This week I will be taking my first vacation away from Swaziland and I am traveling to Kruger National Park. The only traveling I have done in Swaziland has been to see wildlife, so I am quite excited that my first trip is to the land of wild cats and dogs and other exciting creatures too numerous to mention.
I have been spending a lot of time thinking about my first safari in Ghana two-plus years ago. First-of-a-kind experiences really create distinct memories, and I am happy to have such fond memories of my adventures in Ghana.
It is hard not to compare, though, when I can imagine there are few or no other places in Africa where you can have a safari of the likes of what is offered at Mole National Park in northern-central Ghana.
We arrived earlier than anticipated—much earlier in fact—because the road north from Kumasi was entirely paved.
The drive north was notable for its lack of bathrooms. I remember peeing on the side of the road twice—once in the tall grass on a side road and the other time at the edge of a cocoa tree grove. There was one reststop with functioning toilets and toilet paper, where I wowed the restaurant staff with my rudimentary Twi and ordered spicy jollof rice and chicken. The jollof rice was excellent everywhere. There was also a gas station I used where there was no toilet in the stall but only a concrete slab. This is the worst kind of bathroom there is.
But I digress. Upon arriving at Mole, we checked in, dropped our bags, and went to find out about the safari options. A morning walk was included in our weekend away from the rural communities and our data collection. There were jeeps available with seating on top for late-afternoon drives through the park.
Of course, I wanted to see the elephants. Mole is home to a variety of antelope, monkeys, warthogs, and in theory, lions, though they had not been seen for a long time, but this was my first African safari, and the elephants were what I was dreaming of.
We departed in two groups, sitting on top of jeeps in a slightly precarious fashion, with each group heading in a different direction. While we were watching waterbucks and elands and other antelope, our driver got a message on the walkie that elephants were spotted. The chase started.
We headed to one of the watering holes, were we saw footprints and extremely fresh dung, but we stayed one step behind the elephants the whole time.
We followed the tracks to a woody area, where we were allowed to disembark the jeep and quietly hurry after the elephants on foot. We debated the rest of the night as to whether or not we were able to see the elephants through the trees, but we could all agree that we heard them as they splashed into some unseen water and we all screamed and ran.
The following morning provided the sighting we had all been waiting for. We started with a short walk around the hotel complex to find a massive bull munching on some trees. We approached from behind and worked our way around to the side to see his face.
The bull finally moved on and so did we. We headed downhill to the watering holes where an elephant family was enjoying the waters. The young elephants were playing in the water, even having a mock fight.
As the bull we saw earlier approach, we watched the matron of the herd and another older female move protectively in front of the young.
We, on the other hand, were just told to stand still and be quiet. The rangers had guns, but I would have hated to see one used to injure an elephant when it was the humans who would have been out of line.
I knew nothing about elephants then, so I could not appreciate how close I was without interfering in their lives. I also did not know how terrifying an elephant could be and was not scared with being so close. I was in awe.
As a child, I loved my neighbor’s cat Elsa, pandas, flamingos, and orangutans. I do not even remember seeing elephants at the zoo. But now, elephants are my animal. Seeing the orphaned babies at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust definitely helped sway the world’s largest land mammal in my favor.
Flamingos are still second in line and I will reassess once I finally see one in the wild. I went on safari in Kenya so I could see the flamingos at Lake Nakuru and due to excess rain, they had flown the coop. Kenya was still awesome, though.
Since those days of my first safari in Ghana, I have had many other elephant encounters in Kenya and Swaziland. I will always appreciate and cherish the first for its peacefulness and closeness, especially compared to the time I was charged by a bull in Swaziland.
Every wildlife encounter is unique and should be treasured. In a world where humans are increasingly encroaching on the lands of elephants and other wildlife, and when humans are killing these beautiful animals for decorations and trophies, I appreciate every moment an elephant chooses to give its human followers. I look forward to a few over the next week.