Road trips generally involve the national highways and a particular destination, at a speed enforced by the flow of traffic. Having a list of birds to tick off on a list means taking the odd side road, usually gravel, sometimes worse, and wandering off into the unexplored hills where farmers toil ceaselessly behind the scenes to keep food on the shelves and in our fridges. Sometimes the land is not viable for agriculture or sheep, and many farmers have branched out into the business of private nature reserves, proliferating along the Garden Route, where thriving tourism already holds the audience and adds a further dimension to the African experience.
It was thus that we came upon the unexpected sight of an elephant grazing at the side of the gravel road, separated from us by a flimsy looking fence, and accompanied by his best friend, a young lady ostrich. Having not seen an elephant since a visit to the Kruger Park 26 years ago, and certainly not so close, it was brakes on and reverse – usually reserved for a bird on a wire. This graceful yet huge animal eyed us with curiosity, showing no fear or animosity, perhaps because of living in a protected environment and safe from man’s mistreatment – an elephant never forgets, after all. The ostrich stood close by his shoulder, companionably, and it was rather comical to imagine their friendship. Another young male with well-developed tusks came lumbering towards us from the bush, making us wonder whether they, too, have begun to associate cars and people with a food source. Time was of the essence and we continued on our way. When we returned, there was no sign of those gentle creatures, and we were reminded of our good fortune in having been there just at the right time to experience their presence.
Next day on our travels, and once again on a country road in search of a bird, we were alongside another large private game reserve. On a distant grassy slope, with indigenous trees as a backdrop, we were amazed to see a rhino, its unmistakable tank-like bulk precluding the need for binoculars to identify it. And then, descending from the trees in the line typical of an elephant herd came 10 elephants, with a gait so smooth and fluid it can only be described as ambling. The elephant’s gait is unusual in that three legs are in contact with the ground at all times, to ensure that its centre of gravity doesn’t shift – imagine a lurching elephant! It was a special moment in time, seeing the younger elephants safely tucked in between the matriarchs and a handsome tusker protecting the herd. Somehow the distance added to the surrealness of the scene.
All this goes to show that it is never a bad idea to wander off the beaten track, road surface permitting.