My first tie on elephant-back safari was on my first trip to Africa in 2011. We went in Zambia. The elephants all have a handler assigned to them from when they’re babies. This little guy was in training, happily trundling along next to its mother. You can see her shadow on the ground where he’s standing.
We spotted this guy on our way to safari in Botswana’s Chobe National Park. We were driving along a paved road prior to turning off onto the dirt tracks we’d spend the next few hours exploring. All of a sudden, the paved road became lined by elephants, munching away, not the least bit bothered by all the cars driving past.
We’d turned the canoe sideways and were drifting down the Zambezi as I photographed a huge group of elephants taking a refreshing dip. I had my big lens on… 70-300mm. I started out fully zoomed in and was gradually zooming out as we got closer. Suddenly, I couldn’t zoom out any further. I dropped the camera from my eye. We were VERY close to these elephants. Then I heard Chris’s voice from the back of the canoe, “Keep taking photos J. I got this.”
I kept taking photos.
Today’s Photo: Snacking Elephant
I wrote about this experience previously, here. We’d pulled our canoes up to an island in the middle of the Lower Zambezi. I thought we were there for a closer look at these elephants and started firing away. When I turned around I realized that our guides were setting up for lunch. We sat and ate lunch with these giant animals no distance away. They didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence. After about half an hour they walked to the other side of the island where they splashed into water and swimming off down the river, trunks raised like snorkels.
Something Interesting: How to Survive a Suicide Shower
I had the pleasure of using a few of these shower contraptions while traveling through Bolivia and Peru. They use electricity to heat the water… in the shower head. Bare wires are not uncommon. I thought they looked a bit questionable but didn’t give them a second thought, I was typically desperate for a shower. None of the shower heads actually shocked me, though a few friends of mine got zapped. I did get a pretty nasty shock off of a light switch hanging from my ceiling with bare wires on the back though. This is an interesting little article on suicide showers with a bit of advice in how to go about showering safely when faced with them: How to Survive a Suicide Shower.
This photo of a Baobab tree has a lot to do with elephants. The scarring on the trunk is the result of elephants. They use their tusks to peel these hollow trees and eat their bark. There are many of these elephant scarred Baobab trees dotting the landscape. The reason that this baobab wound up being captured by my lens is a bit gruesome.
The night before we’d gone on a night drive, bag of wine in tow. As we left the camp we were informed that we’d be passing an elephant carcass (killed by anthrax in the soil). The smell was palpable and we knew the drive was coming to an end when we smelled it again.
The next day we went on a sunset drive and asked to see the carcass. This request may sound odd to you and thinking about it now it sounds odd to me. At the time though, we had the opportunity to see a dead elephant and no-one hesitated in saying yes please. Upon arriving it became clear that it would be an experience. I’m not going to go into details as it was pretty horrendous, but the smell was heavy – that’s an odd word to describe a smell, but it’s the only one that fits. Five feet from the truck one member of our group was gagging uncontrollably.
After taking a quick look at the carcass and concluding that it wasn’t something I wanted to photograph (I’d been hoping for vultures) I made my way back to the truck. I saw this tree and decided to photograph it. It was pretty tricky as I’d brought my 70-300 lens. As a result I shot a panorama and stitched it together.
In a previous post (Dip on a Rebel Elephant) I wrote about how Soniko and Chris’s elephant was a bit of a rebel. Here, early in the trip, you can see it stopping for an unplanned snack. I feel I should mention that Soniko and Chris didn’t plan on getting so cozy atop a munching herbivore. When the elephants were being assigned, there were three available for single riders. A man there with his two daughter’s jumped at the opportunity, quickly followed by Soniko and Chris. Unfortunately, one of the elephants decided that it didn’t feel like going for a walk so was left behind, putting Chris and Soniko on the worst behaved elephant they had. Sharing was probably a good thing, at least they could share some of the trauma they went through. This included charging through thorn bushes, swimming through crocodile infested water, and regular breaking into a trot as the handler tried to slow it down. All the while, they must have heard the sound of Shannon and I laughing off in the distance. All summed up though, they definitely had the most adventure.
Soniko had a knack for finding himself in the most exciting situations. It was interesting because, as he readily admits, he was the person in the group least interested in the more adrenaline filled aspects. Despite this, he got to sit closest to the open doors of a Huey Helicopter, in Cape Town, for a simulated combat ride. He was first to get thrown from our raft on the rapids of the Middle Zambezi. He was even the first to get involved in a staring match with an agitated silver-back gorilla in Rwanda (until he snuck behind Cameron as evidenced by this video… watch the navy blue legs move behind the khaki ones). That being said, he survived it all and definitely seemed to enjoy himself.
