I first saw a wild elephant 28 years ago, and was struck, more than anything, by its serenity. It was an old male, and was happy to stand there eating grass and being appreciated by a car full of people. We then got a flat tyre, and the ranger with us got out to fix it with another guide. I was desperate to help but wasn't allowed, so I sat and stared. It was magical - the 'beast' radiated calm and reassurance, and I was mesmerised. The next day we saw the same elephant. It looked a lot bigger now that we were on foot, but was still serene. There have been many more encounters, and watching families at play on a hot day is a special privilege, but that first one remains vivid in my mind.
Soon after I worked on a South African nature reserve which contained 3 frightened young elephants, orphans from a cull in Kruger National Park, who mostly hid in the densest bush. Their eyes showed trauma, mistrust but also, possibly, curiosity as they gradually became familiar with the car. I'd love to know how they were doing now.
In South Africa a few years back, I discovered that you can reason with an elephant marching towards you down a road. "Hey now, slow down, we just want to come by," shouted the guide, reassuringly, and the elephant did, though we did have to drive off road to get by. It was a neat trick, from a man who knew the elephant, but he was adamant his tone of voice made a difference with this slightly frisky male. It was my wife's first encounter with an elephant, and she now loves them too (from a distance).
I even found myself talking to elephants last year in Majete and Liwonde, in Malawi, having come a bit close to them around corners or in thick bush, and provoked a headshake. "It's OK. I'm just here to look at you. I'll reverse a bit." They seemed to be fine with that. Similarly, a "good morning" to an elephant browsing on the tree next to your tent will go down well, but I wouldn't recommend getting out to greet them. They like personal space as much as we do.
I live in England but for years I have been giving talks in schools on elephants and the ivory trade, and have been simultaneously cheered by the global mobilisation in support of these miraculous (because they still exist - megafauna in Europe largely doesn't any more) creatures, and dispirited by their continued slaughter, to feed a strange appetite and the fragile self-worth of trophy hunters or, more damagingly, ivory owners.
Three years ago, I ran the London Marathon in an elephant costume, and raised nearly £5000 for the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a Kenyan charity which runs a sadly all-too-necessary elephant orphanage in Nairobi and supports anti-poaching and veterinary patrols, as well as primary schools in rural communities. We now sponsor some of their orphans, and give sponsorship as gifts too. Going to see them is a special thrill, which is really what the gift of sponsorship is - a nudge (Go on!).
It is elephants, above all, and the people who live with them, which have motivated me to move from being a curious tourist, to at least a part-time advocate for sustainable travel to wild places. It is joined-up thinking which will save elephants, and wilderness, while also developing the commuinites within and around them. "People first" does not mean "at the expense of wildlife". On the contrary, the current and future patchwork of wilderness, developed areas and wildlife corridors is potentially an exciting prospect, where an equilibrium can be reached, rather than the Malthusian disaster some insist is upon us.
I started manyafricas.com, to promote community and rural tourism across the continent, in wild but also marginal areas (and indeed cities). Because, ultimately, an elephant, and all wildlife, needs to be more valuable alive to the people most in contact with them. Which is where you come in. Flying is an indulgence we can't afford too often, so you might as well make your trip special, and there is not much in this life as special as sitting next to a contented elephant and feeling its deep rumble as it tells you all is well.
The Best Places to See Elephants
From a boat:
Shire River, Liwonde National Park, Malawi. The work that has gone into making this park live again over the past few years, from its lodges and especially African Parks, who manage it, is astounding. It is in the most densely-populated African country south of Burundi, and the park is a wild oasis. The river flows well year-round, as an outlet to Lake Malawi, and it is always green by the water. The birdlife is amazing, the hippos and crocs abundant, and the elephants regular riverside drinkers and frequent crossers.
For luxury, stay at the whole-community uplift beacon (employment, training, supply chain, sense of collective purpose), and really rather lovely Mvuu Lodge.
For comfort, stay at Mvuu Camp, which is also great, or even the Mvuu campsite if you are self-driving and camping. I have done both, and it is one of my favourite locations in Africa.
Njobvu village near the Makanga gate of the park across the river, is a warm, welcoming village which gives a sense of what living in rural Malawi is about. Many of Mvuu's staff come from the village. It is a good stop-off before or after visiting Mvuu.
Liwonde Safari camp, on the edge of the park near Liwonde town , is a good option if you are backpacking. In fact, it is probably one of the cheapest wild experiences in Africa - I did this for a weekend for $5 each way in a hair-raising minibus ride to and from Blantyre, and $10 a night to camp in an unfenced camp, with boat trips and drives into the park reasonably-priced too.
Kazinga Channel, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. This channel, between lakes George and Edward, has hippos, elephants and birds in abundance. Queen Elizabeth Park has had another decade of resurgence since I last visited, and the glorious plains are full of game by now, but there are also walks into gorges full of habituated chimps, big bat caves, tree-climbing lions and, also interestingly, large fishing and farming communities all around the park, which have benefited from increasing visitor numbers. Kasenyi Safari Camp, next to a fishing village, and the more substantial and comfortable Katara Lodge on an escarpment overlooking the plains, accessed through banana and other plantations, were just ideas when I was there, but the sites were lovely.
