Early November 2014, we met Popeye in Johannesburg and the three of us went off into the unknown… Kruger National Park. Not quite though. It had taken a lot of planning with a very nice woman from Siyabona Africa to make reservations almost at the last minute (end of August 2014 for the first week of November 2014!). We were to spend one whole week in Kruger Park and we’d be staying in three different private lodges, in three different areas of the park which would be a perfect dream come true!
The first lodge, Kings Camp, belongs to what’s called “the Greater Kruger Park”. Its full name is “Kings Camp Timbavati Private Nature Reserve”. We flew there on the 2nd of November, 2014.
When you are staying at lodges, the game drives (two per day) are done in safari four-wheel drive cars. Usually in an open Land Rover unless you are inside the Park and then the Land Rover or the Toyota has to have a roof. Plus you are never on your own. You are with a field guide or “ranger” and his tracker. You are not supposed to leave the car unauthorized and it is strictly forbidden to talk in a loud voice, to stand up or to move around in the car whenever you’d feel like taking the best picture ever… Just sayin’.
In Kings Camp, the Land Rovers are roofless. The field guide is driving and has a rifle within arm’s reach. If there is any danger, his instructions are to shoot to kill. Kind of scary, I know when all you want to do is to take pictures… peacefully after all. And then you learn to live with it. Actually you forget about the rifle very quickly.
The tracker is facing the “whatever” can appear suddenly and his seat is not at all comfortable, said Swee’Pea who couldn’t resist to try it out. But this is the place where tracks can be seen at best…
The first and the second drives were quite uneventful even though we spent quite a long time watching a young female leopard, several buffaloes and a couple of rhinos. They weren’t very close to us. And it was obvious that they were very used to the cars from the reserve because all they did was to observe us briefly while they were going about their business, looking utterly bored by the way!
The savannah was more or less what we had expected to see in Kruger, maybe a little bit more desolate than we thought it’d be. The skies were mostly grey and cloudy which boosted the bareness. November is the beginning of summer but there hadn’t been much rain in winter either. Nothing to compare with the drought Kruger Park has been going through for more than one year though.
That afternoon, we drove around past the waterhole. It was mid-afternoon already so no wild beasts around. Too late or too early!
And then there he was - our first bush elephant in the wild. A bull. “Not very old”, said our ranger. Elephant bulls live on their own while the females gather together with the calves until mating season.
I wanted to take pictures. Who wouldn’t? The elephant was quietly watching us, leaning against the skinniest skeleton of a tree. Later on, I was reminded that our ranger then made a strange decision. He switched the engine off. I don’t think I noticed. I was in the mood “I-am-taking-pictures-and-don’t-ask-me-to-notice-anything-else-around-me”.
For a long time or what seemed to be a long time and actually was a very, very short time according to my camera clock, the bull watched us from behind the tiny trunk. During exactly 59 seconds. Not very friendly because anyway who can expect friendliness from a wild animal even when your mind gets totally distorted from watching too many Disney movies… or you have been dealing with tamed animals in zoo-like facilities.
No. This elephant bull was watching us very inquisitively. He knew there was “something” there except that there was silence where there should have been a motor running. (We learnt much later on that they have been experiencing problems with electrical cars in Kruger. Wild beasts are used to the purring of the engines and not to the cars per se. They are born and live with that sound around them. They recognize engine sounds but not cars. Electric engines are very silent. Take away the sound and the animals will tend to feel they are in danger when facing silent cars, the “unknown” for them. When the park was trying out a few electric cars, rangers were faced with unusual aggressiveness from the “Big 5”. End of electric cars in Kruger National Park, so far.)
So no engine running. But… and I guess this was really wrong… There were three people taking pictures in the car. A nice Australian honeymooning couple sharing a camera, Popeye and me. And I was probably and by far the most active of them all, producing rather loud clicks at regular and close intervals.
The place where we had stopped was rather quiet. So just imagine: “Click! Click! Click!”…
The bull probably decided that enough was enough. He had to investigate. He took one step forward. Click! Two steps forward. Click! He did not even start trumpeting which meant that he was not this upset. He just kept on coming straight at us. Which was for me the most perfect angle I could have dreamt of. He was exactly at right angles to the side of our car, coming directly towards me since I was the one sitting right behind the ranger. Such a perfect spot!
I kept shooting and shooting. He kept moving forward and forward. What a sight! (Through my lens, of course.) I loved the way he was swinging his trunk with every step which was becoming more and more determined. Oh, what a sight! I kept shooting. I was not in a hurry. Wow, this elephant was such a magnificent bull. Besides being our first wild bush elephant!
And then, he loomed up almost unexpectedly extremely large!
I then heard the young bride say something nervously, a few words I did not really catch, so totally hypnotized by this encounter and still clicking away.
Popeye was sitting on my left. He bent towards the ranger, gave him a not so friendly little tap on the shoulder and said: “Let’s move off. Now!”
And we moved off, just like that, giving him a wide berth. The bull looked bewildered. So this had been a car all along… after all! He turned around at once and walked away, taking long, placid and stately steps. We managed to follow him for a while.
I was feeling a little bit irritated though. This had been such a perfect moment… for a photographer!
They were all very nice to me. Never tread on a photographer’s toes when she thinks she is hoarding up great pictures. Just wait…
We had an excellent sundowner in the middle of nowhere, at sunset, all together. We did not talk about the elephant. The young couple was flying back to Sydney the following morning so there was a lot of small talk and it was fun.
I had enough time to download the pictures of the afternoon drive before dinner was served. And then I had a real moment of panic! I remembered having to zoom out and constantly bringing the bull into focus. I remembered feeling very nervous because this was the first time I was taking pictures of a wild animal on the move.
But I had not fully realized that from 4:40:35 p.m. to 4:42:59 p.m., the bull had gotten much closer to me than I ever felt he was.
From over there...
This elephant never displayed any real anger though. He probably had been rather distressed by the sudden lack of sound of a motor and by my clicks which would explain why our ranger and the tracker were not overmuch worried. The question remains: What would he have done when meeting with the physical obstacle of the car, assuming that our ranger would have allowed him to get that close?
Grab my camera? Definitely not! Push the car away which would have meant overturning it? Hard to find a really satisfying new ending to this story because as they say, all’s well that ends well!
All in all, spending one week in Kruger Park, going on eleven game rides and having many very close encounters with the Big 5 plus lots of other wild beasts, we felt perfectly safe there. Certainly safer than walking around Cape Town or even in Paris at night, waving an iPhone like a red rag!
*Good Luck, and Good Night*