It was the sound of a calloused hand casually stroking a leather briefcase: it was directly behind me and it was very, very close. I instantly recognized the sound and realized the extreme danger I was in. I slowly turned around.

The massive bull elephant had stopped less than 3 meters behind me. Its incredible grey bulk towered over me and blocked out the late afternoon sky.

Standing absolutely still, I felt the gentle breeze on my face and my heart tuned cold as ice as a tsunami of adrenalin washed over me.

Any sudden movement or sound would be catastrophic.

The bull raised the tip of his gigantic trunk and uncertainly sniffed the air, moving it slowly from side to side like a cobra hypnotizing a rat.

In the silence and slow-motion of an action replay, I looked up at the thick twin columns of ivory, stained by time and tree sap to the caramel of a chain-smokers’ fingers.

Like a mouse before a Rottweiler and only my Canon 7D in my hand, I stood defenseless and facing an unpredictable granite mountain of muscle and bone - and I felt the dread chill of fear.

It was the soft scrape of the bull’s front sole on the red sand that alerted me.

My two friends, Kobus Hugo and Herman Boshua were oblivious of the impending danger and were sitting in the vehicle behind me, busily taking photos of the other elephants playing in the waterhole.

Nata Pans

We had come to Hwange through Botswana’s via Nata pans and the Pandametanga border gate.

Every year a couple of friends and I go to a place where the last bit of wild Africa still can be experienced. We go to Moremi, Savuti, Linyanti, Caprivi, Chobe, Magadigadi - the places with the magical names and wild freedom from email, work, cellphones and other responsibilities. This year it was Kobus, myself and Herman.

We have one inviolable rule: what is said in the bush stays in the bush. So we talk about sex, money, God, family, careers and life - but not necessarily in that order.

We go to get our perspective back and we come back stronger - more focussed and even better friends.

The three of us camped at Nata lodge (20° 13.514’S 26° 15.942’E) with hot showers and good facilities for one night for P186. Diesel was P6.36 per liter in Nata.

Entry to Nata Pan was 60 Pula. It is an endless expanse of shallow, briny water with thousands of flamingos patrolling for small crustaceans and diatoms.

Every year, as if by magic, the flamingos know conditions are right and they begin to arrive by the thousands within days of flooding. Approximately 30,000 breeding pairs of greater and lesser flamingos turn the surface of the pans a deep pink.

The high salinity and the abundance of nutrients brought in by the rivers provide highly productive conditions which causes algal blooms. Some of the algae provide food for the small invertebrates, otherwise known as shrimps. These shrimps hatch from eggs that can lie dormant in the dry pans for years. Greater Flamingo predominantly eat crustaceans such as fairy shrimp, various species of seed shrimp and water fleas.

Lesser Flamingo specialise in feeding on microscopic algae and diatoms, which they filter with unbelievable precision.

With an abundance of food flamingos take the opportunity to reproduce. The pan provides good nest building material on a site that is completely isolated and undisturbed by land predators. Numbers breeding on Sua Pan often exceed total estimates for southern Africa, estimated to be approximately 47,000 Greater and 26,000 Lesser Flamingos. These additional birds may be coming from East Africa.

The origin and migration routes of these flamingos were, until recently, a mystery. In July 2001, the first satellite-tracking project on flamingos in southern Africa was carried out at Makgadikgadi in an attempt to uncover some of the mystery behind flamingo migration.

A highly dispersed movement was observed over a 6 month period, with destinations including sites in Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique. Migration was recorded only during the night which supports the theory that flamingos migrate in darkness.

Entrance to the pans was 30 Pula per person.

Pandametanga

The border post at Pandametanga (18° 31.554’S 25° 39.776’E) was clean and the staff were friendly and helpful on both sides. On the Zimbabwe side an official without uniform submitted our vehicle to a friendly but very thorough check. There was one other vehicle at the border post with us, two couples on their way to Mana Pools

Once through, we drove slowly on the dirt road, following our GPS.

