Trip of a life-time

by Tessa Gerlach

I keep thinking there may be a way, but I may once again resign and decide there really isn’t. There isn't a way to explain the African bush to someone who hasn't experienced it for himself.

So let me start elsewhere: have you ever found that something in a person you met? Well, it is that something that is in every corner of the African bush, in the earth, the nature, and the hearts of the local people. It’s a magical spirit of this very land that is bound to transform you, creeps under your skin and compels you to want to come back for more… Now hold that thought, while I reassure you that yes, I am well aware of all the widespread corruption in this very country, and yes, there is an unbelievable poverty, too. But what if I tell you that lumping a continent of 54 African countries into a “bad” bracket is not where I want to go here (many people have done that before me).

So let me be where I want to be at this very moment: I am at that magical place in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, where a certain melody is in the sky and the sun sets so beautifully you may want to hold your breath during the course of it.

Thanda Game Reserve

I have been here before. 5 years ago, I have sat on this very chair before enjoying a delicious local milipapp-based meal, overlooking the African landscape. We are in Thanda Game Reserve at Ntibane, an old hunting camp nestled amongst thorn trees of 150 square kilometres of enchanted bushland about a 4 hours drive north of Durban. People are as hard to find here as needles in a haystack and the closest to a traffic jam is being stuck in a herd of buffalo. Thanda is home to the so-called Big 5 (lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo), zebras, giraffes, hyenas - you name it. For those that stay here for a longer period of time, the days will go by like the scenes of an David Attenborough documentary. For those with the extra cash in the pocket, Thanda is also home to a most beautiful Leading Hotel: the 5-star safari lodge, which will present all of the above and a whole lot of unbelievable luxury on top.

But I am here for a very specific reason this time. I am here to spend more time with my beloved elephants and those that know them best. One of them is Digs Pascoe, CEO of Space for Elephants, who through his determination of protecting the African elephants has turned my whole life around. But how Elephant Gin came about is yet another story and I will try not to get too side-tracked here.

Digs is a legend on its own with more stories and encounters with elephants to count - many of which I am hoping to tell you more about next time.

You still want to hear a short one, I hear you say? Well, take in this one for a start: elephants (biggest land mammals) and whales (biggest water mammals) communicate when in close enough proximity through infrasonic communication! A herd of elephants has been seen walking up a hill during whale season in late September every year and when there, they communicate out to the ocean, while the whales respond in their melodic sounds.

While I let you absorb this one for a bit, we are going to meet Rambo, Rachel and Jabulani at Bayete Zulu; three gentle giants. Their story and how they became habituated is an extraordinary one… Rambo and Rachel were the only two baby elephant survivors of a herd of elephants that were part of a culling program in 1980s (in which a whole herd was killed). The very person who was ordered to kill them just couldn’t face shooting these beautiful innocent elephants and decided to find a place, where they could continue to live. At Bayete, they now have 220 square kilometres of bushland to roam around. Rambo and Rachel created an incredible bond with two keepers, who now serve as part of their herd - and the2 keepers are probably the only reason why they survived the trauma of losing their entire elephant family. Rambo and Rachel had a child in 2010, Jabulani, who is growing up to be an equally gentle elephant, but with that extra spice of teenage cheekiness!

While I am not one for domesticating wild animals - anywhere in the world - Rambo, Rachel and Jabulani live incredibly free lives with the only difference that they seek human interaction as they are accepted as part of their herd. I count myself very luck to have been able to meet these three for the second time here - just as gentle, just as calm, just as majestic and even a little bigger than last time around. On finishing their snack near the main gate, the three take off for the bush again and after waving goodbye, we too, head in another direction.

Lake Jonzini - Shayamanzi House Boat

In fact, we are on our way up north to Lake Jozini (also known as Pongolapoort Dam) - and to our surprise, Digs has organised for a houseboat to come pick us up for a 24-hour ride. It’s not any house-boat, its one of Shayamanzi’s friendliest guy, who invites us in for the most breathtakingly calm drive. And can I please mention that we are the only boat on this entire lake, soaking up the stunning scenery of the Lebombo Mountains and superb wildlife of the Pongola Game Reserve on the shores of the lake. And who lives on these shores? Our favourite elephants friends of course, among lots of the other previously mentioned wild animals in the Pongola Nature Reserve plus hippos, crocodiles and tiger fish. Lovely combination if you ask me.

