Safari at Madikwe Lodge: Will The 7-Ton Elephant Bull In Musth Charge?

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I never understood why anyone would fly 24-hours from California to the African bush only to potentially be eaten.  After three days at the Madikwe Safari Lodge I get it.

The person who comes between you and a she-lion eating you like digestive cracker in a Trafalgar pub is your bush guide.

Ours is a gentleman named Andre Nell who greets us cheerfully each morning at 5:30 a.m. and again around 4 p.m. to take us into the bush.  He is our interpreter, our biologist, our zoologist, our soldier, our nurse, our gracious host.

Today when a 7-ton male African elephant bull in full “Musth” (i.e. quite ready to mate — visibly sweating testosterone) wouldn’t move off the road we were forced to follow him in our picayune 2-ton jeep at a snail’s pace for the better part of a half-hour.  Four times (and yes, I counted) he whipped around, glaring at us wild-eyed and dust-snorting.  Both Clare and I shrunk down in our seats in dread and all of us looked to Andre for our cue as to how to behave.

(The brown patches on the bull are where the dust he flung on himself got stuck in his testosterone secretions.  Don’t feel too intimidated gentlemen of the Homosapien genus.)

Angry Bull In The Road

Angry Bull In The Road 2

Elephant in Musth

“We challenge him,” replied Andre.  “What does that mean?” I asked, thinking one of us might have to run out with a sword shouting “En garde.”

But no, apparently challenging a massive Proboscidea requires that you simply stay silent and don’t move.  Which, to me, seemed a bit like freezing in terror, but Andre has lived in the bush his whole life and after three days as his pupil I fully believe he knows exactly what he’s talking about.

(Side story:  Andre took his three-year old daughter on one of their frequent rounds in the bush and captured a black mambo with snake tongs to be relocated off safari grounds.  The following day his daughter demanded the snake tongs at home and took them outside.  Andre thought she’d gone out to gather leaves or dig in the dirt only to discover his daughter standing behind him in the kitchen carrying a Cobra in her snake tongs.  His heart dropped to his feet, but he stayed calm.  Extricating both tongs and snake from his toddler’s grasp.  He told her she’d done everything exactly right, but explained he didn’t want her helping to relocate snakes until she’s a bit older.  End side story.)

Feel free to ask your safari guide all of your burning questions (“Do giraffes have joint issues?” “Can impala and wildebeests mate?” “Can I pet an African wild dog?” Answer: “Not if you want to live.”) because the incredible wisdom of his/her tutelage regarding this natural ecosystem – (one so far removed from the technological life we lead) – is to your soul what cool, fresh, life-sustaining water is to a parched throat.

Those of us from the citified realm may not even fully realize how starved we are to reconnect with the natural world until all five of our senses are engaged.

We smell the rich, loamy scent of the red, earth in the veld or the acidic, indescribably ripe scent of a the bull elephant in “musth” or the burning elephant dung that smells exactly like the dark, rich pipe tobacco your grandpa used to smoke and it grounds us in our bodies.

A gin and tonic quaffed next to a four-foot high termite mound tastes extra crisp and delicious.

The vibration of the Jeep over the pits and gullies and watering holes of the bush lulls you into a the same rhythmic gate the larger mammals adapt.

Hearing the roar of a female lion in search of her pride raises goosebumps.

And seeing all of nature’s inimitable colors in its phantasmagoria of creatures is humbling.  We humans are quite monochromatic – just pink, brown or black – by comparison.

We cannot know how we yearn to live among the wild beasts until we are indeed among them.  Today our jeep stumbled upon a journey of giraffes — I counted at least 15 – and was mesmerized by their tentative, stilt-stick gait.  Several minutes after encountering the lioness roaring for her pride we heard the deafening 120-decible roar of  her male counterpart, seeking her in return.

Going on safari also seems to call forth our sixth sense, by which I do not mean seeing dead people, rather I mean intuition.  Which boils down to knowing one’s place in the pecking order of the wild.

