Phinda Elephant immobilization

This article is part of a series of journal entries from the Elephant Ignite Expedition, 2016. 

DAY 2: The following morning was an early start at 06h30. Simon had arranged for the EIE crew to be involved in an elephant immobilisation, which was hugely exciting for all of us. I remember telling Natalie Dumbrill, an EIE crew member from the UK, that it wasn’t normal to be a part of an immobilisation before you even saw an Impala. This was her first trip to Africa and it had already been a mind-blowing experience for her. The vet, Mike Toft, briefed the crew on what was happening, why it was happening, and how to act. You could have heard a pin drop.

The reason for the immobilisation was to take blood from a Cow as part of their Elephant Contraception Programme. Mike and the aircrew set off in the helicopter to find her, and the rest of the ground crew jumped in the back of the Phinda vehicle and sped along the bumpy roads, hanging on for dear life to get to where they’d found and darted her.  She went down effortlessly, and Dr. Toft and the Phinda crew immediately jumped to work, measuring her padded feet (which elephants use to communicate over great distances by subsonic vibrations), taking blood samples for DNA, and measuring her tusks.

Up close with an elephant

It was so surreal, as well as being my first experience of being up so close to an elephant. Let’s not forget that these animals are wild and a female cow can weight up to 4 tonnes. She was still quite young and wasn’t yet fully grown. As soon as all the work had been done, Dr. Toft ushered us back to our vehicle so that he could administer the antidote to wake her up. The safety of the elephants is always a priority and Phinda run a very slick operation in making sure that the elephant is under as little stress as possible.

It was incredible to be able to touch her leathery skin, feel her glassy teeth, smell her warm breath, and hear her snore and she lay there on the ground while being measured and assessed so that the team could gather data to learn more about her.

After a quick helicopter flip, we drove to another section of the Game Reserve where we watched the team take off the foot collar of a six-year-old Black Rhino that was going to be moved to another location. Black Rhinos are angry animals, and he went down with a fight. After taking the collar off, and treating a few wounds that occurred during the immobilisation, he was back on track. Taking his anger out on every poor sapling and bush that was in his way, he eventually trotted off and disappeared into the thick bush.

Our first border crossing into Swaziland

Charlie then gave the EIE crew a quick lesson in how to fix a tyre puncture with a puncture repair kit, as well as how to change a tyre. After the crash course, we were confident that we knew what to do! We were on our way again – towards the Swaziland border post of Golela. The town of Golela is situated on the southern border with Swaziland, 45km from Pongola. Formerly spelt Gollel, the name is of Swazi origin, said to mean ‘place of game’. This was a hunting ground of the Nyawo tribe in former times and was also the place where the Swazi and Zulu kings use to meet to have an ‘indaba’.

We stayed at  Brown’s Tented Camp in Royal Jozini Big Six Estate that night, which is a rustic campsite located in the foothills of the Lubombo mountains and overlooks the northern part of Jozini Dam. The terrain was exceptionally dry and you could see the drought was most definitely taking effect on the animals and vegetation. Digs Pascoe from Space for Elephants came to chat to the crew, and Jay and Ruth (who run the camp) joined us for dinner. The night was FREEZING, and the air was filled with the calls of Fiery-necked Nightjars, the high pitched cry of a Black-backed Jackal, and the faint grunting of a hippo in the distance.

A few weeks back, I mentioned that it’s been a year since the Elephant Ignite Expedition – a year since we left South Africa, turned the key in the ignition, and pointed our Avis Safari 4×4 vehicles (aptly named Courage, Hope and Love) north, for a life-changing adventure… I haven’t had the courage (until now) to put our journey into writing – it was such an intense, personal experience for me. I still sometimes feel like it was all a dream! Today is the first of many journal entries about the expedition – I want to share the incredible work that we did, as well as the wonderful organisations and projects that opened our eyes, and the brave unsung heroes we met along the way. So here we go…

Departure Day: Tuesday 9th August 2016 (Women’s Day)

The line of vehicles and Harley Davidsons snaked their way towards Ballito on the M4 road…such an emotional sight. They gave us a final wave and a hoot and then veered off in another direction. Their short escorted trip had ended and ours was about to start. We were on our own. The drive to Thula Thula went quite quickly and as you can imagine, there was quite a lot of banter on the radio – going over the day’s proceedings, some laughter, and so much excitement in the air. Yolande Kruger and Shannon Saunders were driving with me in the front. And we were taking turns to drive as reporters kept calling for last-minute comments about our journey.

The drive to Thula Thula took about two and a half hours. Once we arrived, we went straight to the Rhino Orphanage (which was sadly attacked earlier this year and has since closed down). We met with the team that was in charge of looking after these tiny orphans – a heartbreaking job and a reality-check because our wildlife is constantly in danger due to poaching. It was also a strong reminder of why we needed to go out there into Africa in the first place, and support these organisations that are protecting our wildlife.

Afterwards, Francoise Malby Anthony (wife of the late Lawrence Anthony ) put on a spread for lunch (even the monkeys were trying to get at the food) and arranged for a game drive to go and see “Lawrence’s elephants”. As you can imagine, Nana, Frankie, Mandla and the rest of the herd put on such a great performance. It was like they knew what we were doing and had to come and wish us a safe journey. The energy that surrounded us was tangible. We did a few interviews with the 50/50 team under the acacia trees and then departed for Phinda Game Reserve, where we were spending our first night at Bayete Camp.

We arrived after dark…

On the dust road to Phinda, we had lost the 50/50 crew, so I had to go and find them on the road to Sodwana. We eventually found them and drove them back to where we were setting up camp. Camp setup was a chore that we would have to do for the next 100 days. It was our first night of sleeping in our vehicles, so it took a while for everyone to set up their beds.

Afterwards, we sat around the fire and chatted to David Bozas, Simon Naylor (Phinda Farm Manager), Cilla Pickering (Elephant Researcher) and Charlie Thompson (Phinda workshop). It was so interesting listening to David telling his stories of the elephant encounters he’d experienced alongside Lawrence Anthony. The sparks from the fire floated upwards like dancing fireflies and the stars flickered in the night sky. This was the start of our daily experiences in  Africa.  Ildiko Bischott, our EIE crew member from Netherlands, celebrated her birthday in true African style with a fine feast, and then we all settled into our “beds” for the night with full stomachs and happy hearts.