“If you go to the loo in the middle of the night, before you get out of your tent, just shine your torch around to make sure there are no elephants between you and the toilets.”
WE have become accustomed to what, in normal circumstances, could be considered quite unusual camp sites over the past six months.
We have slept in the shadow of a sand dune, a self-made clearing in the Gabon rainforest, a spectacular opening amid the rocks at Brandberg Mountains, under a massive statue of Christ, dried-up river beds, forest tracks and the hard shoulder just shy of the Nigeria-Cameroon border.
And we have got used to some issues to deal with – snorers (so the others tell me), attempting to keep our tents dry in the rain and even stuck to the ground when the wind blew, any number of buzzy, bitey insects and replacing any toilet facilities with a shovel and a hole in the ground.
Not to mention people forgetting those of us in see-through mosquito tents have a pretty good view of them if they choose a few yards behind us to start digging. Even at night.
But even after all that, being told to watch out for elephants before venturing out of your tent at night gets your attention.
Especially when we were able to spend much of the afternoon sat at the bar of our home for the night, watching a string of elephants trot just the other side of the toilets nearest to our tents and drink at their leisure at the watering hole around which all of the Elephant Sands site is built.
No fences, no visible lookouts and, for the large part, no real issue as the elephants have got used to sharing their drinking spot with captivated onlookers, many of whom may not be exactly silent after a few hours in their drinking spot.
That is until one male decided asserting dominance over the two others who were already at the watering hole when he arrived was not enough for him. He wanted to make it perfectly clear to us as well.
The other two elephants saw what was coming and as their angry cousin started to turn towards us, they quietly slipped away (if an elephant can slip away quietly) around the other side of the watering hole and out of sight.
And for those of us who had been marvelling at just how close we were to these magnificent animals, we were able to marvel a bit more (although that was maybe not the over-riding feeling) as he came a whole lot closer.
A couple of charges towards the bar’s viewing terrace saw his front feet up over the dividing wall, sending most of the watching onlookers running for cover (if there is any from a rampaging elephant).
Still in something of a huff, after a couple more charges of varying intensity, he headed back up the path, stopping at the toilet block (still showing the signs of repair after the elephants ripped out the pipes in search of water during the dry season) to grab a drink by sticking his trunk over the wall and emptying the cistern.
All a bit more excitement than we were expecting on a day dominated by sitting back and watching these wonderful creatures come down in ones, twos and bigger groups – capped off in the evening by a larger family group which ranged from a real giant to a tiny baby (largely hidden in the middle of the group) who probably did not reach up to the top of the wall separating us from them.
Wonderful moments to add to a string of them across Botswana where the wildlife (and the odd cold beer) continued to dominate proceedings.
Our previous stop in Maun had seen half the group head off into the Okavango Delta, leaving the rest of us chilling out by the pool and bar, in my case making good use of the wi-fi to sort out an intrusion from the real world.
My reward, courtesy of a far more realistic quote for work on my house back home, was a flight out over the Delta.
Seven of us crammed into a small aircraft which never felt entirely stable and grew increasingly stuffy (more than one of us was nodding off as we came into a rather fast-paced landing), for a 50-minute flight we had been told would give us a perfect view over this unique natural habitat and the creatures who call it home – at least the big ones you can see from that far up.
And we were not disappointed as we were treated to some amazing views and countless sighting of elephants and, for the first time out of water, hippos (see, some animals are easier to spot from up there).
But after all that and the events at Elephant Sands, there was still more to come in terms of wildlife as we hit Kasane in Botswana. Much more – certainly enough to knock any feelings of complacency out of anyone after the previous week or so of natural treats.
Having watched animals from the air, the back of the truck, even a rickety canoe (although we only saw the top of some hippos’ heads), it was time to view what we could track down from a boat cruising around the wildlife mecca of the Chobe River – once we had managed to carry on an eskie filled with ice and enough drinks that people thought would last them for three hours. Quite a lot it would seem, almost at the cost of my cheetah-chewed flip-flop to the watery depths.
And it is difficult to tell which flowed more freely as we moved from the heat of a sun-baked afternoon to a dazzling sunset – the beer or the wildlife – as we spent a thoroughly remarkable few hours.
There were elephants (lots of them, topped by a couple of young ones play fighting alongside the boat), crocodiles (obligingly coming up to surface around the boat), kudus, lizards, giraffes, buffalo and a range of birds, but they all played second fiddle to the hippos.
Our first encounter put us alongside three large specimens, one of whom had the decency to clamber out of the water for a snack on the long grass in easy viewing of our cameras, before marking his territory with a nifty little trick of using his tail to spray his dung around.
After marvelling at that and a few other solitary types, we hit the jackpot with a group of almost 20 hippos lounging half in and half out of the water, ranging from the very big to the very small. With more distinct territory marking to try to capture on film.
More followed as we began the trip back to base, our final sighting rounding off things perfectly as one ran along the bank alongside us before diving into the water and under the boat.
Not a bad end to a spectacular few days amid the African wildlife.