As we drew nearer to the end of our second semester with both groups wrapping up rifles and track and sign, a new sense of nervousness had settled in camp as the start of solo drives began with the final week of semester. Beforehand, two students would conduct a morning or afternoon drive but in preparation for the fast approaching mock assessments and assessment drives a single student will facilitate a full drive.
Fellow student Eugene Weertz got the ball rolling for group one and set the bar high for the rest of us as he made his way to a sighting of a female leopard. She made her way out of a thicket of bushes and toward an open road where the vehicle had been positioned and all were spoilt by the rosetted cat as she passed in front of the vehicle, crossing the road and then moving off again into a dense area. Leopards aren’t seen frequently on the Makalali reserve due to the large blocks of thick shrub and bush in which the animals disappear out of sight in seconds and the students knew this as they left the 20 minute sighting, mouths still agape in disbelief at their fate coinciding with the luck of the bush.
It is not hard to understand then that the excitement levels were high the following day as both groups set out for their afternoon drives with hopes of finding another big cat. The bush however had another idea for group two and with Sean Fox at the helm we entered into a sighting of a lifetime; The sun had already set and we were making our way out of the reserve when we bumped into a large Elephant bull feeding about ten metres in front of the vehicle. On instruction from our trainer Gerhard, Seana turned off the vehicle and we sat in silence as the goliath animal sauntered toward us to investigate the vehicle, the sides of his face soaked from active preorbital glands and showing the tell-tale signs that he was in musth.
We understood the gravity of the situation as bulls in musth are avoided even in broad daylight as they have a tendency to be more aggressive and have a habit of tipping large objects over with ease. With no way of reversing as another Elephant had moved into the road behind us, we watched as the bull slowly moved his tusk under the frame of the roof of the vehicle and without any force began lifting it upwards. Gerhard spoke gently to the bull asking him to please not upend the vehicle and much to our disbelief (and relief) he obliged, moving ever so slightly away from the vehicle and proceeded to inspect the students closest to him with his trunk. Several minutes had passed before the bull decided we were no threat to him and began moving off into the bush beside us. We sat perfectly still as per the trainers instruction and everything was handled well with the best result to boot.
Seizing our opportunity for escape we made off away from the animal, the vehicle alive with excitement and chatter about how each student was processing the encounter as it happened. There was mention of how two students were planning for their escape should the bull have flipped the vehicle, leaving the rest of the group to fend for themselves but names won’t be mentioned of the guilty parties involved. Luckily that was avoided by cool heads of students and the trainer. As guides you may very well find yourself in this situation and how you handle it can make the difference with the outcome.
Photo by Gina FergusonThe semester ended in high spirits as all the trainers and students spent their final night sleeping out in the Makalali reserve under a moonless sky. We sat as a group around our campfire regaling exciting stories of sightings for the week and what is to come in the new semester.
I wish both students and trainers a restful and enjoyable off-week and look forward to being back on the Mahlahla Campus after a well deserved relax.
Blog by Gina Ferguson