Elephant Sands

Okavango Makoro Elephant

After two nights in Chobe National Park we drove on through Botswana to our next destination, the Elephant Sands Camp. We had heard from some other travellers that there would be elephants all over the place, but still we couldn’t believe our eyes when we arrived at the camp. In the middle of a bunch of cabins there were tons of elephants, not just a few, but thirty or more a time. We drove in and jumped out of the truck as soon at it was parked, excited to get a better look at the elephants.

Okavango Makoro Elephant
The huge group of elephants as we arrived at the campsite.

The camp had a nice bar and seating area where we had a perfect view at the elephants. The owners of the camp had built a watering hole in the middle of the campsite, where now all the elephants from the surrounding area would come to have a drink. That part of Botswana, like so many other countries in Africa, is suffering under a severe drought, and this watering hole is one of the few in a huge area. That’s why the elephants even come all the way from Zimbabwe, desperate for some water. Because of the drought, there are not many plants growing in the area, so the elephants have to walk enormous distances to find enough food (elephants eat for about 20 hours per day). The campsite doesn’t have a well close to it, so they have to bring the water from a borehole that is about 50km away. They bring the water nonstop with trucks to a pipe about 10km from camp, and pump it from there, as a truck wouldn’t be able to drive the sand road to the campsite. One elephants drinks up to 150 liters per day, and with hundreds of them coming to the watering hole every single day, the owners have to pump water 24 hours.

Elephant Sands
It’s very dry in Botswana, as in much of Africa right now, causing elephants to go to this watering hole in masses.

It was impressive how close we were standing to the elephants, watching them fighting over a spot at the watering hole. It was so close, one could almost forget that these were all wild elephants, which normally wouldn’t come so close to humans or they would be pretty dangerous. At Elephant Sands we got to be only a few meters away from them, separated only by a few foot high wall, or no wall at all when they were walking right through the camp to get to the water. They also liked to stand right next to the toilet and shower block, and drink the sewage water that came out of the drain, which was just another indicator of how desperate they were for water. As the watering hole wasn’t so big, there were constant fights between the elephants for a spot, the huge bulls obviously being at an advantage compared to the way smaller female elephants. The young elephants and the babies had a very hard time.

Elephant Sands
I’m protected by a two foot high wall from the big group of wild elephants.

We spent the whole afternoon just sitting there and watching the elephants. When the sun started to set, more and more elephants came in and it got very crowded around the watering hole. Suddenly in the distance, next to a a cabin, we spotted a group of wild dogs, running around the camp, also looking for water. The owners told us that this group of wild dogs would come by almost every day. Even if we only saw them in the distance, we got very lucky, as wild dogs are very rare and an endangered species.

While we were watching the elephants we suddenly saw a guy with a professional video camera and photo equipment nearby. We were very intrigued and went over there to talk to him. It turned out that the guy, a South African named Alistair, was spending a few months at the campsite filming a documentary about it. The documentary will be shown in theatres and hopefully Netflix in a year or so and is named after the campsite’s slogan: Where elephants rule. Having spent so much time there, he was able to give us a lot of information about the camp and the whole situation in Botswana. He told us how tough it is for the family running the camp, having to supply tons of water every day, with no rains expected until the middle of December, and the elephants getting more and more desperate for water in the process. Quite often the elephants can’t all get to the watering hole, so some try to get water by destroying the plumbing or pumps and one time an elephant knocked down a whole cabin in its desperation. Despite all of that, the family keeps paying for the water out of their pocket, with no government support and go above and beyond to help their beloved wild elephants.

Elephant Sands
An elephant leaning down to a broken pipe in the ground next to our tents to drink what little water it could.

Alistair told us that while he was there a huge bull elephant came to the campsite, dehydrated and barely able to walk with a big infected wound on his leg. Instead of being aggressive, he seemed to be seeking help from the humans. The camp owner gave him water with a hose and the next morning they called a vet, who flew in for free to help. They tracked the elephant down in the bush and took care of his wound, which was caused by a stick gouging through his leg and getting infected. A few weeks after this, the elephant suddenly reappeared at the campsite, his wound in the process of healing. Instead of him just trying to get water from the watering hole, he came toward the owner and obviously trusted him enough to let him give water with the hose again. Since that day he keeps coming back every 2-3 days, coming inside the camp to get water from the owner, and no one else! The owners decided to call him Bennie. We were told that we might be lucky enough to see Bennie getting water, as we hadn’t been to the camp in two days.

