In the epic drama played in the theatre that is Africa, the elephant surely has the lead role. This gentle giant with its lazy gait, quiet demeanour, inherent intelligence, and subdued power was certainly the central character for our Smithsonian safari where Act I was staged under the mist of Victoria Falls, Act II was played out across the floodplains of the Chobe River, and the Finale was encompassed by the giant amphitheatre of the Zambezi escarpment. The supporting cast of lion, rhino, buffalo and leopard, along with all the extras (kudu, zebra, sable, giraffe et al) all performed admirably, but as always, the elephant stole the limelight. In no other place does this iconic animal give a better performance than in Botswana’s Chobe National Park. Home to one of the largest single populations of elephant in Africa, this reserve provided us with some captivating elephant viewing. There is a certain thrilling trepidation that floods the senses when one has their first close encounter with the world’s largest land mammal. For us there was no exception.
The Opening Scene: Game Drive
Very soon after entering Chobe National Park, we are treated to a wildlife bonanza that fills the stage that is the Chobe floodplain; buffalo and elephant dot the landscape and we scarcely know where to point our binoculars. As we descend the Ochre Ridge towards the river, we notice a small herd of elephants following their own dusty trail to water; a trail created over many decades by many thousands of serving platter sized feet. The dry season is reaching its height and the Chobe River is the only place for many a mile where wildlife can quench the incessant thirst that is the trademark of the Kalahari wilderness. A small, maybe year old, baby elephant gambols alongside its mother and aunty. Still suckling, it is perhaps not yet aware how important this journey is; for now it remains a chance to frolic in the cool waters and splash mud about with gay abandon. Our vehicle reaches the banks of the river and we stop constantly to watch a parade of animals: warthogs are wallowing, a sable antelope weighs up the risk of stealing a quick drink, impala and baboons share a feast under a monkey orange tree and above us on the ridge, more and more elephants gather in anticipation of water.
Scene II: The ‘Encounter’
To our right we are watching a bevy of elephants slapping on mud with an enthusiasm that can only be described as pure joy. It has our undivided attention and amusement. A muted shuffling noise to the left interrupts the scene and we swing our heads around to see a small family of elephants heading down the river bank directly towards us. Their mission is to get to water and it appears that nothing will stop them. If it weren’t for the inquiring trunk tips pointed in our direction it would seem that they don’t know we exist. The herd splits and passes front and back of our 4x4 so close we can see every eyelash and the cracks on their toenails – exhilarating! One inquisitive young male is not so blasé and decides he wants a closer look at the vehicle occupants. He gets within trunk range and gives us "The Stare". The chocolate brown eye that he surveys us with is intoxicating and there seems to be a message passing from one intelligent being to another – a silent one, because a pin dropping right now would be cacophonous.
The Closing Scene: Sunset Boat Cruise
Our boat cruise is filled with a myriad of encounters with creatures both large and small. A monitor lizard scavenges a Fish Eagle’s scraps; white-fronted bee-eaters hawk insects above our heads; hippos splash, cavort and yawn at our passing; buffaloes graze chest deep in the water; a giant crocodile basks in the late afternoon sun; and always, ever present, are elephants. They are drinking, feeding, bathing, trumpeting, rumbling, suckling, walking, and sparring. They carry out their daily existence without the least concern of our camera clicking and exclamations of wonder. It feels like it cannot possibly get better, until we turn a corner to reveal a scene that probably qualifies as a religious experience. The Sun, now a bright orange orb hanging low in the sky, provides a backdrop to a gathering of buffalo and elephants that must number in the hundreds. Their silhouettes are haloed by the ethereal light reflected in the mirror-like river. Our voices drop to that respectful whisper reserved for a great cathedral and no-one can wrench their eyes away. Sunset in Africa is a relatively quick affair, and I cannot help but think that it is a perfectly timed curtain fall to an astounding performance. Tomorrow the curtain will rise again, and although the script may change, the drama will remain the same.