I’ve mentioned before that it’s not easy shooting while straddling a lumbering elephant. My three exposures for this shot weren’t even close to being lined up. As a result, this is an HDR image from a single RAW.
Our last day paddling our way down the meandering Lower Zambezi was an exciting one. By now, the surroundings were familiar and comfortable. Working in tandem to navigate the river was almost second nature. It even became easier to suppress the fear of crocodiles that occasionally welled up in my mind. This was despite coming closer to the eerily calm reptiles than we ever had before. As we approached midday, we spotted a group of elephants on an island. After paddling into a small inlet, and walking a very short distance, we were approximately 30 feet away. The elephants acknowledged our presence, but continued munching away and even moved closer. I was completely focused on grabbing a good photo. Once I realized that most people had already moved on to return to the canoes I turned to follow. It turned out that we weren’t departing. Our guides had prepared lunch for us, the usual beautiful fresh salad to accompany the most processed meat in the world. They were some form of Frankfurter, but were fluorescent pink on the outside and white in the middle. So, we ate and watched the elephants munch their way back across to the other side of the island. Then, they started to head to the water and we followed. They took the plunge and meandered their way down the Lower Zambezi.
On the first day of our canoe safari, on the Lower Zambezi, we stopped for lunch under a big shade tree on the Zimbabwe side of the river. While everyone stretched out to nap after a sandwich and a salad I started getting my camera gear out. I wanted to get a photo of a hippo yawning. Typically, the hippo let out a huge yawn as I was setting up. Then I had to wait quite a while for him to do it again. It worked out for the best though, as these elephants moved into frame just before the hippo let out a huge gaping yawn.
On my recent trip to Africa, each of the five of us had one thing we really wanted to do. Soniko’s one thing was an elephant ride. I didn’t find it that appealing until we got to Livingstone. Then, for some reason I decided it had to be done. So, off we went, along with Chris and Shannon. When we arrived the head guide told us that all but three people would be riding tandem. A man there with his two daughters was quick to jump on the opportunity to ride solo. He was quickly followed by Chris and Soniko. My slow reactions meant I had to share with Shannon. Nothing against Shannon, but having your own elephant would have been pretty cool.
In the end, this worked out in my favor. As it turned out one of the elephants allocated for Soniko and Chris didn’t feel like going for a walk that day. They don’t force these massive animals into anything. So, Soniko and Chris ended up sharing an elephant. I have many close-ups of this situation that I don’t think I’ll release to the world. It’s hard to look good when you’re riding tandem on an elephant with another dude.
Despite this, in a way they were lucky to get their elephant. As Shannon and I trundled along at a comfortable pace we heard a crack from behind us. Chris and Soniko’s elephant had just ripped a branch off a palm and was tearing away in the wrong direction – nimbly crushing the branch with ts trunk. Our driver (no idea what you call the guy steering the elephant) told us that their elephant tended to misbehave and preferred going where it pleased. It became clear they were in for the more exciting ride. The guides had taken the head elephant, along with the solo man’s two daughters, to bring Chris and Soniko back to the herd. This never really happened and gives rise to today’s photo.
About halfway through our trip all the other elephants did as their drivers told them and we all waded through ankle-deep water. That’s elephant ankle depth. As usual, Chris and Soniko’s elephant did its own thing. She had spotted a shortcut and there was nothing that could change her mind – she was going to swim across that river. This photo captures the moment as their driver is attempting to help Chris get his foot back in the stirrup. They’d had to lift their feet as high as they could to keep them out of the range of crocodiles.
This was a tricky photo to take and process. I shot three exposures hand-held. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it became more difficult due to two factors. First, I was on the back of a lumbering elephant. Second, the elephant was facing the wrong way, placing these guys over my right shoulder. To overcome these issues I zoomed out a little further to account for the bouncing camera and set a larger aperture than I’d have liked to speed up my shutter speed. I felt like I’d turned my upper body so far that my shoulders were perpendicular to my hips. It hurt, but going home without this picture was not an option.
In processing it quickly became clear that the pictures were far from aligned. I had to put faith in Photomatix’s auto align to fix this for me. It did a pretty good job except for the island on the left. This was completely blurred out. I wish I’d noticed the issue before my last check of the picture. Masking this area out didn’t look quite right, so I started from scratch. I actually used the selective ghosting tool in Photomatix to fix this. I also used this on the trees in the background, just to be safe, and of course the moving elephants.