After many a safari I find myself wondering: Did any animal shine above the rest this time? Filtering through a myriad of totally different experiences makes deciding this a difficult challenge. However, this time was different.
Our safari culminated on the tranquil shores of Lake Tanganyika tracking wild chimpanzees, and very often they can be a candidate. I think they nearly did qualify. But when I think back on this journey in Tanzania, one animal kept coming to mind.
Perhaps because we encountered them every day, except our last camp on the shores of the lake. Or it might have been because of the nature of the moments we shared with them. These were so vivid and so intimate. Whatever the reason, I had no doubt in my mind that the Safari Cup would this time be awarded (yet again) to the elephant.
Throughout our adventure, these gentle giants graced us with their presence, appearing at least once a day, and each time leaving another indelible memory with us.
Our initial encounter unfolded as we paused to observe a flock of ostriches, as the sun set and the final deep orange and rose hues of the day melted into the monochrome of light and shade. As darkness began to envelop a silent procession of elephants emerged out of the shadow, grazing gracefully, their movements fluid yet purposeful. It felt like a ceremonial welcome, setting the tone for the days ahead.
The following evening, as the bright light faded to into shades of orange, we found ourselves with another family of elephants silently feeding as they crossed a plain. The bedtime song of starlings and larks was the soundtrack, which was transformed before the moon had risen to the nocturnal calls of nightjars and thick-knees. We sipped our cocktails in awe as these giants, feeding on acacias, passed us by.
The next morning we entered Tarangire National Park, renowned for its elephant population, and they seemed to be putting on a grand display in keeping with their reputation. Within moments of entering the park we were greeted by families indulging in a mud bath. Could it really be true that the Pachyderm Wellness Centre is so conveniently right by the road?
Our encounters continued to unfold, each one offering a unique perspective on elephant life. From nervous herds gradually relaxing in our presence to solitary bulls exhibiting a blend of curiosity and composure, we were constantly reminded of their influence on their surroundings.
On Christmas Day we bid farewell to this ideal habitat for them, an open woodland interspersed with gnarled baobab trees, and we ventured into the open grasslands of the Serengeti to the west of the Great Rift Valley, ideal for gnus and gazelles. But still elephants remained with us. In the woodland before we arrived in camp we encountered a herd dust-bathing – a reminder that they were everywhere.
There could be no doubt that they really did shine this time. One day we had to stop the vehicle as a herd sauntered towards us on the road, casually dusting themselves as they approached. When they found us blocking the way, they paused and slowly glided past us, their sides almost scraping the truck. We could smell them, hear them, and sense them, and it was clear that even though we were silenced in awe, they were totally aware of us too.
Our last morning, on our way to the airstrip, we stopped to watch a large, collared bull. Most times they continue feeding and, mouthful after mouthful, they melt into the woodland. However, this time he gradually approached us, clearly inquisitive. He paused, sniffed the air, came closer and rested his trunk on our vehicle’s bonnet (hood). Was this a gesture of farewell? Or was he aware that us, like him have power and influence on the environment, and did he somehow sympathize with our struggle managing it? No doubt I am reading too much into his gestures but there was a moment when I wondered – who are we, and who is he?
In the end, amidst the daily wonders and surprises of the African bush, it was the elephants that left an indelible mark on us, their presence a testament to the magic of being in the wilderness.