2019 Photographer of the Year winners on safari with our CEO
He emerged silently from the gloom and ambled towards us with that gentle rocking gait that big bull elephants use to cover vast distances with minimal effort. His white tusks glowed in the moonshine, but otherwise, he was just a huge dark grey smudge that loomed larger by the second. The eight of us sat motionless on the ground and in his path, wondering if he had seen us, and felt extremely insignificant.
At about fifteen metres, he noticed the eight seemingly legless humans and came to an abrupt halt, ears outspread, inquisitive and indecisive. Silence blanketed our group and the minutes ticked by as the elephant considered his options. Occasionally, he shuffled a little closer to get a better look at us, and as he raised his tusks in a bid to appear even larger and more intimidating, he was almost comical. Almost.
Next to me, Lizz was bravely staring wide-eyed at the gentle giant towering over us. I could hear her heart beating and sense her agitation, as fear and wonder battled for dominance. The instinct to stand up and run was almost overwhelming, but we obeyed Alan’s calm hand-signal instructions and wordlessly held our ground. At one stage, the huge grey ghost took a few steps towards one member of our team who was set apart from the rest by a few metres and Alan shifted his foot slightly as a distraction. The effect was dramatic as the elephant gave an exaggerated ear-clap, hit reverse gear and shuffled off. He met up with another bull about eighty metres away, and they had a brief discussion about us; often pointedly glancing in our direction. Discretion seemed to win the day, as they turned and melted away into the moon-shadows, like spirits of the African night.
We remained seated for a while, each lost in our thoughts, before picking our way back to the game drive vehicle about a hundred metres away. Not a word was spoken during the encounter, and no photos were taken, though I doubt that our gentleman elephant would have appreciated the flash. We all agreed that the overriding sense that we got from the giant creature was one of surprise and confusion, followed by curiosity. There was no anger, malevolence or belligerence. Alan drove the ten kilometres to our surprise bush dinner location on a hilltop with the vehicle lights off – the poacher’s moon provided ample light for navigation – which was a surreal and fitting end to a profoundly personal elephant encounter that will stay with each of us for the remainder of our days.
Naturally, this is an unusual way to encounter elephants and certainly should not be assumed to be the norm or attempted. I do provide context at the end of this story.
Our 2019 Photographer of the Year winner and two runners-up had joined Lizz and me on safari in Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, along with their companions. We enjoyed five days of fantastic wildlife sightings, culinary delights, wine and gin tastings and two fascinating and informative presentations from experts in their respective fields.
What follows is a selection of images from our group, with extended captions to provide the full story behind the photographs.
ABOUT THAT ELEPHANT ENCOUNTER, and our guide
Earlier that evening, we had spent about an hour with the same two bull elephants who were feeding peacefully next to our vehicle. We left them to enjoy sundowner drinks a few kilometres down the track. Alan McSmith is a highly regarded and experienced private guide, who regularly hosts guests all over Africa. He was chosen to guide this special safari precisely due to his understanding of elephants. During the sundowner stop, Alan invited us to join him about a hundred metres from the vehicle, where we sat down, closed our eyes and zoned into our surroundings. Amidst the usual insect and bird calls as the darkness set in, the crack of a nearby breaking branch had us all glancing at Alan.
“OK,” he whispered, “the big guys have decided to join us for sundowners. We have two choices – we can either all go back to the vehicle, or we stay. If we stay, you obey my instructions. These bulls are relaxed, they are inquisitive, and they are walking into our space – all of which means that we are quite safe – so long as we all relax and let them find us and choose their way out of here.”
By deciding to stay put, we were treated to one of the most extraordinary elephant experiences imaginable.
ABOUT KLASERIE DRIFT SAFARI CAMPS
The Klaserie Drift Safari Camps are set on 3,000 hectares of prime land in the heart of the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, offering a genuine, exclusive retreat into nature. The camps are ideally located for guests to enjoy all the wildlife Africa has to offer, in a private and secluded setting, featuring the Big 5, incredibly diverse landscapes and comfortable accommodation with all modern amenities.
Amani Safari Camp
Amani Safari Camp provides private, tranquil accommodation for eight guests in a large thatched villa. The layout of this camp is unique, comprising a central living area and four en-suite bedrooms. Each bedroom has its private garden entrance and large windows providing access to remarkable views of the bushveld. The central living area features two open plan lounges on the ground floor, as well as a library and a TV room on the open-air second level. The lounges open onto a large wooden deck which provides the perfect setting for the ultimate dining experience. A pathway leads to another outdoor lounge area with a swimming pool to allow you a moment to relax in the sunshine.
Misava Safari Camp
Misava Safari Camp is the perfect place to unwind, relax and enjoy what the Kruger bushveld has to offer. The new camp has been designed in line with nature – the name Misava is the Shangaan word meaning Earth. The camp overlooks the Klaserie River from the vantage point of a cliff. Misava has three elegant garden-view rooms and two opulent villas overlooking the river, each with its private deck area. The main building is adjacent to the dining area with casual seating and a fully stocked bar which then leads to the open-air boma/fire pit and a wooden deck overlooking a watering hole.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR, SIMON ESPLEY
Simon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, a chartered accountant and CEO of Africa Geographic. His travels in Africa are in search of wilderness, real people with interesting stories and elusive birds. He lives in Hoedspruit with his wife Lizz and two Jack Russells, and when not travelling or working, he will be on his mountain bike somewhere out there. His motto is ‘Live for now, have fun, be good, tread lightly and respect others. And embrace change.’