Chobe River, Chobe National Park, Botswana. I don't suppose Chobe needs any more marketing, but it is truly incredible. It contains the highest concentration, and indeed number, of elephants in Africa, and in the dry season they congregate by the river in large herds. I have only camped here, a long time ago, but there are dozens of accommodation options, all of them good, most of them expensive. Chobe Game Lodge is the only one actually in the park. It is big, with landscaped gardens and manicured lawns, but don't let that put you off. It is unusual given current trends for more intimate camps, but it has moved with the times, and is extremely committed to whole community uplift, conservation, and minimising its environmental footprint. It uses electric boats and vehicles, which are quieter, and has an all-female guiding team. Otherwise, try camping but go with a mobile safari company unless you have plenty of experience in the bush. The lions - and there are hundreds - are not shy, or scared of anything.
From a vehicle:
Honestly, anywhere with a safe, secured environment contains approachable elephants. They recover quickly from stress and know who to trust. Samburu National Reserve, in northern Kenya, is a haven for elephants, and is at the heart of an effort across communities in the north of the country which is winning the battle against poachers. Remarkably young mothers have, out of necessity, become experienced herd matriarchs, and sitting quietly amongst groups grazing and browsing by the still-green Ewaso-Nyiro riverside is magical. Watch out for lone, grumpy bulls though. And musth bulls. They will charge at anything. Elephant Watch Camp will help you tell the difference, thanks to their association with Save the Elephants. They know the names, histories and habits of most of the elephants in the reserve, which makes for great stories, and they are also by far the best accommodation option in the park, where you can otherwise pay a lot of money for a very threadbare lodge (but still, elephants! And the landscape and other wildlife is spectacular too - super-lean, compact lions, reticulated giraffes, oryx, gerenuk etc).
Amboseli National Park, also in Kenya, but next to Tanzania, is the place to go for massive tuskers. Its wider ecosystem includes one of the narrowest but most important wildlife corridors on the continent, channelling wildlife between Kilimanjaro, Amboseli and Tsavo, through cultivated and settled zones, while minimising human-wildlife conflict. It is a model for how other, densely settled areas might manage wildlife movement in future. Kimana Sanctuary, which also hosts the Maasai Olympics bi-annually in December and is leased from the local Maasai community, is at the heart of this joined-up conservation effort.
In Botswana, but easier to access from Limpopo Province in South Africa, is Northern Tuli Game Reserve, a beautiful landscape full of approachable elephants. Tuli Lodge will introduced you to some of them.
During a heatwave (usually Feb-Mar), you will see nearly all of the 300+ elephants in Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, congregating around water points. It's not the wildest or most varied environment, but it has accommodation for every budget, beautiful beaches nearby, and a good deal of history and culture thrown in nearby, in places such Grahamstown. The far north of Kruger National Park is another budget option, with Punda Maria a relatively cosy camp. Although not a dense elephant population, the guides at Return Africa Pafuri, also in the far north of Kruger, know the old bulls there well.
From your bed/deck:
Samburu, again, and riverside lodges in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. There are budget options here too, such as Croc Valley, which has a lovely poolside bar, and Marula Lodge, which even has a backpacker dorm. I particularly love Flatdogs Camp (many of the pictures about were taken from my riverside tent at Flatdogs), for its whole community-and-wildlife ethos, and its policy on keeping vegetation intact, which draws in elephants to browse in the camp. They also cross the river back and forth in front of the lodge.
Other approaches to elephants: by canoe, on foot (no, really!), visiting them at home:
Many lodges in North and South Luangwa National Parks do very good walking safaris, as do those in Hwange National Park, in Zimbabwe, but the place to go for approaching elephants on foot is probably Mana Pools National Park, also in Zimbabwe. Goliath Safaris, run by Stretch Ferreira, is reputedly the best of the camps in the park. There are also multi-day canoe trips along this stretch of the Zambezi. However, I have not been there (yet!), nor have I been to Hwange, or Zimbabwe's Matusadona National Park, where canoe and motorboat safaris are reputedly good too (I feel a trip to Zimbabwe coming on...).
A visit to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, whether for the morning feed, open to a paying public, or the evening return to bed, open to sponsors only, is magical, and inspiring too: the way the orphans play, the bond with their keepers, the sense of pride in their mission from all at the Trust.
Wild choices (or places I really want to get to!)
In the truly wild Zakouma National Park in eastern Chad, most of the country's 450+ elephants come together in the dry season, both for safety and for dwindling water and vegetation, and move as one spectacular herd. Like Liwonde, it is managed by African Parks, which means safety for elephants.
Remote but also apparently magical (I heard from a man who lived there for two years) is Dzanga Bai in Dzanga-Sangha National Park in the southwest of the Central African Republic, a huge clearing in the rainforest where up to 140 forest elephants at a time gather to socialize, as do Western Lowland Gorillas. Please read the Travel Warning page on the Dzangha Lodge site, and still consider going. It is in a safe part of an unsafe country, as is Zakouma.