a safari to remember - niamh murray

After a three night stay at Sabi Sabi's Selati Camp, my guests had reached their last safari. We had collectively agreed at dinner the previous evening that for our last safari we would leave camp early, before sunrise, and make our way to the Sabie River for morning coffee. Never before had the early birds feasted on so many worms!

In the cool winter morning mist we reached our first "obstacle" en route to the river - 4 huge White Rhinoceros' had decided to make their overnight rest-camp in the middle of the road, soaking up any remaining heat from the road and at the same time, using each other as personal hot water bottles! We watched them in silence for about 10 minutes before we (and they) were disturbed by ferocious growling from the bush close by. As we went to investigate, the tracker spotted a long tail swishing in the grass in front of us. Up jumped a lioness and trotted down the road; hot on her heels was a persistent male, strong and muscular. Seeing the two together could only indicate one thing - they were a mating pair. We followed them for a while as the courtship ritual of the big cats is seldom seen and extraordinary to witness.

By this time the sun had risen and the day was warming up. We continued to the Sabie River lookout point and had just set up our coffee and hot chocolate station when the next surprise was uncovered. At first it was the gentle rustling of hooves through the grasses that alerted us. Then over the ridge we saw a cloud of dust rising, lit by the morning sun. Through the dust storm came a sea of black beasts making their way eagerly into the river basin in search of a thirst quenching drink. We estimated there to be in excess of 1500 Cape buffalo, both young and old, moving in unison. The persistent bleating of the calves was occasionally interrupted by the clash of horns of the 900kg 'dagga boys' (big males) at the back of the herd.

elephants at waterhole

With the morning passing it was time to start making our way back to the lodge for breakfast. Little did we know what was still to come. Along the Mlechwaan drainage line we passed by the remains of an old elephant carcass. As we were discussing the theory of elephant 'graveyards' and the behaviour of elephants 'mourning' their dead, a breeding herd of elephants appeared out of the thicket. They were clearly pre-occupied by the lush vegetation around them. They all had branches in their mouths happily chewing off the bark, and another in the grasp of their trunks ready to replace the branch being chewed! But as the herd approached the carcass the matriarch paused, dropped her leafy breakfast kebab and moved straight towards the bones. What we witnessed next was one of the most incredible and moving elephant behaviours I have ever seen. Each member of the herd gathered around the bones and with the most delicate of movements touched, picked up, and replaced the bones back onto the ground. They stood in silence for about 5 minutes before moving back into the trees to continue their feeding.

It is still not fully understood what triggers this behaviour of elephants at a carcass, nor why they do it. It is speculated that they are mourning the individual that has died, but how and if they can recognise the individual is still a mystery. But, whatever these elephants saw and felt that morning, it was extraordinarily deep and more intimate than any animal interaction I have ever seen.

By this stage we didn't think it was possible that there was anything more to see before breakfast…then, when we were only about 10 minutes away from the lodge, a fellow ranger came onto the radio with a definite adrenaline overdose in his voice: "One Madoda Bhejane, kwatile steem!" he declared. A black rhino had been found. These creatures are rare and aggressive and are few and far between. We were close by and immediately made our way to have a look. Black rhinos are unpredictable and have a tendency to charge at anything that moves. We approached with caution and before we saw him we could hear his warning huffs and puffs in the dense vegetation. After a few minutes of our silent waiting, he finally relaxed and showed himself to us. It is estimated that there are less than 600 black rhinos in the entire greater Kruger National Park area, and this was my first time to see one in the wild.

What an end to an amazing safari experience!! It was a morning that I will never forget…

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