We had quite a surprise upon returning to our campsite one earlier evening.
Two African bull elephants quickly hurrying back into the bush after being discovered in the middle of our camp.
My mouth dropped open in shock. These mammals must have been 15ft at the shoulder. They sported great curving tusks and were scampering back to the bush like naughty schoolboys. They didn’t stray far – about twenty feet into the scrub where they turned and watched us. They must have been investigating the rubbish heap, noticed there was no one in camp or our cook was occupied and thought they would make for our food truck. For about twenty minutes afterwards they stood watching the camp – probably looking for another opportunity.
As discussed in an earlier entry they did try another attempt to get to the food truck and our guides said at other times they had actually made it when their back was turned and they had to turn on the engine to frighten them away. But what struck me about the encounter is that you could almost see the mischief flicker across their eyes. These were tuskers, elephants of a certain age and seemed to use intelligence to get what they want – they showed "character".
And that’s what made me fall for the elephants of Ngorongoro – I seemed to connect with them. To me they seemed more real than any of the other animals. If I had to pick a set of animals that were my favourite of the entire trip then I would pick these. They were mainly males; the female led herds of Tarangire and Lake Manyara do not live here. This is mainly old bulls at the end of their life and they come here to die. That gives them, for me, a rather emotional edge.
We found them on the crater floor in the Miombo forest. This stretch of woodland can be seen from the rim and is a favourite with many animals. Our first animal was a lioness. About five hundred feet away she lay flat on the ground, head forward obviously watching something. She was a very good looking animal with a sleek yellow coat. After a while she got up and wandered over to a group of trees where a male and four other lionesses were sleeping. The scene wasn’t even broken by a group of Australian tourists driving up behind us and shouting " here pussy pussy..."
Next were a set of vervet monkeys with grey/green coats and black fringed eyes. But they soon scattered when three enormous tuskers (bull elephants) came into view. Our guide said not one of them was less then forty years old and their tusks had reached enormous lengths. The biggest must have been fifteen foot at the shoulder and each had leathery skin and a trunk that was helping itself to tasty green grass. The tusks impressed me and were great sweeping pieces of ivory nearly touching the floor. How heavy were they? Imagine carrying that load every day?
Most of the vans moved off but we stayed to watch a particular bull in waist high grass. The more we stayed and watched the closer he came. He was plucking up plants but you could tell he was watching us with those eyes. He came closer until he was only ten feet away. The sheer scale of this magnificent adult elephant was so impressive – the noble slope of his forehead, the wrinkles on his trunk, the great flapping ears. I will admit I was absolutely smitten – I could have stayed and watched him all day. Was he being friendly? He came within four feet of the van. Certainly his eyes were watching us while he ate. Was he enjoying our company as much as we were enjoying his?
But eventually even elephants get bored and he moved away. But for a couple of minutes I felt a connection with the animals. Later in the day we came back to miombo forest and the guide showed us a stretch of meadow. He says this is the ‘elephant’s graveyard’ and at the end of a long life this is where they come to die. This broke my heart a little bit. When their teeth wear out this is where they come. Close to starvation they are followed here by hyenas and vultures that wait for them to collapse. Our guide had seen it for himself.
The thought of one of these magnificent creatures coming to its end really got to me. But that is life and death in Africa and once dead it only takes a night to pick the corpse clean. But to me they were something special these old bulls. Nothing for me can replace the gravitas of the old bulls of Ngorongoro and their journey towards death.