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We sit in comfortable silence, watching as the light of the rising sun turns the Waterberg mountains in South Africa redder by the second. It’s time. Our backpacks have the necessary provisions; water, snacks, and a first aid kit. One guest, two guides. All girls and none of us South African.

©Joanne MacInnis

My guest Joanne is from Canada. It is her first time to Africa. My back-up guide is Hadley, a walking encyclopaedia, from the United States. Our aim is to explore the more remote areas of the Marakele National Park that cannot be accessed with a vehicle. Bumping into the Big Five is an added bonus and does happen on a regular basis.

©Joanne MacInnis

This morning we are going to explore a gorge that runs east from the lodge. It’s a bit of a climb but once at the top it is completely flat and a entirely different ecosystem. Not fifty metres in and we have already identified tracks of a brown hyena, some buffalo, a leopard and two large elephant bulls. These animals walked here during the night as we slept soundly. Joanne’s enthusiasm is infectious. She has never seen any of these animals before and is now walking on the same sand as them.

©Hadley Pierce

The tracks of the elephant bulls are heading towards the gorge we intend to hike. The tracks are well defined. The sun and wind have not had a chance to tarnish them yet. We walk in silence, the wind is perfect and blows our scent behind us. Tracks for another leopard are on top of the elephant tracks. My adrenaline is pumping, we are now following two of the big five. The sun is creeping higher over the mountain and we take ten minutes to let it rise a little higher so we are not walking straight into it.

A tree clatters to the ground further up the gorge and the sound echoes around us. We all smile, the grey giants are not far. I discuss tactics. I am happy with the sun’s position, the wind is perfect but there only seems to be one large game path. I want to make sure that we don’t make two six ton elephants feel trapped in this gorge. We cross a rocky dry river bed hoping to find another path on the other side. No luck. We use the riverbed as our path and move silently up the gorge. The sides are steep and there is good vegetation coverage on either side.

I can see the top of a tree moving. We cannot see it yet but I know there is an elephant feeding below it. We sit on large rocks on the side of the riverbed. We are about thirty metres away from the moving tree. If anything goes wrong we will drop down the edge and use our rocky riverbed path as an exit. We sit hidden in the vegetation, anticipating. I turn back to check on my guest and back up. Both are grinning from ear to ear.

And then through our little window in the vegetation we see an elephant walk down the large game path, followed shortly by another, and then a tiny one. Elephants of various sizes are walking down the game path past us at thirty metres without any idea we are there! Not the two elephant bulls we had expected to find but a herd of twenty plus making their way down towards where we came from. I can hear our hearts pounding. What a privilege to watch these incredible animals in their natural environment without them knowing.

©Michelle Sole

The shapes stop passing our little window and the sounds of tearing vegetation can be heard further and further away. Joanne’s first ever sighting of an elephant and it was whilst she was sitting on a rock in arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world.

©Michelle Sole

Before continuing, we wait a while in case of any elephants trailing behind the herd. Five minutes later and nothing. We move out onto the game path and within minutes Hadley spots two more elephants! These elephants are not very far away down in the dry riverbed and they have seen us. A different approach here is necessary and it has to be quick. We are safe, there is a steep embankment of the dry riverbed between us but I lead us quickly up the side of the gorge to give the elephants plenty of space to join their family. From our high vantage point we watch them walk down the gorge and we can see the path ahead is clear. We stay a few moments longer to take it all in and then continue our trail with no more dramas, only breathtaking scenery and memories that the three of us will keep forever.

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Michelle Sole

Michelle Sole is a safari and polar guide, wildlife photographer and blogger. As a child, Michelle always had a love and respect for nature, animals and the outdoors. She competed for Great Britain as an alpine ski racer for ten years, chasing winters around the world. On a family holiday to Africa in 2008, Michelle fell in love with elephants. In 2011 she moved to South Africa where she completed her studies to become a field guide and worked for five and a half years in the Waterberg Biosphere in South Africa. In 2017 Michelle spent a year backpacking around the globe, travelling from one national park to another. At the end of the year she spent three months guiding in Antarctica. She now divides her time between the African sun and the Antarctic ice, sharing with guests her passion for whales, birds and photography. Her thrill for adventure, the outdoors and adrenaline are at the core of her photography and writing. Follow her on Facebook or Instagram.