Close encounters with wild elephants
If you ever want to get seriously close to wild African Elephants, without being in the safety of your car or behind a really strong fence, there can be very few places in the world that match what Elephant Sands Lodge in Botswana offers in this regard.
Situated in the arid region between Nata and Kasane, and not far off the A33 that links the two towns, Elephant Sands has a man-made waterhole that offers one of very few reliable sources of water in the area. The result is that during the dry season (most of the year!) there is an almost continual presence of elephants at the waterhole. They come singly or in groups, big and small, day-and-night, drawn from an extensive surrounding area to drink and to bathe, providing an almost uninterrupted pageant for the onlookers.
The Elephant Sands campsite, chalets, restaurant and bar are situated in a broken circle around the waterhole, and all are unfenced. The viewing area below the restaurant/bar is closest to the water and the elephants are literally a few metres away from the visitors.
A narrow band of small cement cones with protruding metal spikes surrounds the restaurant complex, making it difficult for the elephants to actually enter the restaurant, but no such barriers protect the campsites and they often wander between the tents.
Although elephants are present in almost all the game parks in Botswana and are therefore not an uncommon sight, to have these enormous animals passing so close to your tent is very special even for seasoned travelers. The elephants seem to know that they are entering a zone occupied by humans and are usually very quiet and well behaved, although incoming groups may be noisily received by those already occupying the waterhole. On those occasions when buildings have been damaged by the huge animals it is invariably because the waterhole is dry and the animals are trying to find an alternative source of water.
This is certainly not the usual way to see wild elephants – sitting in a bar with drink in hand and have the elephants visiting the waterhole within touching distance – but it has a different appeal altogether. It is very easy, though, to forget that the elephants are wild and are only here for the water before dispersing back into the surrounding expanse of wilderness.
The waterhole attracts other species of animals, and a surprising variety of birds; we have seen Red-headed Weavers and Village Weavers nesting near to the bar, and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills nesting in the campsite. At the waterhole itself we have seen Greater Flamingos, Little Grebes, Pied Avocets, Common Mynahs, and many others. We also witnessed the semi-tame Banded Mongoose having a fine game of tag with the resident dog on the viewing platform near the waterhole.