Self-Driving thru African Elephants

Welcome! You’ve found the first post on my new travel blog: Embrace the Detour! Every week, I’ll be posting different travel adventures, along with photos, tips and recommendations. Feel free to comment with questions or share your own adventures! You can also give suggestions on placed you’d like to hear about in future posts! Read on to enjoy some adventures I’ve had with my Ellie friends in South Africa!

The African bush is the perfect location to put your senses to work. In my experience, the most distinctive smell while on safari is that of fresh elephant dung! This is the smell of the lowveld. This smell makes me happy… not because I enjoy the smell of elephant dung, but because fresh elephant dung likely means there are elephants nearby – – my favorite! As that distinctive scent wafts through my vehicle, I slow down, and carefully round the bend. You never know when you will run into an elephant roadblock!

When I first visited South Africa, I was a safari newbie. I had basic camera equipment, and basic knowledge about most of the animals, but knew almost nothing about animal behavior. I have since learned that when photographing wildlife, knowing how and why the animals interact in particular ways is just as important to a successful photography experience as the gear. (Plus it can save your life… so there’s that!)

During one of my many elephant sightings, I came across a big bull elephant enjoying a breakfast of various grasses and tree bark next to the road. He was within easy striking distance of my vehicle, if he was in a bad mood. We made eye contact and he flapped his ears at me, then went back to eating his breakfast. My mid-size SUV was no match against a big bull elephant. Large African elephants can stand up to 11’ (3.3m) at the shoulder, and can weigh up to 40 tons (36,300kg). They can easily pick up a vehicle with their tusks and flip it. This usually only occurs when a bull is in “musth” (pronounced “must”). Musth occurs annually in bulls, and usually lasts two to three months. During this period, the bull’s hormone levels spike, and their urge to mate goes into overdrive. These bulls are highly unpredictable and aggressive – – so you definitely don’t want to come into contact with a bull in musth! Lucky for me, this particular bull was in a good mood, and was happy to have me sit with him for a bit. Eventually, he moved further away from the road as he made his way to a new tree with fresh bark. Elephants eat 300 to 600 pounds of grass, bark, and leaves every single day, so eating is time-consuming for them.

On another occasion, I spotted a huge breeding herd that had found a few small watering holes. Some of them were taking advantage of the cool water, tossing it up on their backs to cool off. Others continued grazing nearby. As I sat and watched the herd playing, drinking and eating, the older females ignored me, occasionally glancing my way and acknowledging my presence. Not so with the juveniles though! They put their trunks in the air to smell me, they trumpeted, and occasionally mock charged the car for about a second before back-pedaling and hiding behind their mothers’ huge back legs! The youngsters were not as familiar with vehicles yet and were still learning. Their mothers knew that I was no threat to them, and it’s almost as if they welcomed me into their herd for a brief moment in time. There is always a chance that a nervous first-time mother will not appreciate you being close to her newborn, and she will definitely let you know… but luckily that has never happened to me yet. 

This particular herd was typical of most breeding herds in Africa. One older matriarch is the boss: she tells the herd when to eat, when to drink, and when to move on. Young females will stay in the same herd for their entire lives, helping to care for newborns, and eventually having their own babies. Young males will stay with the herd (and their mothers) until they are between 12 to 15 years old, then will venture off on their own, occasionally meeting up with other young males and forming loose “bachelor” herds.  

As I drove these same roads on my most recent trip to South Africa, I felt a sense of familiarity. It felt easy. It felt comfortable. There was no fear and there was no anxiety. It’s a feeling you can’t describe, and I want to share it with everyone. The more times I return to this special place, the more I learn about these incredible gentle giants. The first time I visited this beautiful country, I would never put myself in the position of being surrounded by 20+ elephants with tiny babies in a herd. But after studying their behaviors and learning as much as I could, now I know that I am safe there – – 99% of the time. 

Some of my most memorable elephant encounters include:

  • Meeting a “tusker” (tusks longer than 1.5 meters!)
  • Having to back up 1.5 miles (2.4km) along with 30 other vehicles because a big bull wouldn’t get off the road or let us pass him!
  • Finding a shady spot to take a 20 minute nap in my vehicle, only to wake up completely surrounded by a breeding herd!
  • Spotting a semi-albino elephant with white eyelashes and pink on its ears and trunk!
  • Getting sprayed with mud by a youngster!
  • Meeting a once orphaned elephant and hugging its huge trunk!

I will share more elephant stories in a future post, but if you are fascinated by elephants, I can highly recommend “The Elephant Whisperer” by Lawrence Anthony. Have YOU ever had any elephant encounters or is it on your bucket list?!

Click here to adopt your own African elephant through the World Wildlife Fund!

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