Pongola Game Reserve

Coming to greet us ashore is Heike Zitzer, Elephant Monitor and Researcher, who has been monitoring elephants in the area every waking moment of her day for 9 consecutive years. While it took the different herds about a year to be comfortable with her, they are now as much her family as she is part of theirs. Her objective is to have no influence on their behaviour, so they carry on as normal. We drive to the spotless research centre museum, where we can get a glimpse of her work - elephant family trees, maps and pictures on the wall as well as countless processed elephant data in a big black book on the table. I could spend days in this place taking in everything and learn the many facets of the intelligence and behavioural patterns of the elephants…and hopefully I get to do that one of these days…

But off we go to another adventure ahead, and I am unbelievably excited about the next stop:

Mavela

The Mavela project near Jozini in KwaZulu Natal was founded by Space for Elephant Foundation (SEF), who initiated it as part of their drive to create migratory routes for elephants and assist the local communities in creating employment opportunities. SEF secured the property years ago and had always planned to create a community hub and market on the site. Unemployment is rife in the area, which is attractive for poachers in getting information and assistance from the local communities. SEF has realized that even with strong anti-poaching units, community members will assist poachers for a small amount of money where they can. The strategy of SEF is to get the communities involved by creating employment opportunities and to make them aware of the value of wildlife by showing them how to earn a living from the wildlife.

At Mavela and with the support of Elephant Gin, this strategy is coming to fruition as people are taught how to attract tourists and create work for themselves. The poachers nowadays, with SEF’s efforts, find it more difficult to make use of communities to assist them. As we arrive I am gasping for air. The view from this spot on the Lebombo Mountains overlooking the lake is truthfully breathtaking. I can’t help but thinking that this is where life suddenly makes sense and all the hard work of the previous years is paid off in an instant. Elephant Gin has been able to donate close to EUR 50,000 to this project and through the funds, built small units to be used as kitchen and office rooms for local staff and accommodation for guests. There is now a foot path to a viewing point, open air shower overlooking the game reserve, the start of an education facility and a botanical garden. SO much has happened, especially with the help of the wonderful and hard-working Bruce Goodwin. And of course there is even more to do: we want to finally start teaching local children, rid the whole mountain area of plastic, create more long-term jobs by getting the local community to manage the Reserve just south of Mavela, introduce wildlife including elephants to attract more tourists to the area and get Mavela going as a self-sustaining attractive project entirely run by locals.

Poachers from the area may finally realise that a wild elephant is worth a hundred times more than a dead one. They will realise that when they plant a tree, they do so knowing that although it will take years to grow, it will yield great benefits for future generations. They will start protecting the wildlife that they have disrespected for so long and pass down those values to the next generation…

Oh, there is a lot of work ahead, but these trips fuel my motivation to the maximum and keeps us going.

Thonga Village

Digs has decided that there is still time to head further north to a small village of the Thonga people situated off the Kosi Bay Border road to Mozambique. Driving along a bumpy dusty winding road, it is impossible to imagine the enchanted secret garden that lingers at the end of it. A small cluster of traditional thatched round houses is situated in the midst of amarulla trees and aloe cactus, overlooking an idyllic river. Incredible for bird watching, canoeing and fishing, the little Thonga village sleeps 12 people sharing a variety of huts - and an outdoor shower (heated by an outside oven!).

At night, when the golden sun melted into the surrounding area, paraffin lanterns twinkled through the trees and, Bheki, the owner, creates the most delicious ingenious food including fresh baked bread.

The only thing that motivates me leaving this heavenly place is our next stop:

Tembe Elephant Park, a 300 square kilometre reserve between Zululand and Mozambique and home to Africa’s largest African elephants!

Digs treats us (yet again!) by staying at the Royal Thonga Safari Lodge, positioned just adjacent to the Reserve. Gorgeous huts nestled in the midst of a bush forest with just a wooden boardwalk leading the way. Greg, the friendliest and most knowledgeable guide, takes us to find the elephants.

Indeed we catch sight of them - a herd making their way to the nearest waterhole, two bulls spraying each other with water, another one flapping his ears to cool down. I stare at them with awe wondering again how anyone could ever harm these intelligent animals for we have so much to learn from them and their continuous efforts of keeping their families save and maintaining the key role of balancing all other species around them.

What is their significance you may ask? Well, they cut down trees and break thorn bushes, which create grassland for other animas to survive, they create salt licks rich in nutrients, dig waterholes in dry river beds, create trails that act as fire breakers - all for the benefit of other animals.

The amazing thing about the moments that I spend with the elephants is that I am thrown head first into the ‘now’, and nothing else matters, but protecting them for the next generation to experience.

Habitat destruction is one threat and the other is of course the ivory poaching - both, I believe we can counter-act through education, creating jobs and dropping fences to allow the elephants to roam and live as they have done for thousands of years.

By taking one animal out of the wildlife chain, we destroy possibly hundreds of more species and I truly believe that our generation has to do more to contribute toward conserving our planet – to provide security and prosperity for our people, land and wildlife.
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You have the chance to experience a similar elephant-focused trip, with Digs and/ or elephant researcher Bob Preller, Just visit: http://www.saetstours.com/ for more information.