In fading light: The sleeping bull and his wondering friend.

It was starting to get a bit late on a humid, overcast summer evening as I lay on the ground under a Fever tree in the truly magical Fever Tree forest in the Pafuri Triangle in Northern Kruger National Park. I lazily lifted my head up and looked across at my back up, she was sitting at the base of her own Fever Tree and was doing her job well and keeping watch, but you could see that she was completely relaxed and enjoying her private moment of solitude. My gaze drifted over my students that were scattered around the little opening we were in, each one very content in their own little worlds. I lay my head back onto my back pack, a very comfortable impromptu pillow, and looked up at the cloudy sky. There was a slight breeze blowing and I expected it to rain during the night.

We had not had much luck with Big Game encounters on foot over the last few days, but certainly not through a lack of effort. As a group we had covered a lot of ground and put in long hours in hot and humid conditions. Of course it’s normal that the breeding herds of elephant generally do move back south after the annual rain gets the green grass gets growing again, but there is normally still the odd big bull elephant around. The easily identifiable call of the Gorgeous Bush-Shrike brought me back into the present and I noticed that the light was beginning to fade. Reluctantly I sat up which caught the eye of my backup and gave her the ‘it’s time to go’ nod.

A few minutes later I was walking along an old elephant trail that meandered its way through the green grass like a giant python. I heard the gorgeous bush-shrike again, this time much closer, and knowing that the students hadn’t had the opportunity to see one yet I decided to veer of the pathway and head towards a thicket that seemed to be the hiding place of the colourful bird. We snuck up, keeping very quiet and then stopped and listened. The Bush-shrike called again but a now a tad further away in a thicket a bit deeper in the bush. I stood up, singled to my backup to wait there with the students as I moved further in. it was quite thick and the last thing I wanted to do was walk my group into a sleeping buffalo bull. They get quite grumpy if you wake them up.

I moved forward slowly, watching were I put my feet and being aware of the light slowly disappearing on me. I found my self standing underneath a Fever Berry with a fantastic visual of the beautiful bird and let out a soft whistle to signal my backup to bring the group slowly forward. It all worked out very well as the usually shy bird stayed very relaxed and let everyone get good view of him, but it was getting dark and we needed to go. I knew that if we cut through the small band of thicker vegetation that lay directly to our south that we would come out onto the Limpopo floodplain and that it would probably save us enough time to get back to camp before it got too dark.

There are a few useful techniques that you can use to cross a thicker band of vegetation and on this occasion I decided to use the ‘leap-frog’ technique. It works simply with the lead guide moving forward first to scout out the bush and then signalling to the backup to bring the group forward, the lead then goes forward again and slowly but surely you work your way through in as safe a manner as possible. I was also very comfortable with my backup. She was on top of her game with acute situational awareness and good gut instincts and together we had forged a good working relationship with affective communication.

There were only 6 of us on the walk, Myself and my backup and 4 students that were all qualified field guides and who were working hard to achieve their backup trails guide qualifications. The Gorgeous Bush-Shrike eventually flew off and I signalled for everyone to come closer before whispering what the plan was. Everyone was happy and ready to go so I stood up and moved off first, passing through some Needle Bush before singling to my backup who brought the group forward. I moved forward again, around a thick Feverberry thicket and into a slight clearing. I stopped dead in my tracks as my brain quickly registered what was in front of me and what the best course of action should be.

Standing in the open with his heavy head resting firmly against a big Leadwood tree was a huge Elephant bull. He was fast asleep and completely oblivious to my presence. I gauged the distance from a fallen over Fever Tree, that was laying off to my left, to the sleeping elephant bull to be around 20m. I knew that the wind was blowing from right to left and that being overcast the sun wouldn’t play any part. I was happy with my intended plan but I was also very aware that we had very little to no time on our hands as far as light was concerned, but with the severe shortage of Big Game encounters recently I decided to make a go of it. I snuck back the way I had came back to where my group was waiting. I singled for everyone to gather around and whispered what I had seen, what my plan was and why. I also explained the issue with light and that normally I would opt to bypass the elephant and head straight to camp, but that I felt that this was too good an opportunity to pass up given our current circumstances.

I decided that the best approach would be from slightly more from west (left) of where we were at the moment. That would put the wind even more in our favour and would also mean we would come out into the opening with the fallen over Fever Tree directly in front of us, working as the perfect barrier. We snuck through the bush slowly and I could feel the excitement rippling through the group. We came into the opening and the great grey frame of the sleeping bull came into our view. I sat down next to the Fever Tree and signalled for everyone to come closer. My backup instinctively went into the perfect position where she could keep an eye on all the students as well as watch the bush behind and to the side of us as I focused all my attention on the elephant.

We sat in silence listening to the deep breathing of the big bull and taking in the magic of the moment when I heard a sharp “psssst” from my backup. I looked at her and she signalled that there was another elephant. I glanced in the direction she was pointing and immediately saw another bull  slowly walking towards us. He was slightly younger than the sleeping bull but still a very big boy. Checking his behaviour I noted that he had no idea that we were there and his tail was swaying slowly from side to side. He was relaxed. I signalled for everyone to sit still and remain calm. 

The younger bull kept moving towards us, 20m, 15m 10m, and I decided to let him know that we were there in an as unobtrusive manner as possible. My black hat was on the ground beside me so I slowly lifted it up a touch to create a little bit of movement. This caught the bull’s eye and he stopped. Still very relaxed he slowly moved his trunk towards us and took a big sniff. I saw recognition in his soft hazel eyes as he took another step towards us. Still relaxed, no aggression at all. I moved my hat a touch again. He stopped around 8m from us and I saw his eyes move from my hat to me, over my students, back to my hat and then back to me. His tail was still hanging loosely behind him.

It is very hard to explain the incredible experience of having a close elephant encounter like this. It creates a unique wilderness connection that is perfectly personal for each person involved. I was aware of the calm feeling across my group and I was very proud of them. I focused on the big elephant bull in front of me and for a couple of seconds, as he looked straight back at me, I felt very connected to him. He let out a low rumble that filled the air all around us. I was aware that the sleeping bull was now awake and was watching the scene unfold in front of him with what I assumed was mild curiosity. The young bull, took one last long sniff with his powerful truck before slowly turning and moving off towards the older bull. We all sat in blissful amazement as the two bulls greeted each other like two old friends.

I decided to make use of this distraction and signalled for my backup to slowly and quietly lead us out the way we had come. She disappeared into the bush behind us followed by a line of students. I was the last to leave, keeping between the elephants and my group as trails guide protocol states, keeping an eye on the two still very relaxed elephants. After we had put a satisfactory amount of distance between us and the bulls I signalled to my backup to stop. I gave everyone a soft high-5 and told them to not say a word, to just take in the very special wilderness connection that we had all experienced and that we would walk back to camp in silence.

Yes, we did get back to camp after dark which is not the greatest thing but it was worth it. It was not the most typical elephant encounter by any stretch of the imagination but it provided everyone with a lesson of the heart. Elephants are truly remarkable animals. Like good old Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”.


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