldest game reserve in the world, established in 1895.  As a former Wyomingite, I was proud to learn that Yellowstone National Park is the oldest, founded 23 years earlier.

Darlene, Deb and I are spending the night, appropriately enough, at the Elephant Lake Hotel in the coastal town of St. Lucia in preparation for tomorrow’s cruise on the St. Lucia Estuary.

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