Hwange

Once the royal hunting ground of the Zulu warrior King Mzilikazi, the park was proclaimed in 1929. Named after a local Nhanzwa chief, Hwange National Park is the largest Park in Zimbabwe occupying 14 650 square kilometers in the northwest of the country and not far from the Mighty Victoria Falls. Hwange has one of the highest diversities of mammals for any National Park in the world with over 108 species and over 400 types of birds including 50 raptors. Hwange is considered for inclusion in the 5 Nation Kavango - Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area.

We arrived at Robins camp after 2 hours to a smart salute from the gatekeeper. We filled in the book and to the 11 kilometer dirt road to Robins camp.

We had booked through the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. Our initial booking was handled by the super-efficient Christina Mhuriro (cmhuriro@zimparks.co.zw).

We paid our dues (US $20 per person per night, US$15 for the vehicle for each day and US10 for who knows what) at Robins Camp and got on the 45 kilometers or so to Masuma Dam.

Camping at  Masuma Dam

Masuma Dam (18° 43.843’S 26° 16.849’E ) is a small fenced campsite with a permanent ranger, two clean flush toilets and a donkey shower. The best feature is a large thatched lapa overlooking the waterhole. From here we photographed the hippos and many elephants which started arriving at dusk. The came by the hundreds, the large herds taking turns to drink. We estimated that about 1,000 elephants came to drink on the third night we were there – and with an estimated 40,000 elephants in Hwange it is hardly surprising.

There were only three camps including our own. We met up with Michael and Pamela Boul, two Americans from Vancouver, Washington. They come to Hwange every year for a month - and they probably will hate the mention for fear that thousands of Americans will swamp their favorite getaway. When I saw her the first time, Pamela was busy doing her washing and actually smiling. "We love to get away from it all, and washing clothes is part of the fun!"

I didn’t get it.

In the third camp Charl Badenhorst of Sanctuary Retreats made his bed on top of his Land Rover and scared away all the predators with his ear-splitting snores.

The camp manager brought us wood and made the fire each night - free. Talk about service.

The camp manager told us of the time that a lion came into the camp and stayed over in the lapa for a night or so. He preferred to avoid cleaning the lapa during that time.

Jambili

Our second camp in Hwange was Jambili (26° 16.849’E 26° 53.219’E). We were the only people in the camp. The camp manager made our fire, brought wood and was a general help. We visited Dopi Dam 18° 50.892’S 26° 55.678’E and saw baboon, kudu, crock and zebra.

But we constantly returned to our elephant waterhole (18° 57.621’S 26° 51.377’), and this is where I now stood, transfixed and in imminent mortal danger.

I knew the vehicle was not far behind me was still 2 meters from the vehicle and I knew I would have to move slowly and quietly. Still staring the bull in the eye, a slowly retreated until I could feel the half-open door behind me. My nerve not holding, I turned, got in the car and closed the window.

Fat lot that would help if the 7 ton bull really wanted me. My photographic travel companions paused irritably as their cameras moved slightly with the vehicle, barely looking up from their cameras.

I noticed that the bull moved closer, the tip of it’s trunk now above the roof of the vehicle.

"Let’s go now", I said in the most neutral voice I could manage. The only response was the rapid clicking of Kobus’ Canon 550 shutter. I touched his shoulder and pointed as he looked around at me. It took a second for his eyes to focus and Herman also turned in the back seat. I knew I had their undivided attention as I saw Kobus’ eyes widen and his face turn pale.

He feverishly tried to disable the vehicle’s immobiliser with his violently trembling hands, but to no avail. I tried to take a photo through the window but the bull was too close and my camera would not focus.

We watched the elephant relax, lazily swing his massive trunk and slowly walk past the front, almost touching the front bumper with his leg.

We looked at each other in stony silence with deadpan faces for a second and exploded with uncontrollable nervous laughter.

Maybe it’s better to stay in the vehicle like the reserve rules say after all.

Remember to:

Mitch Mitchell is a bow hunter, outdoorsman and the author of several books on African wildlife and survival
  • get your Zimbabwe vehicle insurance beforehand. It can be obtained from any reputable travel agent in South Africa

  • put stickers on the front and back of your trailer according to Zimbabwean traffic law

  • stick to the speed limit, especially in Botswana

  • take Rands and Dollars for extra fuel in Zimbabwe and Botswana

  • take a head net for the Mopani flies

  • stay in your vehicle in the park ;-)