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  • Writer's pictureBushwise Student

Following in the footsteps of a matriarch

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

This blog was written by Molly Swan, Bushwise Professional Field Guide student. 

Autumn morning in the bushveld

Venturing out on a beautiful autumn morning about to discover what is behind the thickets of the savanna bushveld. The clouds have moved off and the wind is softly blowing the slowly browning grass. Zebra, impala and blue wildebeest graze in the distance. 

There is word a herd of elephants are foraging in the nearby drainage line, an area where trees and grasses are full of nutrients. Two of us follow behind our guide/trainer – who is brimming with knowledge, rifle in hand. 

Tracking elephants in the savanna

A group of Bushwise field guide students walking in the bush with their trainer as they learn to silently follow animals in the wild.

We head south completely undetected, silent, walking in a single file line. The wind is blowing in a westerly direction, so we enter on the east side of the drainage line to disguise our human scent. Nearing the drainage line, we see butterflies, blue waxbills, fork-tailed drongos and the last signs of summer’s wildflowers. We trample over anise seed and release its awakening aroma. 

As we push through branches of sickle bush, flaky bark thorn and magic guarri trees, a male impala’s face appears around a false thorn. He watches us cautiously. He is very curious about why we are there. Other males gather behind him frozen in their place but not too frightened to run off. This small bachelor herd may be unlucky this upcoming breeding season seeing that they have not already claimed a herd of females of their own. 

Walking in the wild

Continuing a few meters further, we stop to listen for the sounds of the magnificent elephant herd. We hear sounds of feeding, branches breaking and the deep vibrational rumble of the matriarch leading the herd to their next destination. We are close – and we’re only twenty minutes into our walk. 

Moving at a slower speed, we walk in each other’s footsteps until we spot them. A young herd of about fifteen. Using their strong trunks, they are feeding on grasses tearing them out of the sodium filled soils to balance out their diet. Their trunks are very versatile and flexible. The 60,000 muscles in their trunk make picking up any object as easy as picking up a marble with two fingers. 

The savanna provides for the herd

A pair of elephants feeding in thick bushes, in South Africa near Kruger National Park.

The savanna offers plenty of vegetation for the family herd to feed on. They stay close together feeding and only moving as fast as the little ones can keep up. In segments they move east towards our direction. The wind stays in our favour as we sneak through the thickets staying ahead of their next move. We use termite mounds to get a better aerial view of our surroundings, a technique often used by other mammals. 

Not only do we need to be aware of the herd’s location, but we also need to keep in mind that at any moment we could stumble across a pride of lions or a solitary bull elephant. Although we remain close, we completely lose sight of them behind the thick bush, but we hear them and can smell their musk. 

Occasional sounds of trumpeting come through bringing smiles across our faces. Could it be a mother putting her calf in its place, a disagreement between two adults or a playful jubilee? We will never fully get in the minds of these intelligent creatures. 

A herd that grazes together

The herd continues to move, staying close together. They will continue to graze most of the day and even through the night only able to digest about 40% of what they eat. We continue to watch their behaviour and predict their next move. They are headed across one of the dirt roads, a chance to get a perfect view. 

As they move across into the sun, we can see the deep wrinkles in their thick skin mimicking the bark of an old tree. The family herd stays close together moving quickly through the open. The matriarch has the important task of keeping the herd safe, especially since the females have had some new births during the last rainy season. Some are at the age where they are beginning to graze and learning how to use their trunks and tusks but still receiving milk from their mothers. 

The copious amounts of rainfall during the summer months will also be an advantage making it easier for the matriarch to find a water source to quench their thirst after many hours of feeding. The young calves will have short distances to travel for water this winter. 

We are not alone

A young elephant feeds on the leaves of a guarri bush as it moves slowly through the savannah with its family herd.

This family is strong and healthy. We predict they are headed towards a nearby watering hole. As we make our way across broken branches, golden orb spider webs and burrowing holes, we discover fresh elephant and buffalo tracks. We are not alone. The sandy soils allow nature to tell its story from hours before which lets us know what came before us. It is possible we may be found or stumble across an unforgiving hippo, so we stay alert and walk every step with intention. 

The watering hole is full and will become a retreat for many animals this winter. Its high edges make it a welcomed spot for many southern foam nest tree frogs and weaver nests. The hippo has moved off to another area. We get to the highest elevation and watch as the herd is coming our way as predicted. 

Just as we start to feel confident that they are coming to have a drink and possibly get the chance to witness the little ones play in the water, they stop to continue grazing, vanishing back into the drainage line into the lush foliage. The young calves have an advantage this time of year since the trees are full of leaves which shelter them from any curious predators. The shade will also keep them cool while they feed, which could be why the matriarch is making the choice to stay away from the open. 

Other animals join the show

Flying above us is a stunning grey heron circling around looking for its prey. Terrapins soak up the morning sun along the ancient rock walls. The sounds of water thick-knee, blacksmith lapwing and lilac breasted rollers fill the air. We wait for their next move like a game of chess in the shade of a magic guarri tree. 

We receive word that two more elephants are moving into the area from the opposite direction. How will the herd respond to their arrival and how should we position ourselves to witness such an event? As we wait, six white back vultures circle in the blue sky above us. They are waiting for something exciting, anxious to inhale their next meal – but nothing is around so they quickly fly off. 

The herd of elephants reappear and make their way towards us. We hesitate being aware we need to keep distance between us but also that there is not much cover around us. We must make a quick decision; do we stay hidden or make ourselves known while showing them we are not a threat. 

Grateful for this experience

Staying low, we decide to back away slowly with purpose. They have spotted us as we predicted but do not see us as a threat since we are creating distance. What a beautiful moment to be on foot with these magnificent, intelligent creatures. A humbling moment very few get to experience. 

As they move off into the distance, we make our way back to camp. My heart is full, and the bush seems even more beautiful. As we approach camp, we are followed by a harem of zebras with two young ones. What an absolute privilege this morning has been. My soul has been bathed in the lush thickets and my heart is full of the elephants’ spirit. 

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