12.04.2014 - 20.06.2014 36 °C
We entered the park at sunrise, took what we had come to call the ‘triangle’ and then the ‘road where we see all the rhinos’ on our way to Hilali, which is the newest camp and accommodation site within the park. It is about 70km west of Namutoni gate. The major highlight, and really the only event of the drive was the herd of elephants we ran into on what the park calls Eland drive. We stopped about 15m from them, turned the car off and waited. Don had started to comment that I was always saying that this time was the closest we have been to a certain animal. This is probably not the case. Rather being there with the animals is so exciting it always feels like your most incredible viewing. With this herd of elephants this really was our most intimate encounter. A male of about 5 or 6 years was a bit agitated by our approach and the reason we stopped were we did. He mucked around in the bushes just off the side of the road, took care of business (sounded like a waterfall) and kept peeking his head out and flaring his ears. He then seemed to relax a bit and moved onto sniffing, which elephants do by putting their trunk vertically up in the air and in the direction of interest. (We're trying to upload one or two of our videos. Success! Check it out. We just let the camera role instead of taking photos..).
He slowly advanced on the passenger’s side. I asked Don what he thought we should do and we agreed to sit tight. Now he was passing the passenger side window. We were on a road that was a comfortable width for one vehicle and had you needed to pass both cars would have had one wheel off the road in the brush. We had stopped in the middle of the road and the elephant also had all feet on the road meaning he was very, very close. He could have easily have put his trunk in the windows, which were all down. We both sat holding our breath. At the rear of the car we could feel him touching it and rocking it ever so slightly. He casually moved on once he decided the car wasn’t very interesting. Our attention was next turned to a mom, her baby, and two younger elephants, at least one of whom was a male 3 or 4 years old. They opened their ears out wide and followed the same routine as the first male of relaxing slightly and then lifting their trunks to give us a smell. Mom, baby and one of the young elephants made their way past the car just off the road on the driver’s side. The young male, however, was much more curious and came right up to the driver’s side window. My heart rate must have been 200. I instinctively leaned slightly inwards, but this put maybe an extra inch or two of space between him and I. He gently banged on the car door a few times with his trunk, then lifted it to small again, and quickly backed away. His trunk was so close to my face I could see all of the little hairs and water droplets on it. Don likened the situation to a little kid who slowly inches forward to touch something then quickly draws his hand back and backs away. It really was exactly like that. The young elephant went through this routine once more and it again had me holding my breath. I could have reached my hand outside my window, my arm not even close to fully extended, and touched him. Eventually he moved. My heart was still banging around in my chest. Wow. INCREDIBLE!
The next part of this encounter was us getting the chance to watch one of the older elephants, I think a female, shake a tree and strip it of its bark. I thought she was going to knock the entire tree over. After she’d gotten most of the bark off a larger male came over and bullied her out of the way and finished off the tree. At this point all the elephants slowly made their way down the road behind us and into the brush and we continued on to Hilali
The Hilali campsite is adequate but can’t hold a candle to the camp site we had at Onguma. Whereas at Onguma you had good shade, private washrooms and showers and space, at Hilali you had none of these. There were so many campsites it was hard to find yours among the others, and the fact that everyone had the same vehicle and roof top tent made it even trickier. In any case the neat thing about Hilali is the Mirunga watering hole, which is a 2 minute walk from the campsites. We suspect it was artificially filled at some points of the year and so becomes a very dependable source of water and hence popular. The park has set up a viewing area overlooking the watering hole which is equipped with a high fence (that doesn’t obstruct your view because the viewing area is on a raised rock outcrop) and flood lights. We spent some time in the afternoon sitting here in the shade, watching elephant and antelope, and reading our books.
On our evening drive we immediately ran into a pod of cars a few hundred meters outside of the Hilali gates. There was a cheetah resting in the bushes! After waiting for about 30 minutes we saw that she in fact had her offspring with her. I couldn’t say how old but old enough that the mother wasn’t hiding her away and wasn’t insisting that she stay right with her. She was clearly smaller and younger than the mother but not far off from full grown. We watched them eventually cross the road and disappear into the brush on the other side.
The rest of the drive was relatively slow but we did see some baby impala and jackals. We had about 45 minutes of time remaining by the time we finished our circuit and made it back to the gates. We decided to revisit the area where the cheetahs had been, and additionally checked out the abandoned air strip but didn’t see them again.
The watering hole was really exciting. We headed there as soon as we got back to Hilali, which was accidentally about 30 minutes after the gates had closed. I had read the entry and exit times as reversed. Three days ago we both saw our first up close view of a rhino and now were are seeing three at once. I was really feeling lucky and really enjoying myself. The best part about seeing them was seeing their interaction. The second rhino that arrived backed away when the first rhino approached him in what I would call a submissive behaviour. Rhino number two went around to the other side of the water and waded in. Rhino number three, who was a bit smaller than the other two, wanted to stand his ground. Those two got into a rhino disagreement where they bumped the sides of their heads together a lot (no horns involved- those things are so pointy that I guess no one would survive long if they were used over minor dominance disagreements at the watering hole). They also tried to make each other back up to each gain more ground. While this was going on the rhino in the water had taken a seat and was sitting, front row, watching, and flapping his ears occasionally. It was absolutely hilarious seeing him there. If I had to ascribe a personality to him I would choose someone like Goofy from Mickey Mouse. He looked so relaxed, not a care in the world, totally enjoying the rhino action, and just sitting there flapping his big ears. He was facing away from us and so I imagined he was smiling and splashing the water because he liked the way it made waves. Rhino number one won the dominance disagreement and then decided he wanted to sit in the pool where Goofy was sitting. It did look like it might be the deepest spot in the pool and considering how hot it was in the day I’d also want the deepest spot. Goofy didn’t budge and had his time to finish his cool water sitting. When he was good and ready he trundled out and rhino one took his place, but not sitting down, because dominant rhinos stand…! We didn’t have the cameras with us and didn’t want to risk not seeing this show to go back to the car and grab them. We’ll be certain to bring them tomorrow night.