Elephant-Watching Through the Rearview Mirror

It was a beautiful afternoon in Pilanesberg, a game reserve two hours from Joburg. Joe, my mother, and I, along with our safari guide, Chris Green, were driving slowly behind a large bull elephant. The elephant was ambling down the center of the road and there was no getting past him.

I leaned out the window to take a photo. I had to twist myself at a funny angle to get the shot because Chris was driving in reverse, and had been doing so for the last ten kilometers. We were trying to reach the park headquarters, which was still several kilometers away.

Cruising along behind an elephant and another car, in reverse. I couldn’t get the camera straight because of the way I was leaning.

A nice view of the elephant once he stepped aside.

We were riding in a Landrover Defender, circa 1996, decked out with camping gear and everything we needed for two days in the bush. The Landrover belongs to friends of Chris, who once drove the truck all the way from London to Joburg – it has UK license plates to prove it. It was the perfect vehicle for a safari. Until a wheel bearing broke.

Let me back up a bit. We had left Joburg the previous morning, excited for Mom’s first wildlife safari. We were thrilled to be going with Chris, an expert wilderness guide and all-around great guy with encyclopedic knowledge of all things bush-related.

Mom, me, and Chris with the infamous Landrover. (Photo courtesy of Joe.)

Thirty kilometers from Pilanesberg, we started to hear a scraping sound under the car. Chris and Joe checked things out but could find nothing wrong. We drove slowly to a mechanic, who did a basic inspection and also found nothing. The noise had stopped by then anyway, so we continued to Pilanesberg.

We spent a fantastic two days in the reserve. Pilanesberg is not as well-known as some other southern African game parks, but it has all of the “Big Five” (elephant, lion, rhino, leopard, and buffalo) and is a great place to visit if you’re in Joburg and don’t have time to drive five hours to Kruger Park. We saw giraffes, lions, white rhino (a group of six together, which is a rare sighting), and a spectacular herd of several dozen elephants.

A kudu gazes at us through the grass.

A leguaan, or water monitor, chomps a crab on the banks of a dam in the reserve.

Chris demonstrates how dry giraffe dung is, even during the wettest season of the year. In Chris’ words, “Poop is important to game trackers.” A tour with Chris is more than a vacation — it’s also an education.

Joe shoots pictures of a massive elephant herd. Joe joined the safari at the last minute so he could photograph rhinos for a story on rhino poaching, but he couldn’t resist shooting other animals as well. (Learn more about rhino poaching in this post by Slowvelder.) It was great to have him along as Joe also knows a thing or two about the bush.

I didn’t get any great rhino pictures because I wanted to stay out of Joe’s way, but here’s the best one I have. The rhinos were incredibly close to the car but hard to photograph in the tall grass.

The trip was about more than looking at animals. Chris constructed a luxurious camp complete with spacious tents and enough food to feed an army. We sat under the stars and enjoyed a braai with steaks, boerewors, salad, wine, and beer. There was freshly brewed coffee awaiting us when we awoke at 5:30 for our morning game drive.

Camp.

Dinner.

Sunrise.

As we headed out of the park to go home, the scraping sound returned with a vengeance. Chris decided to drive to the park headquarters, which was 15 kilometers away, to call a mechanic. We soon realized we’d never make it that far going forward but the Landrover drove fine in reverse.

It’s not uncommon to see safari vehicles driving backward in a game reserve – it usually means the driver has sighted an animal and is backing up to get a better look. As we backed along, cars periodically stopped alongside us.

“What do you see?” they asked.

“Nothing!” Chris called back. The drivers looked at us quizzically and sped off. We laughed and kept going.

After an hour or two (we were further delayed by the elephant), a van with a nice family in it stopped and took pity on us. They had room for two people so they took Joe and Mom to the park headquarters. Joe and Mom returned some time later with park personnel. We were towed the rest of the way, which was an adventure in itself because the guy towing us didn’t understand how difficult it was for Chris to steer in reverse at 35 km/hour. After a minor collision with the other truck (no damage, just a little bend in the towing pole) and a few scrapes with passing thorn bushes, we made it to headquarters in one piece.

The mechanics declared the wheel bearing broken and we resigned ourselves to another night in Pilanesberg.

Our faithful Landrover, sans broken wheel.

The manager said we could camp in the courtyard of the headquarters building. We were too tired to pitch the tents so we set up our air mattresses, had dinner at the park restaurant nearby, and went to bed.

Home sweet home.

Pilanesberg mosquitoes are vicious. Joe and I huddled together under a blanket, sweating, and listened to the mosquitoes whine outside of our protective barrier. They seemed to get louder and louder, perhaps frustrated that they couldn’t get to us. At some point in the dead of night, the bugs gave up and died down. We drifted off to sleep until dawn.

Even under these most trying of circumstances, Chris prepared a lovely breakfast.

Mom’s flight back to the U.S. was that evening and Joe had to get back to Joburg for work. We weren’t sure how long it would take to fix the Landrover, so we had to say goodbye to Chris and take a taxi back to town.

We all agreed that it was a great trip. I’m not sure why, but as I sat in the back of the taxi, dozing and watching the mountains go by, I thought about how much I love Africa.

