One, Two, Three, Four-tee-Four Elephants - Elephant Sands - Nata -Botswana
My Sister-in-law Lol is a loyal follower of our travels. When she realised, we were at Elephant Sands. She wrote, “I’ve often been to Elephant Sands near Nata, a lovely spot, but in all the years, we never saw one elephant! Good luck."
While Butch was doing our registration, I went exploring and walked right up to a herd of elephants at the watering hole, I ran back to inform Butch, afraid they might wander off and not return during our stay. Fortunately, they kept on coming in droves all afternoon.
Elephants are everything a wildlife photographer yearns for. They’re so photogenic. For the newbie to a game reserve, elephants will undoubtedly meet all their expectations.
They’re magnificent in every way and yet with so many contradictions. Elephants are enormous with tiny hearts. They’re thick-skinned but sensitive, fierce when provoked but gentle mothers, a force to be reconned with, but vulnerable when a gun’s pointed at them. Their feet are enormous, yet they walk silently. They stand their ground but turn away from confrontation. Their size should hamper their mobility, yet we can’t outrun them. They’re independent yet do better in herds with clear hierarchies. Their colour, grey, should make them visible yet blend perfectly into their environment.
Elephants have hair, yet you'll struggle to dislodge one strand with a pair of plyers. Don't even think about it either.
For thousands of years African mythology has believed that the connection between heaven and earth is the elephant. By wearing an elephant hair bracelet you will be in sync with the forces of the universe. You will not become sick, you will be strong and healthy. You will not be poor, but will be prosperous.
Let’s put all this into perspective: Similar in weight to our Honey Badger, they weigh 6 tonnes. They can run at 40 km/h. on a bicycle going downhill, I can’t reach that speed! They stand 3,2 m tall, and the Honey Badger is 3m high, yet they seem smaller when we observe them, even at very close quarters.
Elephants are matriarchal; they live in female-led groups called breeding herds. The matriarch is usually the biggest and oldest, and she presides over a multi-generational herd that includes other females, called cows, and their young. After the males left the watering hole, I observed the breeding herds coming to drink, bathe and dust bath at night.
Having a baby (calf) elephant is a serious commitment. Elephants have a more prolonged pregnancy than any other mammal— almost two years. Cows usually give birth to one calf every two to four years. At birth, a calf weighs 100kg and stands about 1m tall.
Adult males, called bulls, tend to roam independently, sometimes forming smaller, more loosely associated all-male groups. Males occupied the watering hole mainly during the day.
DID YOU KNOW?
— National Geographic
— National Geographic
Mud baths protect elephants from the sun and clean their skin of bugs and ticks.
— International Elephant Foundation
— African Wildlife Foundation
In a tree right next to the Honey Badger was a breeding pair of Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills; the male was very busy knocking and probing at the entrance supposedly to free the female and chicks.
The female lays her eggs inside a hollow in a tree, she remains with the eggs, and then closes the entrance using dung and mud. Once the chicks hatch, she stays there for two months. The male feeds her and the chicks through a small opening. I believe she loses all her feathers during this time. When it’s time to leave the nest, he breaks it open, as seen in the pictures.
Fascinating. My window looked down on them, giving me a unique opportunity to photograph them without any disruption.
Their huge bills allow them to expertly prod, probe, dig, scratch and pinch. They aren’t fussy eaters either and will dine on virtually anything. Their tok-tok-tok gave them away and made it easy for us to locate. The raptor was hanging about in wait to snatch a chick or two.
I couldn’t resist the Marabou Stork. Aren't they just the most unsightly birds?
Marabou Storks possess hollow leg and toe bones. In such a large bird, an essential adaptation for flight. They’re scavengers attracted to lion kills, farmyards, cultivated fields, and garbage dumps.
The marabou stork doesn’t have a voice box, but it makes sounds using its throat pouch or clattering its bills together especially when it‘s feeling vulnerable. Marabou produces moos, whines, whistles, and hiccups when courting or feeling threatened.
They fly ahead of a veld fire then swoop down onto smaller animals that are fleeing the blaze.
When in flight, the marabou tucks its neck in to form a flattened S. This permits the weight of its beak to be borne on its shoulders.
Bees and marabou stork’s relationship is known as commensalism. Marabou stork are carnivores and use their powerful bills to pull apart carcasses to eat. Bees use the scraps as food and shelter to lay their eggs.
This one’s “hair” reminds me of my coiffure when the humidity increases! We know all about bad hair days.
We spent four nights at Elephant Sands. The sizeable artificial watering hole is the focal point of the lodge, with bungalows encircling one side and the unfenced camping spot on the other. The lodge is close to the watering hole, and the large covered restaurant and bar area has an excellent viewing deck where guests congregate, swim or enjoy a meal and drink.
Being able to wild camp, with no electrical nor water points for campers, is a lovely aspect of the camping experience. Campervans and trailers can park and set up anywhere within the camping area. We were fortunate to find a spot adjacent to the ablutions and close to the watering hole with an unobstructed view of the elephant herds.
One morning while showering, I looked up to grab my shampoo when I locked eyes with an enormous bull eyeballing me. Elephants have discovered the bathroom’s drain, which quenches their thirst before they get to the watering hole. I must confess I was pleased the fence and bathroom wall separated us.
Ringing in the new year is always a bitter-sweet time for us; on this occasion, we decided to spend it with the elephants. Butch did a scrumptious Rib eye steak on the coals. We popped our Champagne corks; one old bull trumpeted his annoyance at being shouldered out of the way by a young Turk, that's all the excitement we needed.
