I had just finished telling the story when I looked up, and speak of the devil, but what was walking towards us out of the Mopane veld but a magnificent elephant bull, past his prime now but with tusks pushing almost a meter and a half from the lip. If this old chap wasn’t a ‘hundred pounder’ he was pretty damned close to it.
We were having lunch under two big, old, misshapen appleleaf trees, sitting in the open next to Mubandi spring in the Lonely Bull Backpack Trail area. The gnarled, exposed root some of us were sitting on was a well used scratching post and at our feet were the recent tracks of buffalo and elephant.
After carrying our backpacks over the watershed from the Nwanedzi the day before, we had decided to camp at the same spot for 2 nights, allowing us to walk for a day without the packs. The campsite we had chosen was a relatively flat, shaded grassy spot overlooking the reed-chocked Letaba River, with a shallow, rocky section below us where we could wash and collect drinking water.
After saluting the sunrise with a strong cup of coffee, we had left camp and followed the Matrabowa Spruit to the Southwest. Altogether we were ten; 8 guests, my back-up and I. The path we had followed in the early morning chill had criss-crossed the drainage line and had been used in the pre-dawn hours by a group of 3 Dagga boys, whose over-sized hooves had dug into the hard-packed earth of the path. I had expected to spot them up ahead at any moment as we eased through the dense thickets that inevitably appeared after every open grassy stretch shaded by large twisted appleleaf and leadwood trees, and I was relieved when the tracks left the path and headed south away from the drainage line and into the endless mopanes. We had breakfasted in the dense shade on a bend of the spruit next to a small pool of water. The thick wall of green Mopane pressed close to the drainage line in places Afterwards we continued upstream to the confluence of the Mubandi Spruit. Here we needed to backtrack a little to collect water. We dug in the riverbed next to a standing pool of water, scooping out the muddy water, allowing clear water, filtered through the sand, to stream in. After filling our bottles we followed the Mubandi to the south, walking silently on a timeless elephant path which flowed upstream through the cathedral like atmosphere of the mature open woodland of the spruits’ narrow floodplain, with the faint scent of sage tickling our nostrils.
It had already been a busy day with sightings of impala, kudu, honeybadger , two seperate breeding herds of elephant, as well as a big herd of buffalo which departed to the west in a cloud of dust on our approach to the spring.
The wind had been chopping and changing all morning and betrayed our presence to the buff even though we had approached quietly and in cover. We had been approaching the spring on a broad, well worn path from the north, through pretty thick Mopane when I spotted a big Buffalo bull about 40m away, across the little drainage line. The slight breeze had seemed to be good, but in the few seconds it took for the group to move to my position I saw movement beyond the bull as the thundering of a few hundred hooves surprised us, as what must have been a substantial herd took off to the west. The big chap looked up for a few seconds at the sound and then proceeded to approach the drainage line toward us. I said ‘hello’ to him, just to let him know we were there and hopefully prevent him from crossing to our side, but to no avail as he promptly crossed into the thick stuff 20 meters ahead of us on our intended path. We had to cross over the spruit and back again to loop around the bull, but now our scent was every where, so there were no surprises when the only life at the water was a few thirsty Namaqua Doves, which fluttered up from the edge of the shallow clear-water pools surrounded by elephant diggings.
We had settled down for lunch when I told my story.....
Almost a year previously I had been resting in pretty much the same spot, under the shade of an adjacent tree. Almost the entire group, myself included, had dozed off in the shade, when three big, mature elephant bulls had emerged from the mopanes to the south. They had quietly approached to within 40 meters before we all became aware of them. The 2nd rifle and I slowly raised our bodies from the short-cropped grass, slowly standing, to reveal our presence as they approached another 20 or so meters before stopping, looking down at us over their upturned trunks for a few seconds, then skirting around us and moving on down to the water. They were incredibly relaxed and did not seem worried at all by our presence but carried on down to the water and proceeded to dig up mud and plaster themselves with it. All this while we were on the edge of the drainage line with the elephants below us. It was fantastic!
Barely seconds after I had finished the story, the big tusker broke through the mopanes, walking into the wind, in our direction.
Like de ja vu, I slowly stood up, not wanting to surprise him, but just wanting to let him know we were there. He wasn’t fazed at all. He stopped, checked us out for a few seconds, then calmly walked into the drainage line into which the spring feeds, and slowly ambled past as we stood but 20 meters from him. The bulls’ body language was completely relaxed. He had approached the spring while being able to smell us and had showed no signs of distress. With a swinging foot he kicked up wet sand and mud, threw a bit of it on his legs, and with a half-hearted head shake, moved another 30 meters past us before covering himself with a thick layer of mud. Being a wise old veteran, past the days of theatrics, he had read our body language and could tell that we meant him no harm and had therefore not react aggressively or nervously to our presence, but had accepted us as just another group of animals at a shared resource.
What a privileged encounter with an animal that has been walking the area for at least the past 5 decades!
We finished our lunch in silence while watching him dozing serenely in the riverbed before, again, I noted movement in the mopanes and made out an elephant cow, half-concealed, standing in the treeline, hesitant to enter the open area from where our foreign scent drifted. Not wanting to disturb the area further we decided to vacate and allow the probable herd, currently bunched up in the thicket, to approach for a drink. We skirted the tusker, who I don’t think noticed our movement, and started heading back toward the Letaba. We cut a hippo path heading straight north, hugging the crest, presumably due to warmer night time temperatures when the hippos move inland away from the river, and followed this straight toward camp.
After two hours of walking, within a kilometre of camp, the elephant bull in musth approached us from behind.
But that’s another story.......