After spending the morning watching wild dogs fighting hyaenas and feasting on their meal of a young roan antelope, we returned to our camp on the banks of the Khwai river. With our mess tent set up just meters from the water’s edge, we sat in the shade watching storks hunt for snails in the shallows, hippos grunt in contentment and the occasional giraffe or antelope come down to drink.
Towards the end of the year, with the seasonal rains ending in April a distant memory, this river is the only permanent water source in the area, and the epicenter of activity. On arrival at our camp, two male lions had been sleeping just 50m from my tent, and reluctantly moved off when we moved in.
Elephants typically feed away from the river in the thick mopane woodlands that surround us in the cooler evenings and early mornings. Later when the sun rises high and the temperature begins to climb, they can be seen heading towards the water. The males tend to be in small, loose groups or by themselves, but the females will stay with their family unit or breeding herd for their entire lives.
These elderly matriarchs will take the herd down to drink and lead them to the best feeding grounds. They work together to protect the younger members of the family. A good rule of the bush is always to treat elephants – and especially breeding herds – with a great deal of respect.
We were relaxing after our lunch cooked on the fire by our camp chef, Onametsi, sat around a small camp table where we had a game of dominoes going. This had become the theme of the safari with lots of pride and a little cash at stake.
We looked up at the elephants coming down to drink and continued with our game, occasionally watching them drink and spray themselves with the cool water. One moved a little closer and immersed himself in the mud, clearly enjoying himself.
This male edged closer and closer to us, slowly feeding on the green swamp grasses. Our game continued with increasingly nervous glances over our shoulders towards this 10,000 lbs giant. He continued until he was less than 20 feet away, and at this stage, even the competition on the table in front of us couldn’t hold our attention and we stood up, quietly watching him, ensuring we gave him enough space. With deliberate slowness, he plucked at the grass, shook it a few times and placed it in his mouth.
This stand-off continued for a few minutes that felt like hours, and then, with a silent turn, he pushed off to join the rest of the males.
We didn’t get much rest before a breeding herd held a repeat performance with a young cow coming to the same spot.
It is fantastic to be able to be out on safari, completely alone in this wilderness with these majestic creatures.
Botswana holds over a third of the world’s elephants. The celebration that we enjoyed that day marks the 50th anniversary of independence of a country that has resisted the temptations of greed and corruption, creating an environment that protects 39% of the country for wildlife. Low ivory poaching and peaceful citizens create a refuge for elephants. One that needs to be established in neighboring countries if the fall of the elephant population is to be stopped.