The first stage
The first day that I was in Kwapa camp we went out for a walk. Peter Van Houdt as lead guide and Grant Reed (owner) as the back-up guide. We had no idea what a mind-blowing experience we were about to have…
We headed west out of Kwapa Training Camp, crossing the Kwapa River by boat. There are no vehicles allowed in the area making it a truly pristine wilderness! The first thing we saw was a yellow-billed kite! Normally birds fly away when you approach them. Most birds fly off when approached but this one chooses to watch us pass below. Peter tells us he suspects there is a nest close-by.
As we continue we become aware of a few animals ahead. Big ones! We checked the wind before going closer. Time to make a plan for a safe approach. Which is the best route? Peter turned and said “our best approach is to move quickly to those bushes before the elephant come further”. “From there we will use the saftey of the mound”. As we snuck up around the other side of the mound, we were treated to an amazing sight.
Not one or two, but more than a dozen elephants! This breeding herd was right infront of us. Breeding herds are far more dangerous than the bigger bulls because they are protecting their young. Monitoring the wind direction and their reaction is vital to a safe encounter. Peter is happy, the elephant have no clue we are nearby and the wind is stable! “We are perfectly safe her”, he siad. So that’s good! The herd is drifting west and it is time to formulate another plan for a better vantage point. Peter spots a termite mound on the edge of the woodland. Perfect!
“A cautious approach of the mound is essential”, Peter expained. “Although elephant do not have great eyesight, they are able to pick up on movement in open areas from a significant distance”. With palpable relief we arrive at this massive 12 foot termite mound. These are sturdy constuctions and so we take a seat on top of it. “It’s hard to see us from out of the open in the dappled light” explains our guides. The elephants came closer and we realize there are more of them! The new count is over 30 and growing as more drift from the adjacent island.
There were also Tsessebe’s (Damaliscus lunatus) in the back. They also hold a safe distance from the elephants. In the front of the elephants there where warthogs foraging around. A female with two young piglets. They came ridiculously close and they stood right in front of us! They had no idea we were meters away on the termite mount. Because we were sitting still, we formed part of the structure. At they trotted over the path we took, they froze! Fresh humans! We knew that if the warthogs panicked and tore off, it would alert the elephant of our presence. In seconds the entire dynamics of the sighting would change. Nobody breathed. The warthogs sniffed and stared- still nothing. And then, as if nothing happened, the warthogs went on their merry way. Phew!
while we were busy watching the warthogs, the elephants had come a lot closer! They even came to the last bushes to the edge of the forest! These bushes are called islands. they are located as islands in an open grass area. the guides and trackers use these bushes for extra protection against, for example, elephants. Now they are using by elephants. They eat from the leaves and branches.
The curious one
We were still sitting at the same spot and no longer distracted by the warthog. We noticed one young elephant was coming directly towards us. A few of the older elephant start to follow. There is clearly no time to extract and many of us with no experience are wondering, “what now”? 10 more meters and this elephant be on top of us. Grant starts talking in a gentle voice. “Hey little guy, we are not here to hurt you”. Immediately the elephant freezes, and amazingly every other elephant in the vast open field does the same! Silently the panic has been translated. Grant continued to speak gently. This time to us “The reason we do this is because we need to give the elephant warning before it gets too close”. “If an elephant doesn’t feel it can get away using the flight response (running away), the only option it has left is fight, and that is one we avoid at all costs” he went on to explain. The young elephant turned like a naughty school child and with a raised tail, he beat a hasty retreat in the opposite direction, followed by a hundred tonnes of family and friends.
The last block
With the breeding heard of elephant behind us, we continue our walk. We caught up with our new friends the warthogs, but with us now in the open, they disappeared in a dust-cloud over the horizon. Kudu, impala, reedbuck, baboon and many other species of general game kept the return journey interesting. As we rounded the final corner of our walk we are faced with our final challenge of the day. A large bull elephant in the vicinity of our boat.
We came closer could see the elephant was almost right against the boat. The light is fading fast, as it does in the tropics, and the boat is our only way home. “Patience” says Peter, “he will move” And on cue, the elephant lumbers on. We snuck into the boat and headed back to camp. We have had a perfect walk with some great encounters. I can’t help but wonder, if I have learned and experienced so much in my first day on Guide Course, what lies in store for the rest of my stay?
Later that night the bull elephant came in to camp. Read it in my next blog.