The trick with these early starts is to spring out of bed as soon as the drums go, this is no mean feat when it’s so cold. The drive to Houtini was one of elephants and buffalo. I didn’t see the first elephant due to my hunched induced tunnel vision as I tried to keep warm. The second lot, four bull elephants browsing on the side of the road could not be missed nor could the 100 head of buffalo on the airstrip access road.
The walk was from the airstrip into Houtini Gorge is always a pleasure, despite no encounters today was no exception. The walk strated out through the croton and nyala berry on the the Luvuvuh floodplain. Once we cleared this thck bush we walked across the shattered floor of a dried out pan before entering thick bush once more. This eventually gave way to views of the sandstone cliffs which were split into two heads, this was the entrance to Houtini Gorge. Standing guard on the eastern head was a baboon sentinel who barked our arrival throughout the gorge.
We snaked our way into the gorge by way of the well used elephant paths amongst the nyala berrys. At the entrance itself stood four or five jackalberry’s reaching up into the sky supported by their long dark fluted trunks. Once in the gorge it was like a countdown of Africa’s greatest trees – leadwood, large leaf rock fig and parched looking apple leafs were all vying for the number one spot.
The canopy cover, steep sides and heavy traffic through the gorge meant that nothing could grow on the floor. This made for some good tracking substrate. As we walked we easily picked out leopard, porcupine, so many buffalo and on closer inspection bush pig rather than warthog. Our progress was being watched, nothing sinister, just by dassies. Whilst they didn’t fall prey, you couldn’t help but think that they would be best served watching the African hawk eagle rather than us.
Once on top of Houtini the view was spectacular, for some reason it appeared extra special today. The vegetation is very different to the flood plain that we’d just walked. Baobabs, Lebombo ironwood, purple pod cluster leaf and swathes of dolls protea blanketing the plateau. There was a shepherds tree standing over an exposed slab of red sandstone. Here there were a series of man made holes carved into the rock were children and adults alike would have played an Iron Age version of black gammon called “Bowe”.
Unfortunately we couldn’t spend the whole day on top of Makuleke, instead we had to make our way back to the vehicle and then onto camp for brunch. But first we had to walk the best part of two hours, there was plenty to see, a pair of klipsringers, nyala aplenty, surprisingly some blue wildebeest, harem upon harem of zebra, our local primates baboon and vervets and a greater honey guide who was desperate for us to follow it to its prize.
No run for me today, instead there was a bit of running around at camp as the Mashatu Trail Guide course have joined us for the next week. Once they were settled in it was time to head out for our afternoon walk.
No elephants this morning but that surely couldn’t last. I was right but they weren’t the first thing that caught our attention. As we entered the clearing of LaLa Palm windmill the sand was covered in spoor of lion. There were four in all, probably the lioness and three cubs that we’d seen earlier in the year. The proximity to camp was the most exciting thing but also worrying given my running past-time.
The tracks were probably over 24 hours old so not worth following up. Instead we continued on our way towards the forest. We didn’t get far as we came across a breeding herd of elephants. The instructor and I saw these first but kept quite for the student “Lead” and “Back-up” to discover for themselves. Once they did they wanted to get closer for a better view. Never approach a breeding herd is all I know so this didn’t sit well in my stomach. The instructor had the encounter under total control and knew just how far we could push it, it was a case of letting the students learn from their mistakes. This was perfect judgement.
As we made the final approach a previously unseen elephant rounded the corner into our view. This caused an immediate retreat with the “Back-up” and I leading the students out, well immediate once the student had analysed the situation and gone through the various options. But to me the only option at this point was to “Get the hell out of Dodge”.
We’d retreated some distance but still not far enough. I was worried curiosity was going to get the better of a calf which would go exploring and discover us, this wouldn’t be a problem on its own but Mummy wouldn’t be far behind.
We didn’t stay much longer where we were. One of the cows let out a mighty trumpet. This made one or two of us jump, me included. Alan reminded me afterwards of how my eyes almost jumped out on cartoon style stalks. I imagined that an elephant was about to come crashing through the palms with no other intent but to flatten us. Alan was quick to reassure that the trumpet was not aimed at us but merely an intra-herd domestic.
In the debrief afterwards I told the students that my heart was pounding. They were surprised by this and mistook it for me being scared. I explained that it was simply a healthy respect for elephants, breeding herds in particular. More importantly I don’t want to have, “shot an elephant”, on my CV nor do I want to be one of THOSE stories.
Once back at camp I added “Dodge” to the list of places that the students have been to on the whiteboard. This was tweaked slightly so we now have a name added to the Makuleke map, “Dodge Pan”