Walking with elephants

Before the start of the summer rainy season, the Klaserie river is more a lush reed bed than a body of moving water, although it retains a number of permanent pools.

Early one overcast morning, I had the privilege of being the sole companion of wilderness guide Alan McSmith on a long, meandering walk through the dry Klaserie bush. We’d driven some way from camp and parked the vehicle near an enormous jackal-berry tree.

Before long, Alan spotted a ‘bush telegraph pole” peering intently at us from the midst of a tangle of thorn shrub. The solitary giraffe was snacking on apple-leaf blossoms, but the sight of two-leggeds must have piqued its curiosity because, for the next 20 minutes or so, this gentle giant quietly followed us.
Maybe it just wanted to make sure we didn’t get up to any mischief.

At a certain point, the western bank of the Klaserie rises gradually to form a low cliff curving around a broad bend of the river. Close to where it begins to rise, we spotted a few elephant feeding on the far hillside. ‘Let’s go closer and hope the ellies are moving our way,” Alan suggested.

In the shade of tall riverine trees, we perched on some rocks to enjoy cold drinks, and soon realised the distant ellies were coming to join the rest of the herd, which was grazing among the reeds not far below us and drinking at a nearby pool. Most were youngsters and teenagers, but Alan pointed out a large female half-hidden in the centre of the reedbeed.

To test the wind direction, he squeezed a puff of talcum powder out of a plastic bottle. Thankfully, we were downwind, but Alan told me to keep a lookout for any changes in the big one’s behaviour, especially if she raised her trunk, which could mean she had caught a whiff of our scent. ‘Be as quiet as possible,” he cautioned as well — elephants have excellent hearing.

A deep sense of calm emanates from a herd peacefully going about its daily business of eating and drinking. The youngsters skip about a little; their older babysitters keep them gently in line. Slowly, this particular herd was moving upriver.

Out of his backpack, Alan took two large sheets of zebra-striped canvas fabric, with head-sized slits cut at the middle. Our two-legged shapes disguised, we moved with care down a slope overlooking an open, sandy space in the riverbed. A few paces short of this, Alan squatted on his haunches and motioned for me to do the same. To one side, a group of young cows with calves was placidly dust-bathing. In the tangle of reeds straight ahead of us was the matriarch.

The light breeze must have shifted. Suddenly, the elephant raised her trunk and turned her huge ears in our direction. ‘Don’t move,” Alan whispered. It is truly incredible how swiftly such bulk can move. She came bounding straight at us, with the grace of a ballerina, and skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust just metres away, liquid brown eyes turned baleful, a frightening, fiery red, as she trumpeted in shrill annoyance at our intrusion.

Don’t move, he’d said! I realised what being petrified truly means. I didn’t even dare to breathe. Time stood still. Then, quick as a thought, she turned away. We didn’t hear any overt sound, but next moment, the whole herd moved off, deeper into the privacy of the reeds.

‘Were you scared?” Alan asked. ‘And what do you think she just did to us? Would you call it aggressive?”

No, surprisingly, I wouldn’t. By some intuition, I realised with hindsight, I had sensed that the matriarch was simply making it clear that we were trespassing and that she would stand no nonsense from such pipsqueaks. It was a humbling experience. And I also knew that I could trust Alan’s own instincts, his long experience and his sincere love for these magnificent fellow beings.

Alan and his wife Sarah believe that the way we humans, as a collective, handle elephant conservation reveals a great deal about ourselves as a species. By continuing to seek solutions for overcrowding in game reserves down the barrel of a gun, all we’re doing is showing how impoverished we are, how removed from the true spirit of wilderness.

‘Spiritual” is a word that crops up frequently when Alan and Sarah talk about being in the wilderness, and it is this deep connection they try to share with visitors—making for a truly special experience.

African zen at Alan’s camp

Klaserie is a private nature reserve on the western flank of the Kruger National Park. It lies about 20km east of Hoedspruit and about 50km south of Phalaborwa, and the Klaserie river runs through it, hence the name.

In recent years, the fences between Kruger and adjoining private reserves have been removed, adding thousands of hectares in which animals can roam freely. There are several private lodges within the Klaserie reserve, but tucked away amid these is a singular place: Alan’s Camp.

A trip to the bush is always special, but staying in a luxury game lodge with all mod cons is really no different to being in any smart city hotel, with wild animals thrown in as an optional extra. To experience the true wilderness, you should rough it a bit.

Although the amenities at Alan’s Camp are kept to the basics, they don’t shirk on the small comforts of life, so you’ll even find a chocolate on your pillow every evening. The living area is arranged around an open space with a fire at its centre—what bliss to relax beside the fire at night, drink in hand, under a sparkling canopy of stars, with the sounds of the bush around you. Two tented bomas provide a kitchen and a dining and relaxation area, where there’s even a small library. Sandy paths lead away into the bush to individual sleeping tents, to the bucket shower, to the toilet with a view. Even though everything is simple and basic, it’s also functional and aesthetically pleasing, like living in an African Zen garden.

Most of the camp is constructed out of natural materials - old weathered wood, reeds and rocks - without disturbing the surrounds. If they decide to move the camp elsewhere, not much trace of the human presence would remain. Klaserie has strict rules about preserving the environment, so all garbage must be removed and there’s a well-managed recycling centre at the reserve’s headquarters.

Alan McSmith has been a professional wilderness guide for 18 years, with experience in six African countries. Besides his addiction to being in wide-open wild spaces and his deep concern for their conservation, Alan is passionate about elephants.

With his wife, Sarah, who has herself worked for many years in the hospitality arena, Alan runs Win Trails, offering safaris with a difference to a variety of locations in South Africa and Botswana. Numbers are limited to a maximum of eight people, making for an intimate wilderness encounter.

Safaris may be undertaken by vehicle, on foot, or, in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, by makoro (a dugout canoe), because Alan recently became only the third guide to complete a full traverse of the Delta, a round trip of some 600km.

Contact details: www.wintrails.co.za or [email protected] Tel & Fax: 015 793-3531. Cell: 083 472-4783

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