Date: 18th January 2013
After my relaxing stay at the awesome Limpopo Lipadi Game Reserve in Botswana I followed Simon and Lizz into South Africa and left them on the N1 highway, turning off to Bela-Bela where I am staying at the luxurious Zebula Country Club.
I hooked up with Sean Hensman from Adventure with Elephants. Sean’s dad Rory had owned a couple of commercial farms in Zimbabwe and he decided to turn one of his farms into a wildlife reserve so that his kids could grow up knowing about animals in their natural habitat. In 1988 Rory adopted two young orphaned elephants from a culling operation, with an aim of releasing them onto his game farm, but he soon realized that they were far too small to be released and so kept them in a boma. Within a week they were following a handler around the farm, responding to their names and listening to basic commands, and so the story began. As time went on he was given more and more so-called ‘problem’ elephants that he trained to willingly perform various farm tasks such as rounding up cattle, checking farm fences and conducting anti-poaching patrols.
Now if you speak to some animal activists they are very opposed to keeping wild animals in captivity and making them do tricks for tourists. And maybe they have a point if things were plain simple. In many instances though, these animals (lions, cheetahs, elephants etc) live in close proximity to man and are labeled as ‘problematic’ and are often poisoned or shot and killed. On my travels I have come across various NGO’s and projects that are trying to find solutions to this human / animal conflict. I have a friend who lives in New York who has never seen a real cow before (!), and I know some people are very opposed to zoos and these companies that offer tourists a glimpse of wild animals in a habituated environment. But in my honest opinion there is place for facilities to educate people and it helps create a stronger understanding about wild animals. So long as the animals are treated well and with respect and dignity.
So Adventure with Elephants gives tourists an amazing experience, one-on-one with their elephants, and I was lucky enough to spend time with Sean & Mike and the handlers and experience a day in the life of these wonderful creatures. We were shown how the elephants respond to voice commands and how they have the most amazing sense of smell and memory. I was able to go on an anti-poaching trek into the bush and for lunch I spent time chatting to the handlers while the elephants were left to roam around and eat for a few hours. After lunch we went for a swim with the elephants. It must have been one of the most chaotically awesome experiences I’ve ever had – I’m a bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to wild animals and I started getting a little nervous in the water because they all seemed to be on top of each another. They would duck down into the water for about 30 sec and pop up unexpectedly so I had visions of them rolling around on top of me, and after about 10 min I retreated to watch from the banks of the lake. I would recommend this experience to people if they have the opportunity, as it was truly fascinating and exhilarating at the same time.
There are a few different projects and research facilities in the area, including The Ground Hornbill Project that is harvesting chicks that would otherwise die (in the wild usually only one chick survives and the other starves to death), hand-rearing and reintroducing them back into the wild. The other was the De Wildt Cheetah & Wildlife Centre where founder Ann van Dyk devotes her life to the survival of cheetahs in the wild. The cheetah is under enormous threat of extinction and Ann and her team of dedicated conservationists are working hard to protect them. Roy took me on a tour of the De Wildt facilities, where I was also introduced to vultures, servals, caracals and other creatures that have been injured and have ended up here been taken care of and will be re-introduced back into the wild or used for education purposes if they can’t go back into the wild.
My next stop was Jozi to stay with my friends Kim and Robbie for two days. It was nice to be in a family environment with kids, a reminder of what I am heading back to. It’s funny having been on the road for so long, away from the madding crowd and now being in a big city with all the flashy fast cars and intimidating people on the go … maybe I should just turn around and head north again. Maybe I have become a bit of a recluse …
Africa Geographic director Simon Espley blogged his thoughts about Adventures with Elephants here