We did not see the old year out exactly; we slept through the shenanigans but woke up early to a wet and rainy day. There was not one elephant at the watering hole.
That was a great opportunity to pack our photographic equipment away and spend the day mingling with other guests at the bar, where we soon met some fascinating travellers. Most campers are overnighters en route to or from Chobe or Kasane in the north.
Driving to Kasane within a few hours enables guests who are residents to use Elephant Sands as a base. Guests depart early in the morning for a day or two’s visit to Chobe, either staying in a lodge or returning, in the late afternoon, after leaving the park.
The Honey Badger is our introduction to many campers. Gentlemen, who stop by to peep at her vital statistics, e.g. is she a 4x4, how much horsepower, her weight and tare. They check her tyres and want to know about the electrics, electronics and solar panels. Ladies prefer a look inside and quickly measure up the bed, blinds and how much packing space we have. Butch is excellent at being a host to all that and has the relevant info all stored in his noggin.
While I work at the large window, a few inquisitives have stopped to ask what I sell—pancakes I could do.
One afternoon a guy with a big smile stopped, walked around the back of the truck, stood, arms folded and then introduced himself. Braam. He loves trucks and trucking so much that he’s involved in trucking all over South Africa and beyond our borders.
Braam is an encyclopedia regarding the rules and regulations for border crossings, weighbridges, and how and where to exchange foreign currencies, when using a runner at a border post is advisable or not. And the age-old question, to bribe or not to bribe? Terrible to even consider such a question, but it’s universal.
Butch was thrilled to make his acquaintance, and soon I saw their heads togethe, poring over maps, websites, and instruction manuals. Braam and his wife, Hannah, invited us to overnight on the lawn at their home when we passed en-route to the Kruger National Park with instructions to weigh the Honey Badger.
Weight has been our biggest headache. For one, we’ve not been sure what our weight is currently and what would be considered too heavy. If we’re overweight, how to transfer our weight to different axils, tricks of the trade trucking novices aren’t aware of.
The bar, it turns out, is the watering hole for man and beast. It’s where many guests spend much of the day horsing about, and it’s where the guest wifi’s best. The barman soon knew each guest’s preferred tipple and kept our glasses full. It’s very vibey, and the food served excellent. We enjoyed a couple of meals there. On our last evening (we seem to celebrate our departures), we booked a long table and met up with the lovelies we’d met during our stay. The chef served a delicious steak, and we could choose from an array of scrumptious vegetables from the buffet. I had crispy chips—the best in the west and some gorgeous crunchy greens.
Although we loved our stay at Elephant Sands, it was time to move on. Butch was anxious to get the Honey Badger weighed, and we realised time was running out. We had an appointment in Hoedspruit and nine days to get there.
I was so focussed on the elephants that I did not take the chalets, cars and people obscuring the background into consideration. Many of my photographs are disappointing because of that. Rule no 1 in photography is; take note of your background. Do keep it mind.
Lorraine, we were privileged to see massive herds of elephants daily, barring one day after the rains, but they returned in drips and drabs by the next morning.
During a heavy rainstorm, we stopped to overnight at Nylsvley Nature Reserve en route to Polokwane. Only once we were well into the camping area did we realise the space was much too cramped with low overhanging trees, water poured forming rivulets and a mudslide. Butch engaged 4X4 mode, locked the hubs, put the gear lever into reverse, revved and, as he would say, “I sent it”… Jip, into a massive tree behind us. A bulls eye in his blind spot.
The rain drowned out the excruciating scrunching of my bike being crunched, and it was only much later, when we’d got ourselves out of that mess and parked in the restaurant’s parking area, that he mentioned it. I was oblivious and didn’t notice anything while directing him out of the campsite. The damage to my bike looked horrendous, and we later discovered his bike was not unscathed either.
These things are sent to try us, forcing us to look at our short-term insurance to ensure we’ve got things covered going forward into Africa. Paula van Rensburg of Pollol Brokers was soon on our case. After much investigating, Paula has been able to broker our insurance for the Honey Badger while we’re in east Africa.
In Polokwane, we dropped the bikes at a recommended cycle shop, had the Honey Badger weighed and were advised how we could, if needs be, reduce our weight. We could let some of our water out or reduce our diesel by not filling up before a weighbridge to minimise our anxiety.
Our other difficulty is explaining that the Badger isn’t a commercial vehicle but a motorhome. Braam suggested we "advertise" that fact by branding the truck as a leisure vehicle. In future, we’ll be covered in flags and maps and I'll even drape a colourful African cloth on the dashboard. At the time of writing this blog, the Honey Badger’s looks have improved remarkably, but more about that later alligator.
Hannah entertained us while Braam went off on an emergency mission to recover a truck that had been highjacked. He said it was all in a day’s work and loved the drama, if truth be told.
The world is small, and South Africa is tiny. We discovered that Braam’s cousin is our very good friend in Worcester.
Thank you, Braam and Hannah, for being such wonderful hosts, for all the advice you so liberally doled out, for escorting us around Polokwane, taking us to your favourite butcher, baker and restaurant for lunch. But most of all for stopping to chat with Butch. We are in your debt and hope to meet one day again. Who knows maybe in Zimbabwe where Hannah lost her heart.
The cycle shop had good news. Like many wounds, they sometimes look worse than they are. Once a thorough assessment was made, the bicycle technician diagnosed that we only needed one new rim and tyre each. Relieved we paid a fraction of the price I had envisioned.
Phone: +27 34 413 1150