Post-scripts:

  1. Chris is awesome. He made this trip fun from beginning to end, which was no easy task. He and the Landrover made it safely to Joburg about eight hours after we did.
  2. My mother is awesome. She was cheerful and positive and never complained once. She just went with the flow and had fun, even though I know it was hard for her sometimes. I was very sad to see her go last night.
  3. I haven’t forgotten about Cape Town. Stay tuned for some CT posts in the next few days.
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25 Comments

  • Reply Tilly Bud January 28, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    What’s not to love? I know I hated it sometimes, but that was political. It is a beautiful, fabulous, awesome land, that’s for sure. And thank you for suddenly making me realise that.

  • Reply lisa@notesfromafrica January 28, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Great telling of your trip to the Pilansberg! It wouldn’t have been an adventure without any mishaps.

    Liked your animal shots – that one of the Leguaan eating his dinner is very interesting.

    • Reply 2summers January 28, 2011 at 1:48 pm

      Thanks! It was indeed an adventure and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. (Except maybe without the whining mosquitoes.)

  • Reply Todd January 28, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Awesome story and so jealous!

  • Reply KLong January 28, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Ditto what Todd said!

  • Reply eremophila January 28, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    Great travel write! Loved every step of it…backward or not! Most certainly an unforgettable experience for you and one I’ll enjoy retelling to friends!

  • Reply Fidel Hart January 29, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    I love these photos! Especially the first two of the elephant. In the first photo, I kind of think that the slant adds something to the photo. I had to do a double-take because it looked like the elephant was sitting in the SUV, lol. And the second one just had this amazing texture and layers to it. The sky looks amazing. And very cool photograph of the rhino!

    • Reply 2summers January 29, 2011 at 6:41 pm

      Thanks so much. I have to give my boyfriend some credit for the second elephant pic — he did a great job PhotoShopping and making the colors and textures stand out. I’m glad you wrote that post about the spam — this comment was in my spam folder. That spam filter is really annoying. I periodically notice comments stuck in there that are clearly not spam. I might try to turn it off somehow.

      • Reply Fidel January 31, 2011 at 3:38 pm

        Glad I mentioned it 🙂

        He did a great job with the photos. Are you learning a lot about photography and post-production with him?

        • Reply 2summers January 31, 2011 at 5:33 pm

          I am learning a lot about photography and photo editing. I edit most of my pics myself using Picasa (I don’t have PhotoShop yet), but when I need some extra help I hand the pic over to him. Joe has become a crutch when it comes to my camera though. I have a Canon 60D and he did all the settings for me, which is great. But the problem is that I have no idea how to use the camera on my own! I learned a lot in Cape Town when I didn’t have Joe to rely on 🙂

  • Reply Rebecca January 31, 2011 at 5:53 am

    Amazing! I never realised that Pilanesburg had so many animals! Will definitely have to check it out when I’m back in Jozi later this year.

    • Reply 2summers January 31, 2011 at 8:18 am

      I know, me either. I think because Pilanesberg is a planned reserve and it’s so close to Sun City, people tend to think it’s not a real, “wild” game park. At least that’s what I thought. But it’s truly beautiful and so easy to get to from Joburg. Highly recommended. Your blog looks cool — I’m going to check it out!

      • Reply Rebecca January 31, 2011 at 12:23 pm

        Thank you! Hope you enjoy!

  • Reply Donna Miller February 5, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Hi Heather,
    I am a friend of your mom’s who also lives in Hilton Head. I asked for the web site to view your photos. They are beautiful photos of amazing creatures (including you and your mom) and I thoroughly enjoyed the the tour. Good luck to you following your dream.
    Donna (we met before when you took me to the airport)

    • Reply 2summers February 5, 2011 at 9:26 pm

      Hi Donna,

      Thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed the posts about Mom’s trip — we had lots of fun adventures. And yes, I remember you from our trip to the airport 🙂

      I hope you’ll keep reading in the future. All the best.

      Heather

  • Reply chris green February 6, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Ha! That elephant had just the right sort of insolent, devil-may-care attitude, sauntering along, and then he showed that he was also a gentleman and politely stepped off the road and let us past. Pilanesberg is a treat, awesome and different all through the year, I started my guiding career there back in the early nineties and still love to go back. Not all journeys are as adventurous though! Thanks for the great post and photos it was a fun trip. Chris

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2011 at 10:56 am

      It was indeed a great trip — thanks for showing us a side of Pilanesburg that we couldn’t have seen with anyone else. We’ll have to go back again in winter — I’d love to see how different everything looks in the dry season.

  • Reply chris green February 7, 2011 at 11:11 am

    It was a pleasure, the winter is very different, the reserve changes from the soft delicate beauty of summer and is much more of the archetypal ”rugged Africa”!
    chris

  • Reply Caitlin Blaser July 5, 2011 at 9:27 am

    What a brilliant trip! Looks like loads of fun =) Thanks for sharing the pictures!

  • Reply Tara August 9, 2011 at 11:07 am

    ah, now i know who you were talking about… Thanks for giving me the email 🙂 address. I love your adventurous spirits..
    Cheers

  • Reply Engelsman in Afrika September 18, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Great post and some fantastic photos – what camera do you use? Will try the reverse drive through the park at some stage (even if my Navara’s wheel bearing isn’t broken) 🙂

    • Reply 2summers September 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm

      I use a Canon 60D mostly, although some of these photos (including the elephant in reverse) were taken with my Canon Powershot S3.

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