I asked Andre why the female lion wouldn’t leap into our Jeep and eat us one by one.  He humored me by explaining – I’m sure for probably the thousandth time – that we don’t smell like prey.  We (as an entity merged with the jeep) smell like rubber and diesel and humans.  We also don’t appear as individuals when we’re in the jeep.  It’s only when we step on the ground and move away from the Jeep that we individuate.  And we also appear aggressive in that circumstance.  A wild animal’s response to aggression is to return the favor.

You may notice the lioness behind me in the tall grass.

You may notice the lioness behind me in the tall grass.

I tend to anthropomorphize animals — which is to say I want to make them human.  I didn’t just want to pet the African wild dogs, but also the she-lion, the baby elephants, the water buffalo and the rhino, the Kudu, the Heartabeests, the impala, the giraffes, the zebras, the wildebeests, the warthogs, the striped mongoose carrying their young, but was told to do so would be foolhardy at best and destructive for me and the animals at worst.

“Once you establish intimacy with a wild animal,” said Andre, “it is no longer wild and that is very dangerous for the animal.”

It’s been humbling to be reminded that we humanoids must share our planet with these exotic creatures and to be respectful of their right to exist.

We packed our bags this morning and are heading to Cape Town tonight for the second leg of our journey.  As I hugged all of the people at Madikwe Lodge who made our visit so memorable, Rebecca, Moses, Comfort, Jeremy, Billy and Andre, my eyes welled with tears.  It might just simply be a case of 47-year old hormones.  Or it may be, as Andre said, “that when you leave the bush, you leave a small part of your heart with it.”

For much better photos of the lodge you should pop over to Jamie Lynne Grumet’s I Am Not The Babysitter and Elise CD of Elise’s Ramblings.

This post is partially sponsored by Destinations South Africa and More Hotels.  We could not have done it without them.

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11 comments

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  1. Rosie Carrillo
    Rosie Carrillo 19 February, 2013, 12:16

    Marvelous tiny window into your experience! Thank you! Safe journey!

    Reply this comment
  2. Denise Danches Fisher
    Denise Danches Fisher 19 February, 2013, 13:26

    What a terrific experience, I would love to be there! It has got to be the trip one takes before we sail off to the great beyond…

    Beautifully written…(I would be praying that jeep never broke down)

    Reply this comment
  3. Linda D'Ae-Smith
    Linda D'Ae-Smith 19 February, 2013, 13:32

    Having worked at a zoo for 15 years, I SO want to go to Africa! I’m enjoying a nice glimpse through your post.

    Reply this comment
  4. Sharon Greenthal (@sharongreenthal)
    Sharon Greenthal (@sharongreenthal) 19 February, 2013, 13:34

    So insanely jealous of you – but this beautifully written post makes it almost ok that you’re there and I’m not. What a gift you’ve given your girls by taking them on this trip!

    Reply this comment
  5. Ginger Kay
    Ginger Kay 19 February, 2013, 13:37

    An African safari is my dream vacation. I would love to see elephants in the wild (from the relative safety of a Land Rover). Thank you for sharing a bit of your adventure!

    Reply this comment
  6. Lois Alter Mark
    Lois Alter Mark 19 February, 2013, 13:41

    AWESOME! I’m going to Africa in June, and you’ve got me salivating — and remembering not to try to pet those gorgeous animals. Can’t wait to hear more!

    Reply this comment
  7. Connie McLeod
    Connie McLeod 19 February, 2013, 14:24

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. Travel expands us all in so many ways. I have a friend in CapeTown who I’ve always longed to visit…maybe someday. Enjoy!

    Reply this comment
  8. George
    George 20 February, 2013, 04:32

    It looks like the lioness is in the foreground:)
    If you come to Ecuador, you can see wild cows, hostile pigs, bucking donkeys, and guinea pig for dinner. Or in Peru, where we are now, you have alpaca llama, that you can wear as a nice new red sweater.

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 20 February, 2013, 08:41

      I think my bite may be more ferocious than the lioness’, just ask Henry who might be a bit sick of me at the moment.

      Reply this comment
  9. Lady Jennie
    Lady Jennie 20 February, 2013, 08:37

    We only went on a day safari in Nairobi so I didn’t get the ins and outs like you did. This is super cool!

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 20 February, 2013, 08:40

      Hi Miss Jennie — Nairobi seems so much bolder than what we’re doing. Next stop France!

      Reply this comment

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