Zulu Nyala, South Africa
Thursday Morning, September 7
The basic schedule for each day is breakfast, morning excursion, lunch, nap, afternoon excursion and dinner. This morning started the routine for our group, with everyone meeting Cathy and a couple that arrived late the night before.
The big pond is a popular place to start the morning, for us and the animals. As we approached, Cathy got her camera out fast enough to catch this yellow bill stork...
... flapping across the watering hole ...
... to land in a tree to watch the approaching tourists.
Perhaps it wasn't us, but rather the resident crocodile on the move that prompted the yellow bill stork to move to a safer perch.
The Egyptian goose with its distinctive eye marking really stands out in the water.
This brown snake eagle was flying around the tree tops, keeping an eye on the happenings below.
Of course there are always some Nyala around. The photo below shows how their vertical stripes help them blend into their surroundings.
We picked this time of year, spring in South Africa, to see the animal youngsters. It worked out very well, we got to see lots of juveniles like the Nyala in the previous photo. Here's a zebra foal and mom.
As we were driving around, we were treated to Marius bringing the truck to an abrupt stop, jumping out, running a few feet and diving head first into a hole in the ground.
After a few tense moments, Marius popped up holding a monitor lizard, proudly announcing that this was number 14. Monitor lizards have six sharp ends: the mouth, four legs, and tail. You have to hold them just so to avoid getting sliced, bitten or stabbed, and Marius has the scars to prove it. (He declined so show us where he got five stitches from a tail swipe that happened while he was trying to secure the mouth and claws on a previous capture.)
The hole was originally a warthog home, but was abandoned. These holes are favorites for snake and lizards.
We also saw some vervet monkeys along the roadside. They retreated into the trees as we approached, but one male stuck around to watch us. When trying to tell male from female, Marius likes to advise us to "look for the obvious." For vervet monkeys, the "obvious" is pretty darn obvious, being bright blue and all.
Along the way, we same more broken branches suggesting elephants. When we saw some fresh-looking elephant droppings, Marius once again leapt out of the truck excitedly to examine the signs but was disappointed to report they didn't feel warm. He and another ranger found and followed some reasonably fresh tracks for a while, and we drove around the area but didn't find them.
Thursday Afternoon, September 7
When we met up for the afternoon ride, Marius was excited to get rolling: the elephants had been spotted! We had been within 50 feet of where they were found shortly after our morning ride. We left our area a bit early, and Marius drove a beeline to the other pickup point, not stopping to look at cute baby wart hogs this time. We arrived a half hour earlier than the couple of the other lodge were told to expect, and Marius wasted no time in tracking them down and hustling them into the truck. Another furious drive and we joined two other groups to hang out with two adults and one youngster, all females.
Before we moved in close, Marius explained the rules. The elephants are used to the trucks and don't generally perceive them as threats. As long as we stay inside the frame of the truck, the elephants just see us as one big, smelly beast that has never bothered them. If we were to get out of the truck, or even hang out of the frame or sit and stand a bunch, that perception can change. In that circumstance, it's 50-50 as to whether the elephants will run away or charge the truck. Neither of those are good, especially the latter. So, it's keep quiet, stay inside the truck's frame, and don't move too much. If the situation gets uncomfortable, we're supposed to calmly ask that we back off and not just scream "Oh my god, we're all going to die!"
Once we were in close, the elephants pretty much ignored us as they went about their business of munching trees. We even saw the baby elephant nurse. After hearing the stories, it was fascinating to see one of the elephants carefully knock over a tree to eat a tiny portion of it. They try to get the roots up for the moisture and nutrients, but in the example we saw, she just broke it at the base of the trunk and nibbled a little.
After a while, the other trucks took off, which we were happy to see since they were making quite a racket. Clearly their guides hadn't prepared them as thoroughly as Marius did us. As the elephants moved along, finding new stuff to eat, we had to start up the truck and reposition to watch them until they moved into stuff too thick to drive in.
