The day the elephants came to tea | by Alex Chalkley

I was awoken early as usual by the dawn chorus of the Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, in northern Malawi. This 986 km2 of understudied Marshland and Miombo woodland was to be my home for the next 9 months, as I settled into my role as an elephant researcher. As I turned over to try and catch a few more moments of peaceful slumber, a pair of Tropical Boubou landed on the bushwillow outside my tent and began their morning territory calls, signalling to others that this patch of the marsh is theirs; So much for another 5 minutes I thought to myself as I rolled out of bed, grateful that the now vibrant crescendo of sound filling the cool morning air signalled I was back where I belonged, and not as I was 2 weeks ago sitting at a desk job in London.

The objective for the morning was simple, find the elephants! Now when a male stand tall at 3m and can tip the scales at 6 tonnes, you would think this would be an easy task. But as I discovered during my first few weeks, that’s like saying the proverbial finding a needle in a haystack is as easy as reciting you’re ABCs. Oh, and these needles can move around as much as they want, even crossing over to neighbouring Zambia if they should so choose. But as I met my guests at our trusty Land Cruiser, which was to be our magic carpet ride across the parched dry land, we were optimistic at the prospect of finding these majestic but threatened mammals.

As we set off with our focus on the mission in front of us, our first sighting was of a troop of yellow baboon about 500m from camp. These charismatic and often cheeky primates greeted us with some incredible views, with a number of youngsters rough and tumbling through the brush, whilst the adults sat high above feasting on the late-season bloom of monkey oranges, oblivious to (or ignoring) the chaos their infants were causing.

As we left them to continue their breakfast and headed deeper into the reserve, we started to see the tell-tale signs our target had been in the area the night before. Freshly toppled trees felled across the road greeted us, as did the smell of fresh dung, recently deposited mere hours before. A silent hum of excitement resonated through the air, as we followed the spoor of a number of individuals down the road, anticipating that around every corner we would find our intended. After what seemed like an eternity of following fresher and fresher tracks along the now sun-baked dirt road, the tracks diverted and headed straight into the thick woodland, dominated by small but strong Brachystegia trees. No chance of getting the 4×4 through there I thought, a sense of disappointment and frustration building, that we had gotten so close yet so far away. After circling the area and waiting patiently for a tantalising glimpse, the affects of the now high African sun caused us to accept defeat, and we headed back to camp having failed in our objective. The frustration plain for all to see as we returned empty handed.

Settling down in camp for late morning tea and coffee, we chatted with the other guests about their morning activities. “We saw over 200 hippos” said a very excited American guests, on what was her first trip to Africa, whilst another described his bushwalk, getting a sighting of the charismatic and elusive roan antelope. Whilst happy that the other guests had such productive mornings we couldn’t help but feel like we let the team down, unable to fulfil what we set out to do.

Then, without warning, a crunch of a falling tree grabbed our attention. Then another and another, getting closer and closer to camp. We all moved to the veranda, cups of warm welcoming coffee held tightly in our hands, eager to see what was causing the apparent destruction. Gradually the sounds grew stronger, reaching a climax when a female elephant known as Dot, as called by the distinctive hole in her ear, appeared behind one the guest’s tents.

Excitement, relief, and all the emotions in between resonated throughout the group, as more and more elephants headed out of the bush and walked straight in front of us. 10, 20, 30, 70, 80! Large elephants, small elephants, those who had been through periods of droughts, and those who had yet to experience the feeling of rain on their backs. As we stood there watching the spectacle in front of us, I couldn’t help but over hear a guest say to another “I guess if we want to see the elephants, we should just stick the kettle on”.

About the Entry

Alex Chalkley

A British conservationist, researcher and guide, I have been working on-off in Africa for close to 4 years, conducting conservation research on elephants, lions, cheetah and rhino. Working with international volunteers, I particularly enjoy helping educate and inspire the next generation of naturalists, and seeing them moving into conservation careers of their own is the highlight of my job.

  • Site name | ThatBritInTheBush
  • Site URLthatbitinthebush.home.blog
  • Why should someone visit your site? Photos and stories of my adventures in Africa, not just focusing on the large charismatic megafauna that Africa is iconic for, but also focusing on the smaller stories of the lesser known but essential characters of this incredible landscape.
  • Entry TitleThe day the elephants came to tea
  • Entry Number | 81

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