For as long as my family has lived on this property (which was from 1973), they have had elephants as neighbours.
Back in the day, however, the fence was only about 1.4 metres high with about 3-4 strands of barbed wire and was not electrified at all. It was merely a step for an ellie to take and then he’d be on our side of the fence.
To elephants, a fence doesn’t really mean anything, and I suppose because of their large size and the fact that many of their generations have lived in this area, they felt that they were entitled to pop over for a visit at any time, and perhaps treat themselves to whatever tasty trees and plants and sometimes even veggies were on offer.
When my Nana and my Oupa (My Grammy’s mom and dad) were still alive, they lived in the house next door to my grandparents, and oupa had a vegetable garden. The ellie’s would step over the fence whenever they were in need of a snack and help themselves to the veggie garden. Gramps says that the onions especially would go from being a normal size to absolutely massive, as the ellie’s would step on them and they’d spread out like a pancake, and that’s how they knew the ellie’s had been around.
My nana loved elephants, and when my grandparents decided to start a lodge on the property, Nana came up with the name “Elephant Walk Retreat” which of course was the perfect fit. When she passed away, we buried her under her favorite tree in front of her house, where the elephants used to visit frequently. Even now to this day, they still pass by there and we always think of her fondly, and her love for this place and for her dear elephants.
Grammy and Gramps started Elephant Walk Retreat, by only building two chalets at the time (Unit 1 & 2, which they named Inyati, meaning Buffalo and Bhejane meaning rhino in the Zulu language). They built them on the corner of the property overlooking the mighty Crocodile River, and the famous Crocodile Bridge. Gramps being a ‘Jack of all trades’ designed and built them with his very own hands, and some help from his loyal staff, and of course, Grammy was at the helm of it all. Together, they have developed this special place with such love in their hearts and believe me you can feel it when you enter through the gate. Even to this day, they are still young at heart and sit together drinking tea, watching the elephants and dream of all the things they still want to do at Elephant Walk Retreat.
Just a little while after they opened the lodge, they had some guests stay from Germany. As they were about to arrive, Grammy said to gramps “We better not let them walk around here, the elephants are on our property again”. Upon check in Grammy explained the situation and ushered them to the car. They jumped in, and Grammy said she’d take them to see the ellie’s before dropping them off at the unit. With utter disbelief they agreed, and as Grammy drove around the corner… there were all the ellie’s munching on some banana trees. Apparently one of the guests almost climbed over the seat to get to the front for a better view. They were completely awe-struck.
But ellies aren’t always laid back and friendly, and on a few occasions, Gramps had a run in with a very cheeky young bull (who had a distinct marking on his right ear). The first time it happened, Gramps had walked to the fence to take a picture of the young bull, and as the camera went click, the young bull turned around, shook his head, and trumpeted loudly and then proceeded to mock charge him in a cloud of dust, almost coming through the fence. Gramps says his legs became jelly, and he could barely walk back to the house afterwards, he didn’t know that it would be a mock charge, he thought his life was over right there and then.
The second time, Gramps had gone for a walk down to unit 2, when the very same ellie saw him through the fence, and charged again – this time though, he came straight over the fence, and Gramps had to run and hide. Fortunately, the staff had been cleaning, and unit 2 was open so he went in there. Now my gramps is not a scared man by any means but on this occasion, he admits to hiding in the bathroom.
The third and final time, Gramps had just finished building one of the log cabins, and he’d taken a walk to check on the staff that were cleaning it, when over came the grumpy elephant, who within seconds flattened the fence trying to get to poor Gramps again. This time Gramps ran up the stairs and in to the safety of the log cabin.
It’s true what they say… elephants don’t forget, although I am not sure what sort of personal vendetta this particular ellie had against my gramps. Perhaps he didn’t like having his photo taken?
Later on, we found out that the same cheeky elephant, also tormented the staff and guests of Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp, and eventually the game ranger had to intervene, as he was becoming hazard.
Another pastime of Gramps’ was to go fishing in the Crocodile River.
When my family first moved here, they would all pack a picnic on a Sunday and go down to the river for the day. They’d tan on the sand banks and lie on tubes in the river. When asked “but what about the crocodiles and hippos?” their response was, “well we never saw them.”
One particular day, gramps and one of his staff members, Matthews, went down to the river to do some fishing, it had become late, and darkness had crept in over the African bush, when they heard some rustling in the reeds, and realized they were in the middle of a herd of elephant.
Matthews, who was actually a Zimbabwean fellow, had grown up on the Hwange Game Reserve, and was exceptionally bush wise. He came up with a plan. They were to cover themselves in Elephant manure, so the elephants wouldn’t be able to smell them. They did just that, and crept through the herd of elephants unscathed, safely through the gate and back to the house.
Over the years, our fence has improved dramatically – it is now 2.4 metres high and has about 24 strands- it is also electrified, but even so, I still like to give them their space.
They are unpredictable giants, and I have a profound respect for them. I always give them the right of way, I never stop my car right next to them, and whenever they come to visit us, I always keep a distance from the fence. Most of the time they are rather chilled out, but at any moment that could change.
The other day, we took the Bella Lump for a walk, and as we are still doing puppy training with her, she likes to bark a lot –at EVERYTHING- and elephants are no exception for her. We were on our way to the bottom of the property, when this cheeky little elephant comes strolling along the fence line, we tried to keep the Bella Lump quiet, but she was protecting her “hoomans”, and she began to bark. Well… this little ellie was not taking any of this drama, and mock charged us, shaking his head and trumpeting. I finally understood what gramps had said about the jelly legs – Elephants can definitely have that effect on a person.
The Ellies also like to exit through the Crocodile Bridge Gate, when they feel like it. The other day Toni and I were going to our nearest town, Komatipoort (which is about 12km’s from where we live) and as we drove out our gate, there was a massive ellie snacking on a tree opposite our gate. How he managed to sneak through the gate without anyone seeing him, is beyond me, but I imagine that even if someone had seen him do it, they weren’t going to even attempt to tell him to return back to the park. When we returned, he was gone, so I imagine that the section ranger had got word of it, and promptly came to give him a good talking to, asking him nicely to return back to the Kruger Park where he belongs.
I can’t begin to tell you how much joy the elephants of Elephant Walk bring to us, and our guests. They are here almost every single day, they start on the one side (coming from Ngwenya Lodge direction), and work their way along the river towards Crocodile Bridge where they cross over, and then either go along the neighbouring farm fence line or on the opposite side along the Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp fence line.
I love the crunching noise they make as they munch on the river reeds and trees below us. I love the pungent, earthy smell that lingers in the air when they are around, and their daily mud baths to cool down from the African sun, and my favourite is when the babies playfully fight with each other, and mock charge the birds and other plains game in their pathway.
Elephants are fascinating to watch, they are so family orientated, and take good care of one another, especially if one is sick or injured. They are wonderful with their young, never taking their eyes off them, helping them up the steep sandbanks, across the rivers, out of sticky mud and always protecting them from predators. We could really learn a thing or two from them.
The other day I was even lucky enough to witness an elephant chasing away our usual pride of lions, who were merely lazing under a shady tree to escape the hot afternoon sun. The elephant literally walked all the way from one side of the hill to the other, just to tell them to move off. It was a pretty spectacular sighting for me, I’d never seen that before.
So, you see the elephants are part and parcel of Elephant Walk Retreat, without them our lodge just wouldn’t be what it is today.