They tolerated this and mostly ignored us, only reacting to the trucks starting up. The elephants have something like a tear duct on their face a few inches behind their eyes. When they are stressed or upset, moisture trickles out. Marius pointed this out when the other trucks left; one of the elephants had a trickle down the side of her face. Since it just made a streak and wasn't continuing to flow, Marius read this to mean she was startled when it happened, but wasn't still stressed.
It was shocking how the elephants were out in the open one minute, then just a few minutes later had moved into the trees and completely out of sight. Only the occasional cracking of branches pointed to their presence. No wonder we missed them in the morning.
With the others gone, Marius had a plan. From the direction they were moving, he knew they were working their way to a nearby watering hole.
So, we drove around their path and into the water hole area so they would emerge facing us, giving us an opportunity for head-on photos. Of course, there didn't happen to be a dirt road for this route, so we just drove through the brush and trees, including driving straight over trees perhaps even just a bit larger than what the elephants were knocking over. Someone in the back chastised Marius, "after knocking over those trees, the least you could do is eat some."
We didn't have to wait long before we heard the elephants approaching, then emerge from the brush exactly where Marius had predicted. We were parked broadside to where they came out, so we all had an awesome view of the elephants approaching from just 20 yards away. Camera shutters were snapping and we were all quite pleased. The adults sort of glared at us, then one of the females went about trying to push over a tree.
One of the big females was clearly annoyed, staring directly at us, then walked straight up to us, clearly trying to intimidate us into leaving. Marius later explained that in this situation, it would be a bad move to back off. That would be a sign of weakness, prompting the elephant to give this invader a lesson we wouldn't soon forget. It happened quickly, but was clear that she was trying to chase us off. Tom took a quick photo as she approached, not knowing what was going to happen next.
We sat tight, quiet and scared as the elephant brought her face and two-foot-long tusks right up against the truck. Cathy was the in back corner on the elephant side. For some reason, the elephant turned her attention to that corner and pushed against the rail, with the threat of thrusting her tusks into the truck where Cathy was. As the rest of us anxiously watched, Lauren, the woman seated next to Cathy, quietly slid over giving Cathy room to lean over below the protective side panels and out of the threat of being impaled.
At this point, Marius starting making noise and waving an arm out of the truck. This was to attract the elephant's attention and to imitate an elephant sniffing around with its trunk. This showed we were checking her out and not intimidated, while also not being threatening.
The elephant moved around the vehicle to the other side and moved briefly straight toward Tom, but didn't come up against the vehicle this time.
Then, she moved up to the corner in front of Marius and put one foot on the bumper and gave us a couple of good shakes. The other adult female came over and stood beside the first to let us known they were united in being unhappy with our presence. We held our position in silence, except for an occasional shutter release. After the final stare down, they gave up and slowly moved out of the area.
After it was over, Marius explained the psychology of the encounter and why he did what he did. Everyone complimented Cathy on her bravery, in staying calm and not screaming. Lee asked Cathy if she could smell the elephant at that close range and Cathy answered, "I wasn't breathing." That got a good laugh from everyone. Referring to when the elephant rocked the truck, someone asked Marius if the elephant could have flipped us over. He answered, "Oh, no, definitely not. Not from that angle." From the side of the vehicle, it would have been easy for her to roll us over.
Marius also asked us not to brag too much about our encounter, otherwise we will have some guests complaining, "Hey, our guide is no good, he didn't get the elephants to attack our truck!"
After dinner, walking back in the dark, we had a zebra cross the path in front of us right next to our room. It then let loose with a long, loud, flatulent blast that inspired a new euphemism.
Although there's a theoretical Internet connection opportunity in the lobby of the hotel, it's been broken every time we've tried to use it. We also tried to call home, but the instructions that the front desk gave us didn't work. We're interested to let our parents know we're safe and sound, although they don't know enough about our adventures to know they should be worried.
All photos ©2006 Tom and Cathy Saxton. All rights reserved.
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