When I was asked to share a story, or add an experience of mine from my guiding career, a flurry of spine-chilling and goosebump moments rushed from deep within my memory banks. A detailed array of mixed emotions from seeing my first successful hunt where 21 lions took down three Cape buffalo within 50 feet from each other; being the first to see and spend an hour with brand new leopard cubs as the mother carried them one by one to a new and better den-site; watching a buffalo cow give birth; finding an eight-week-old cheetah cub lying motionless in some short grass after it had been killed by a zebra stallion… these are only a few moments that came rushing to the forefront of my many experiences as a professional nature guide in the beautiful South African wilderness.
The story I would like to share with you in more detail however has a much deeper meaning and spiritual significance not just in my guiding career, but rather on my life thus far on this big blue planet. For as long as I live, I will never forget this morning and the experience I had along with my tracker and guests. I had just joined Singita in May 2017 and found myself in the centre of the Kruger National Park on 15 000 ha of pristine and untouched wilderness and working alongside the best in the business. Excitement was an understatement! I was like a kid in a candy store and there was no limit on how much of the candy I was allowed to devour or take home! Within this incredible opportunity and to no fault of where and with whom I was, I have to admit that doubt crept in regarding my decision a few weeks later. While settling down for the night and I started to wonder whether I had made the right decision in moving up to the lowveld and further away from home? Was I out of my depth working alongside legends within the guiding industry? Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Was I good enough? Fortunately for me my doubts were laid to rest and all my questions were substantially answered the very next morning…
With some coffee in the system and a snack to go, my guests and I headed out on safari. The sun had not yet broken the horizon and the cold, sharp winter air was softly stinging any exposed skin as the Land Rover bumbled across the N’wanetsi River and along the western base of the Lebombo mountains. Small water droplets formed at the tips of my eyelashes as the beautiful yet slightly eerie mist got heavier between the ridges. Our route for the morning was in hope of finding any signs of elephants, and the mist was not making our search any easier as we could barely see past the front of the vehicle. My dear friend and tracker, Rodgers, assured me that we were thankfully still on the road and on the right track as he had (by some miraculous ability) seen some freshly broken branches where the elephants had been feeding in the early hours of the morning. The search was on! Our suspicions were soon confirmed as we could smell the unmistakable scent of fresh elephant dung… hot and steamy! We knew they were close but the mist was still not letting up. I stopped the vehicle and explained to my guests, who were at this time still wrapped up in layers of clothing and actively peering through small slits between beanies and scarves, that we were going to be as quiet as possible as we slowly drove along in order to give our sense of hearing the best chance to discover where the elephants could be. The sun had now broken out from behind the horizon and it scattered these magical rays of light through the mist and across the sky above our heads.
As if planned and perfectly rehearsed by Mother Nature herself, our patience was rewarded with a scene that took my breath away. To our right and on top of the ridge stood an elephant – its silhouette casting a shadow that stretched across the sky. A few moments later a second elephant appeared… then a third… and within a minute or two the whole herd had made their way up to this spot on the ridge. Each elephant with their own shadow across the sky. The mist started to lift slightly and we could see the detailed outline of each individual elephant. I can recall one adult female in the group had a hole the size of a bottle cap in her one ear that allowed the light to pass right through.
For most of the morning we simply watched as they fed and interacted within the family group. Some lifted their trunks in the air, almost as if they were greeting us or welcoming us into the new day. Deep, low and gentle grumbles resonated from within these giant beasts as they “chatted” with each other. Two younger elephants took a break from their strenuous feeding regime to rather play and push each other around. Apart from our excitement during the discovery, there was no need for explanation… no need to discuss… no need for interruption… The moment took over and we simply just watched. We observed not only with our eyes, but with all our senses and, in the end, it touched all of us deep down in our souls.
It was no ordinary elephant sighting for me and still I battle to put what I felt that morning into words:
It put my soul at ease.
It set my mind straight.
It removed all doubt and answered all my questions.
I was where I was meant to be…
Photograph by Ross Couper