Chris Drage, Steppes Discovery client, talks about his most memorable day on the Botswana Wildlife safari:

A Visit to Mashatu’s Elephant Hide

As we set out at dawn for the drive to the elephant hide I couldn’t help but feel just a little apprehensive. After all, the trip brochure did promise us a game drive with Jena, the elephant researcher. But as it happened she wasn’t available this particular day and we were to spend the morning at the newly constructed elephant hide beside the artificial waterhole. My initial disappointment was tempered by the knowledge that this had occasionally occurred on our previous Steppes Discovery trips in other parts of the world but had ultimately always worked in our favour. As it happened, the experience didn’t just compensate us for the loss of a game drive but totally exceeded our wildest expectations!

July and August are particularly hard for most of Mashatu’s wildlife being the height of the dry season and this particular year, a very long and protracted dry season at that. Only the predators were looking fat. For most creatures the artificial waterhole constructed in front of the sunken hide is a lifesaver. Thus it is very well frequented by all the ‘locals’! For us the major attraction is that it has been located on one of the major pathways for elephants across the game reserve so the chances of seeing elephants en mass and close up was excellent indeed.

As the warming sun slowly rose above the Eastern horizon, our open-topped Land Cruiser bounced its way across the dry, semi-arid landscape, each passenger clutching a hot water bottle and rug (it gets cold at night in Mashatu), cameras, though, were always at the ready. Sure enough, as is the case in Mashatu, we stopped within 15 minutes of leaving to observe the wildlife at close quarters. This morning it was a family of elegant Southern Giraffe browsing the Umbrella Trees near the track and shortly after, a beautiful black-backed Jackal. Within another five minutes Daniel, our driver pulled up and pointed out fresh leopard tracks beside the ‘track’ – how does he do that, drive and track at the same time? Eventually, we arrived at the hide location where we were greeted by Mike, our host and photography expert for the morning.

The hide is a good 100m from the vehicle park and while we assembled our camera bags and humped our kit to the hide, Dan and Commander (our wildlife spotter) humped insulated boxes full of tea, coffee and nibbles for our mid-morning repast – you’ll never go hungry in Mashatu! Down the steps and into what looked for all the world like a converted ship container with large viewing apertures cut out of it. As the apertures are at ground level you see the wild life almost eye-to-eye. Propped up on our bar stools with cameras and camcorders resting on bean bags at the ready, we settled down to wait.

We were instructed to talk only in whispers and to move quietly so as to not startle the wildlife. Mike was always on hand to help, advise and to identify various species that appeared. For the first hour or so these were mainly birds: Arrow headed Babblers, Dark Capped Bulbuls, Crowned Lapwings, Crested Francolin, Helmeted Guinea Fowl, Glossy starlings and Meyer’s Parrot, to mention but a few. By mid-morning we had various small groups of Impala, Kudu and Eland visiting the waterhole. Ever cautious, ever wary, these timid gazelles were only too aware of the dangers posed by drinking at the waterhole. However, for us it afforded the only close up shots we were able to get of these magnificent beasts. It was interesting to watch their relationship and tolerance of the red-billed oxpeckers which perched in threes and fours on the backs of the gazelles looking for ticks and flies.

Suddenly they were there – all around the waterhole before us! I counted 30+ elephants of all ages and sizes, some standing so close that any of us could touch their legs from our subterranean hide. The little ones spied us and I am sure wanted to poke their trunks through the viewing apertures. Mike, our guide and a keen photographer himself, quickly had us shooting spectacular shots. His guidance on composition and artistry just added to the moment.

Suddenly, a young ‘teenage’ elephant plunged into the middle of the pool – in outrage the matriarch loudly trumpeted her displeasure at this deliberate flaunting of the protocol. She had stirred up the mud – muddy water is not what elephants want to drink. The little ones were more obedient staying very close to their respective mothers and following the adult’s lead in how to drink properly. Trunk in the water – stir it around a bit to test for quality – swirl it around a bit more and when satisfied take a long suck (sounded like a vacuum cleaner) – place water-filled trunk in mouth and squirt (sounded like water going down an open drain!)

To see the little ones through the forest of adult elephant legs is a picture that will never leave me. So small yet each adult knew where the little-‘uns were. Older sisters would ensure that the young ones were always close into the middle of the group.

Another family fronted-up from out of the bush. They waited patiently until their matriarch uttered a deep, loud ‘rumble’ to let the drinking group know that they were there and were thirsty too. Without hesitation, the drinking matriarch also uttered a deep rumble and all the elephants around the pool stopped drinking and slowly followed her off and into the bush. It was wonderful to watch such ‘civilised’ behaviour from such huge beasts.

The next group moved in to drink their fill. Some elders already knew where the source of the freshwater was and made a beeline to drink there, little ones following suit, copying their elders. Mike had turned on the tap from within the hide and the pool was gradually filling again with fresher water. We were visited by five or six different groups of elephants in small groups and large, during that morning. It was interesting to see, how intolerant elephants are of other species, like impala, whilst at the water hole. No other animals are allowed to drink while elephants occupy the pool! Any who tried were seen off with a loud ‘trumpet’ and flapping of the ears! For us the fact that the elephants were so close to the hide that we could have reached out and touched their feet, was just incredible. To be in amongst these huge beasts, sharing their world, was magical…we all felt so privileged.

As suddenly as they arrived the elephants left and no more seemed to come by. What did appear next was a large troupe of baboons. Looking emaciated and clearly suffering from the effects of the prolonged drought, the water hole was clearly a lifeline for these creatures. Again, the close proximity to the action and the fact that we could shoot video or stills without hindrance or impact in any way on the animal’s natural behaviour was simply fantastic. The interactions of the baboon hierarchy could fill a book in its own right.

As the morning drew on and the succession of animals continued we gathered some of the most incredible video footage and still shots an amateur photographer could ever hope for. It was interesting to note that Mike too was totally engrossed in obtaining good shots himself as well as offering guidance to us – a true pro.

All too soon it was time to break out the coffee, tea and nibbles and relax and discuss what we had seen. Indeed time was up, we had been in the hide for hours yet it seemed but a few minutes. As Mike raised the hatch for us to climb out, another elephant family appeared from out of the bush and we had to wait until they finally drank their fill and departed before we emerged.

On the journey back to the tented camp, we reflected on the morning and how amazing the experience had been. We were scheduled for another elephant game drive the following day…we secretly preyed that Jena wouldn’t be available again and that we could return to the elephant hide for another wildlife experience unparalleled anywhere in Africa.

Chris Drage
July 2012

Chris has kindly shared some of his fantastic video footage from his trip.

Thanks for reading

Jackie Devereux, Botswana

Author: Jackie Devereux