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.

elephant collaring
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“You just have to get in your car and turn the key to travel into Africa.”

Those were Kingsley Holgate’s words to me, and it really is that simple. People are often afraid to travel through Africa, completely unaware of the vastness and beauty that lies beyond what they’ve seen on TV.

I started Blue Sky Society Trust in 2012 to raise funds for humanitarian and conservation projects around Africa, and started taking people with me on expeditions, to share my passion and open people’s hearts and minds to what Africa has to offer.

elephant collaring

Conservation Expeditions

With Kingsley Holgate as a mentor, I learned how to keep a sense of humour when travelling through border posts or road blocks, as well as why you should avoid travelling in the dark (animals tend to migrate to the road for warmth). Along with the tricks of the trade, he also taught me to slow down and enjoy the experience.

So in 2016, I led the Elephant Ignite Expedition, travelling 15,787km over 100 days, through 10 countries (South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya) – proving that an all-female expedition could safely travel through Africa.

It was incredible to see the life-changing effect that the journey had on people. Africa gets under your skin…into your soul. And I realised that I wanted to share this with more people, to share the life-changing experience of adventure and travel combined with hands-on work that makes a difference in the world.

Kasungu Waterpump

Adventure + Travel + Making a Difference

The purpose of the Elephant Ignite Expedition was to raise awareness and funds for elephants to fight the ongoing elephant poaching crisis, and in 100 days, we visited 37 different wildlife organisations doing incredible work, and donated over R400,000 to six elephant projects where we met the teams on the ground, and saw first-hand the wonderful work that they’re doing.

And now in March 2018, I’ll be leading the Journeys With Purpose expedition through remote parts of South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, taking a limited number of people to some extraordinary places and conservation projects.

Every expedition is once-off; never to be repeated. It’s not for everyone though – it’s a fundraising initiative so you might have to get your hands dirty, help paint a school, or build a beehive fence. But it is a unique experience – sitting under the African sky, taking in the sunset and stars, cooking over a campfire, and listening to hyena cry in the night alongside the call of jackals…

Don’t miss out

If a 4×4 self-drive adventure gets your heart going, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to journey with purpose. We’ll be collaring elephants, visiting Tuli Wilderness Camp and the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, canoeing at Mana Pools, and taking in a few world heritage sites along the way…

Contact Carla Geyser on carla@blueskysociety.co.za to find out more!

* Originally published by Embark on a journey with purpose through Africa