Its all about the wind….
Its all about the wind….
That is how I always start my safety talk when we are about to do an approach on Elephant bulls. It’s all about the wind; Elephants have an incredible sense of smell. Their eyesight is poor and what they pick up is movement more than anything, quick movement at that. Their hearing is also good but is almost selective hearing in a way. You can get right up to an Elephant bull and talk in a low whisper and most of the time they will not even notice. Snap a stick or stand on some dry leaves and crunch them and he will stop what he is doing immediately, lift his head and perk up his ears. So if you get downwind, move in very slowly using whatever cover you have between you, and don’t step on too many sticks and dry leaves, you can get up very close to an Elephant bull and he will have no idea that you are even there.
Approaching Elephant bulls is something I love to do and something that I do with just about every guest that I guide if they are up for it. Some are not so keen to walk but I will always do my best to convince them to at least do an approach with me if they don’t want to do a longer walk as the experience is unforgettable.
A couple of days ago my guests and I did a walk behind Masuma dam; it is one of my favourite places to walk as once you get through the scrub Mopane you get into beautiful Granite rock outcrops that stick up all over the area. My plan for this day was to walk into this rocky area and climb some of the bigger outcrops and use the height to glass for bulls. When had gone about three kilometres into the rocks when we came to a huge outcrop. Up we went and the view from up on these outcrops is spectacular. We sat for about ten minutes glassing when I picked up a group of three bulls feeding about a kilometre away. I pointed them out to everyone and told them we were going for them. The wind was perfect blowing straight from them to us. These animals can smell you coming from hundreds of meters away. We crossed the ground quickly and saw them up ahead. As we were getting to within a hundred meters or so I saw that there were more than three. I counted five as we go closer, feeding lazily in the mopane. The wind was still perfect so chose the bull on the edge of the group and started to move in. It is the dry season and most of the grass underfoot is very dry so walking in quietly is tough, however, the wind was blowing steadily into our faces so was helping to mask the sound. Also when approaching a group of bulls I find that they react less to sound as I guess they think any sound they hear is just one of their mates nearby.
We had a little cluster of rocks between us and the bull we were moving in on, so my plan was to get to those. This we did with relative ease despite some crunching of grass and leaves. We sat at about fifteen meters from the bull in silence and watched him feed. We could see the other four. One on his left and three on his right, three of the bulls were big fellas and two were young bulls not long out of the herd they were born into. Young bulls will leave the herd they are born into roughly in their middle teen years and will start to follow big mature bulls around and learn from them what being a bull elephant is all about. Females will stay with the herd they are born into generally for life. Bulls become more loners or hang out in small groups such as this one. I keep reiterating BULLS and those are the only Elephants I do approaches on.
By my own choice, I never approach elephant cows and calves as they are a very different animal. Whereas an elephant bull is generally very predictable, cows are not. Elephant bulls though they hang out together they generally don’t look out for each other when trouble is near, trouble in the form of humans that is in this case. Generally, they will run away at the first confirmation that humans are near and it’s kind of every bull for himself. Cows on the other hand back each other up. If one cow is in trouble, the rest of the girls will come to her aid. So you can have a wall of grey made up of many elephant cows advancing on you. An awe-inspiring sight but not so nice on foot. You may have noticed that I keep saying the word generally. This is because at the end of the day they are WILD animals and they have not read the rule book. Always be prepared for the unexpected in the bush. I stopped saying the word never a long time ago when it comes to guiding and animals, as when you say never you can be sure you will go round a corner and the very thing that you have just said NEVER happens will be happening.
We had been sitting for a while when into view walked the sixth bull, he was a monster. Bigger than the three big boys we had already seen and beautiful big tusks, even on both sides. As soon as I saw him I signaled to my guests and we pulled back as I wanted to have a closer look at him. We moved back slowly and quietly and went in an arc toward him. He was feeding right next to another little outcrop of rocks that were actually a little lower than the ground he was on. I knew we were going up to the rocks and we would have them as cover and if he decided he was going to come to us he would have to go round the rocks. I motioned to my guests to get down low and we crept in very slowly making sure not to step on any dry leave or grass. We got up to the rocks and crouched down. We were about eight meters from the bull and now that we were close, he was even bigger. Hwange elephants are recognised as some of the biggest-bodied elephants in Africa. There are areas where they have bigger ivory generally but body wise when you find a truly big Elephant bull in Hwange you know you are standing with one of the biggest land-based creatures on the planet.
We were now crouched down eight meters away from one on foot. We had been there for a couple of minutes when one of my guests shifted to get a better view and the bull picked up the movement. He had been standing broadside; he spun to face us head-on and lifted his head. Now a Hwange bull is a massive thing In any sense, but when he turns to face you and lifts his head and spreads his ears we are talking another level on size. He stands looking at us, I whisper to my guest “don’t move” The bull takes two steps forward, and as I said he was on slightly higher ground so is now towering above us at about six meters away. He stares at us and we stare back, he shakes his head and dust flies up making him look even more imposing. Again I whisper “don’t move”. I can hear heavy breathing behind me. I have a grin from ear to ear. All our hearts are pounding but you feel alive. I always tell my guests after these experiences that the beauty of walking and in this case approaching Elephant bull is that you could be a multi-millionaire or a penniless bum. The Elephant bull in front of you does not care and whatever you are in your world does not matter out here.
The bull stands like this for about a minute then takes another step forward, he is now on the other side of the little outcrop and about five meters away from us. Again I whisper “don’t move”. He continues to stare for another minute then gradually I see his head lowering and his ears start to move rhythmically back and forth. He is calming down and had decided that there is no danger here. Slowly he moves backward and starts to feed again. I turn slowly and look at my guest with a huge smile on my face. I wish I had a camera then as there was quite a mix of faces behind me. Slowly we pull back and the group of bulls continue to feed and are none the wiser.
I can see the direction the bulls are feeding in so tell my guests that we will set ourselves up in a place I have spotted and let them feed toward us. We manoeuvre round and sit amongst another little outcrop and slowly the bulls feed towards us. Gradually they get closer until we are sitting with all six of them within fifteen meters of us, the wind is still perfect and they have no idea we are there. Then one of the bigger ones starts to walk towards us. I have positioned myself so that I am at the front of the group, slowly I stand up and tap my ring on my rifle barrel to make a clicking sound. The bull stops and looks up and sees me. No aggression at all, he just stands and looks at me. He is about eleven meters away, he steps forward and I take a small step toward him and he stops and just looks at me. Then one of the most amazing things I have been privileged to experience as a Zimbabwean Professional guide happens to me and my guests. Slowly all six of the bulls come forward and form a semi-circle in front of us and just stand and look at us. No aggression at all, they just stand. Then one of them rumbles and some of them respond. To be on foot and this close to six Elephant bulls and hear them rumble is an almost spiritual feeling that I will never forget. I know that my guests are in amongst the rocks behind me and can easily disappear amongst the rocks if need be but if don’t feel the need to even think about that as they are all relaxed and just standing peacefully looking at us. They stand like this for about five minutes and we just stare back at them in awe until slowly lead by the massive bull they turn and wander past to our left.
After they have moved off I turn and tell my guests that they have just had an experience that they and I will never ever forget. Those bulls have just allowed us to be a part of their group for a magical few minutes.