One afternoon, we took part in an elephant tea party. After having our own tea of course; it would be bad manners, we felt, to bring our delicious ice rooibos tea or coffee with us – without offering them any that is.
We were off to watch the elephants come down to drink at the pan just outside Little Makalolo Camp in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park – at the camp’s famous logpile hide.
The concept of a logpile hide is simple yet brilliant – and definitely thrilling.
A pile of logs are placed at the edge of the pan surrounding a few safari chairs set out in a row, ready for the show. You have to get there before the stars arrive – which we did, with a couple of minutes to spare. The humans sit inside the hide (I guess that depends on your point of view) at ground level and get to look up and out at the enormous grey bulks as they ponderously make their way to drink.
So we sat in a row, keeping quiet obediently as per our guide’s instructions. We’re the invaders here and we’re almost out in the open, so best we obey the rules and be polite. Like at all tea parties there are things that Are Done and things that Are Not Done.
After a couple of minutes, there they came, deceptively slow yet astonishingly fast – it seems that one minute they were grey blobs in the dusty distance and the next they were looming over us as they splashed purposefully across the shallow water. Thirty great grey bodies moved into the middle of the pan, some heading straight for us, and then wading across our field of vision to settle in to drink. As they walked past, one eye would stare at us from an almost unbelievable height and I found myself crouching down a little, feeling the need to say “sorry, sorry,” and they, supremely aware that they’d won that conversation, turned and waded past – as the cameras clicked and whirred.
Finally the whole herd was in the water – most of which is currently knee high. An elephant knee high that is. Wading around with enthusiasm, they began sucking water up those trunks then sloshing it into their mouths, or slapping it onto their sides until each grey bulk was bright-wet and glistening brown. The babies moved their little legs madly (I use the term ‘little’ advisedly), splashing water up and around, rolling over with their legs in the air and completely disappearing into the slightly deeper sections; one disappeared with a gloop noise into a hole, only his trunk showing.
This whole cavorting, playing, wallowing event, you’d think, would come complete with squealing, shouting and general noise – just like kids in a pool. But instead, there wasn’t a sound from them. The only noises were those of very large splashes and almost frenzied slapping of water on hide, but surreally, no other noise at all could be heard from such enormous animals.
I was just admiring the grace with which they were conducting themselves, when this elephantine idyll was interrupted by another herd coming down to drink – and everything changed.
It seems that my anthropomorphic assumptions were wide of the mark – like humans, ellies sometimes don’t like to share.
The smaller herd of ten arrived at the edge of the pan and with an unexpected surge of spray, a few members of the larger herd wheeled around and headed towards them. They moved fast and aggressively, shouldering up to the interlopers and blocking them from entering, indeed moving forwards so that the unwanted visitors were pushed backwards. Right next to me, on the other side of a few very flimsy logs, one tried to push back – trumpets sounded and it seemed that an international incident might take place not six feet from me (did I mention that?). We all held our breath – as did all creation it seemed – and then the smaller herd backed off and the others turned around and resumed whatever they had been doing before in ‘their’ water.
However, all was well that ended well. The ten just walked behind us (neck-prickling stuff I must tell you) to the other side of the water which, apparently, the herd of thirty didn’t feel quite so possessive about, and drank. They did however do it quickly and with none of the verve and splashing that one would assume was required – then turned and left. The thirty continued their vigorous yet silent splashing, sliding and rolling off one another, babies ‘diving’ or rather falling head first into the murk.
Then suddenly, at a hidden signal, it was over and they all turned and sploshed their way out. Glistening baggy bums disappeared, as rapidly as they had arrived, into the distant woodland. We were left bereft in the sudden silence, with only the gusty, dusty wind for company.
Written and Photographed by Ilana Stein