The adventure began in Johannesburg. Our hardy band of eight met at the hotel to join our guide, Neil. We stowed our gear in an attached trailer and took seats in a comfortable van for the 4-hour drive to Kruger National Park.
Along the way, we stopped for a “tea and pee” break at a rest stop. I’m not one to usually rave about public restrooms, but the men’s room here, was something special. It had a large window above the urinals offering a panoramic view of a wide grassland sprawling with impala, wildebeest, and a lone de-horned rhino.
It poured rain most of the way and Neil drove pretty fast. We later learned that he typically starts about an hour earlier than our departure time. So, he seemed eager to make up for lost time. Sure enough, after cresting a hill, he was square in the sights of a radar speed trap.
We pulled to the side of road and our driver engaged in a very animated conversation with the police officers. I was puzzled when I looked back and saw smiling faces on the cops, and Neil hopped back into the van in much better spirits. He actually talked his way out of the speeding ticket. He told the officers that it was unfair to set up a trap at the bottom of the hill, “I was just coasting down the hill,” he said “I wasn’t accelerating.” It worked this time, but Neil then admitted to us that he wasn’t so lucky the previous week, when he received a speeding ticket.
At a hotel, just outside the park entrance, we swapped our van for an open-sided safari vehicle, and our five-day quest was underway. Soon we were in the park and with each passing kilometer, we logged more and more species in landscapes. We were excited to see our first herd of impala, but soon realized they were as common as dirt.
Without question, the highlight of the day was watching a group of the female elephants– they were no more than 10 meters from us. Note that I’m trying to think in metric.
The group consisted of 9 adults and 2 juveniles, all females. It was fascinating to watch them swing their trunks around tallgrass and shrubs and gracefully ripping bunches of green foliage to stuff into their mouths. They also reached up into the tree branches.
Neil became downright poetic in his detailed description of these magnificent animals. He turned off the engine, and we spent a good length of time just watching them. They were totally unconcerned about us as long as we stayed in the vehicle. Everybody was happy. Even our human conversation did not faze them.
One of the juveniles squirmed under her mother and began nursing. It’s a behavior you don’t see every day. Neil pointed out the mother’s discomfort while youngster was suckling. The young elephants’ emerging tusks pierced into the mother’s breasts. Mom didn’t tolerate this for long and soon pushed the calf away. Its amazing, that an animal the size of a Volkswagen beetle, hadn’t been weaned yet. Sure, enough this was exactly when the battery in my camera died, so the event is recorded only in my memory.
The most interesting behavior was stripping bark off trees. This was a shining moment for Neil as he explained the process. Using their tusks, elephants slice downward on the tree, ripping the bark open. Then with trunk and tusks, they peel off the tasty stuff.
Momma elephant was showing a little one how it was done. It was clearly a teaching moment. The calf started rubbing her tiny tusks against the tree and began to rip the bark. After some initial success, she couldn’t quite get it off the tree. Her frustration clearly mounting with each unsuccessful attempt. With Mom looking on, the calf gave up and started walking away from the tree. Mom reached over and ripped the bark off the tree. The amazing next step was to slap the calf with the strip of bark. You could almost hear Mom scolding, “Watch how I’m doing this, and don’t walk away like a little baby!”
There were no males in the group. Adult male elephants are mostly solitary, but over the course of our visit, we saw lots of these amazing creatures. It was still a few hours’ drive to our lodge. But our adventure was off to a good start.