Friends recommended reading the famous book by Lawrence Anthony, The Elephant Whisperer, as an African reading. Lawrence, a gifted animal rights activist, buying a neglected game reserve in Zulu Land, south of the well-known Hluhluwe – Umfolozi N.P. Right from the start, he agreed to take in a herd of poorly-behaved and traumatized elephants who would otherwise have been killed for having made countless outbreak attempts and attacking various people. He managed to build up a very special and very personal relationship, in particular with the lead cow of this group – Nana – over many years and more complex, hours of daily interactions.
This book has both fascinated us and touched us emotionally. Especially Oliver, as someone who rarely reads books, even more rare books really ends, cannot remember ever having a book so “devoured”. Therefore, we quickly realized that we wanted to visit this place as well as possible. Unfortunately, Lawrence passed away in 2012, but his wife, Francoise from France, continues to run the Game Reserve and its lodge in his spirit.
To anticipate, we have made there by far the most intensive animal experiences of our recent Africa tour. At least now we are absolutely sure: Elephants are our favorite animals!
In itself, I have no great expectations. The book is older, so who knows what happened to the elephants in the meantime. We do not even know if there are any more elephants in the reserve. Only when we arrive, I ask, if all of the book still live in the reserve – the answer was: yes. Now I’m a little nervous. Should it really be possible to get to know the famous elephant cow Nana? Oh well, first we have to find her too. After a few laps over the beautiful terrain and a few giraffes, the ranger sees them on the opposite slope purposefully running to the left. Quickly he picks up the track and masters adventurous slopes with the jeep to quickly hit the herd. Obviously, he knows exactly what he is doing. From time to time, the Jeep slips on the extremely steep slope, but keeps catching up. Arrived at the place, I see why the elephants were in such a hurry. At the destination there is a wonderful mud hole, in which the smaller wallow already relish. And Nana is in full size before us. I am very excited.
Obviously, she has deliberately positioned herself between the herd and us. Of course, she saw us coming. As we approach her, I see immediately that she is special. So far I have not seen such an old and wrinkled, but beautiful elephant in Africa. And we have already seen many. Now she is 55 years old and the grandmother of the herd. She has long since given away the lead position to her old friend Frankie, but she is still the most important animal in the herd. And you can feel that. Every elephant has respect for her and keeps a small distance, unless he wants to make a conscious, tender physical contact. The herd gradually comes down the slope behind her – we count up to 15 animals. Of course, many new additions that are not mentioned in the book, but also some old acquaintances. Also Frankie with her youngest offspring comes. She was always the hotter and proves this in our situation. Immediately she gets on the car, but Nana is in full size between Frankie and us and instead of reprimanding them, she welcomes her only tenderly with a strong stomach rumbling. And everything is good. Frankie is dedicated to the soothing mud bath. And Nana stops and watches us with her big, soft eyes.
Suddenly she sways back and forth and walks towards us, for me, quick. Without hesitation, as close as she can without jostling the jeep. She stops and watches us, she raises her snout and sniffs what you can clearly perceive as a rattle. Then she feels with the over and over muddy trunk a woman behind me on her hand. The trunk tip moves gently over her skin and suddenly she is completely dirty. Unfortunately, we do not enjoy ourselves, but we do not touch them out of respect, even though she moves only 10 cm away from us. But we also stay clean.
Behind her, it gets restless and a few rowdy guys want to get on the jeep. Nana turns around and re-establishes herself between us and the other impetuous elephants, who turn away immediately. Not long after, she is curious again and comes back to us again. This time to the direction of the driver. Very close again. He makes her realize that she should not smear her dirty trunk on the clean car … if she understands that ?! In any case, she leaves it. I am sitting on Nana’s side and have a wonderful, direct view of her. Only a few inches separate us and she looks deeply and piercingly at us with her wrinkled, wise eyes. We hear the rumbling of the stomachs loudly – one of the few forms of elephant communication audible to us humans. She goes back to the herd and positions herself on the slope to go. The ranger tells us she’s waiting for everyone to finish bathing and then move on and that’s the sign to walk. Of course, the elephants splashing and wallowing happily still trumpeted while Nana waits comfortably in front of us and in front of the herd.
Her behavior, her natural authority, her obvious power, and her simultaneous gentleness are incredible. Incredibly beautiful. I’m totally excited and somehow in another world. Fascinating moments! Moreover, I am extremely surprised at how exactly we can observe in this group the very pronounced social behavior described in detail in the book. As clear as in no elephant encounter so far, which shows me how recorded the herd must be and what they have probably already gone through together.
We are deeply impressed by the intelligence, social behavior, and emotionality of these animals, as well as the closeness and trust that the animals, formerly traumatized by bad experiences with humans, have been able to rebuild into humans. Even though it took a tremendous amount of time and effort. It’s also nice to see how coherent book and reality can be. And that we were allowed to experience it so close.