We are on our way to Serengeti National Park via Lake Manyara, a shallow lake situated in the most spectacular part of the Great Rift Valley. It is one of the largest waterholes in the area, attracting all sorts of wildlife including hippos, impalas, buffaloes and elephants. Our guide from Savannah Tours, Cliff, explains that the elephant population sharply declined from the 1960s onwards – from 640 to just 160 animals – but is today slowly recovering. He says that if we are lucky, we may see whole families of elephants today as the females have just given birth.
As soon as we enter the park, we drive into a thick forest. We see warthogs, antelopes and dozens of baboons, but no elephants. “Be patient,” Cliff says as he points at a pile of droppings in the middle of the road. “They’re here alright.” Just as I want to tell Cliff teasingly that we would rather see an elephant than its droppings, the driver hits the brakes. A huge elephant is blocking the road, a male who has apparently decided that the grass is greener along the road.
Wilbur – as we promptly name the elephant – is minding his own business and barely seems to notice our presence. We take advantage of his appetite to get as many photos as possible. Twenty minutes later, Wilbur moves on to the next course – tree leaves – and clears the road.
“Let’s go to the lake to see the flamingoes,” Cliff suggests. Just as we pick up speed and turn the corner, the driver hits the brakes again and points into the forest. An elephant saunters out from between the trees and crosses the road right in front of us. “There’s more coming,” Cliff says knowingly. Another elephant crosses the road without even looking at us, followed by a calf. The little one looks at us askance, realises our 4×4 is not one of his sort, and scampers off to hide between his mother’s legs. In all, 24 elephants pass by right in front of us, including six calves.
And then another elephant emerges from the bush, but this one is heading towards our car. She flaps her ears, shakes her head from left to right, sucks up a handful of sand with her trunk and blows it at us before heading off into the forest. Now I don’t speak ‘Elephant’, but I guess that meant something like: “Don’t even think about getting close to our babies.”
A reverent silence fills the car – nobody speaks, nobody moves… Then Cliff says:
“Let’s go see some flamingoes!”