We had dinner and then sat around a campfire, watching the elephants some more, before we would head to bed. There were no fences or walls in the campsite, just around the toilets and showers, as they already had some incidents where elephants knocked down the whole shower building, so we knew elephants might walk pretty close past our tent. What we didn’t expect was them coming SO close. Only an hour or so after we went to bed, we were woken by an elephant almost stepping on our tent. We could see it through the screen of the door coming straight towards the tent and turning away at the last second. It was hard to go back to sleep after that, and we had a few more come pretty close during the night. It was scary on the one hand, as elephants don’t have good eyesight and could actually have walked into our tent, but on the other hand it was amazing to be so close to wild elephants. Knowing that there was never any incident at the camp with the elephants also helped to calm us down.

Elephant Sands
During my shower an elephant was sitting just outside, waiting to drink the water that drained out.
Elephant Sands
One of the hundreds of elephants that passed by our tent. They would come much closer than this during the night.

After a more or less sleepless night we got up very early to head out to a bush walk. We hadn’t done a walking safari since Kenya, and as it was only $15 we decided to give it a shot. We walked for about an hour and a half along some elephant paths, and our guide told us a bit about the different trails of animals, how to track them, and about plants that have special qualities. Our favorite was one that once you put a bit of water on it can be used as a natural soap. We saw some elephants in the distance and found fresh trails of the wild dogs, but unfortunately didn’t see them. It was interesting to walk through the bush and learn new things, but we still preferred normal safaris to walking ones after this.

Elephant Sands
Some elephants greeting us in the morning before our bush walk.

After this we went back to the camp to find a shady place to go back to watching the elephants. In the afternoon suddenly we heard someone calling out that there was an elephant next to the bar. We didn’t know what to expect and ran over there. It turned out to be Bennie, the bull elephant the owner had helped. He was just standing there next to the bar and the owner started to give him water with the hose, also giving him a nice shower in between drinks. Bennie seemed to be totally relaxed and enjoying it. The wound on this foot was still visible, but they told us it looked so much better than before. The owner gave him water for over half an hour and it was the most amazing thing to watch – a wild elephant that never had close contact with humans before, being so trusting and happy around them suddenly. We watched Bennie the whole time until he left, slowly walking back to the bush.

Elephant Sands
Bennie getting water from the camp manager. He was very happy and grateful.
Elephant Sands
Bennie was very thirsty and drank for a half hour or so from a fast flowing hose.

Watching all the other elephants more, we saw a tiny little baby elephant, which turned out to be only a few days old. Standing next to its mother, it looked almost unreal how small it was. After a while we saw it inside the watering whole, which wasn’t very deep, so at first we thought it went in there to be able to drink, but when it hadn’t come back out after a while somebody told the manager. They then decided to get it out of there. We were very intrigued to see how they would do that, with its mom protecting it and about 10 other fully grown elephants next to the watering hole.

Elephant Sands
The two day old baby elephant, Squirt, standing next to it’s mom.

A bunch of guys grabbed some long plastic tubes and they brought a car down to the watering hole and started screaming and running/driving toward the elephants. I didn’t think it would work or that the mother would leave its baby, but all the elephants ran away scared. The second they ran away another guy lifted the small baby elephant out of the hole. The baby appeared very grateful to be rescued and started running to the guy who rescued it and didn’t want to leave. It took a few minutes till the mother finally came back and the baby went after her. We were relieved that all went well!

The man that pulled the tiny elephant from the watering hole. Even a newborn elephant is almost as heavy as this man was.
The man that pulled the tiny elephant from the watering hole. Even a newborn elephant is almost as heavy as this man was.

It was halloween night so we had a nice dinner and a few of us carved out some pumpkins (or melons in three cases) and made masks from paper plates. It was quite a special place to be at for halloween. The camp’s name and slogan, Elephant Sands – where elephants rule, does it more than justice.

Elephant Sands
Our “pumpkins” that we carved for our group’s pumpkin carving contest.
Halloween Costume
David took a particularly creepy picture of me in my scary halloween costume.

The next morning we reluctantly said goodbye to Elephant Sands and moved on toward the Okavango Delta!

One Reply to “Elephant Sands”

  1. What an incredible experience. It occurred to me when reading about the drought and the owners having to pay out of pocket for providing water to the elephants that we could help them raise some funds via a crowdfunding campaign to help raise funds to sustain X time of water till it rains. Any idea how much they spend on water? I imagine when the documentary comes out, it will raise awareness.

Leave a Reply