If you have never seen an African Elephant at close quarters it is described in my mammal guide book as, ‘Loxodonta africana’, a huge, heavily built animal with long stout legs, large feet, large flat ears, a trunk and tusks’. Very accurate, possibly stating the obvious, but on actually seeing one in the wild ‘huge’ is the dominant word that first comes to mind. A bull Elephant can stand at twelve feet and weigh in at nearly six tonnes.
So what if you saw an African Elephant in it’s natural bush home and then the very next day saw another mammal at close quarters six times as big! Impossible, you might think to yourself? No. In fact it is a probability. Then what and where?
The answer to what is ‘Megaptera novaengliae’, Humpback Whale, and where? Only an hours drive from the bush to the beach followed by a boat trip out of St Lucia on the KwaZulu-Natal coast.
Nothing in Africa is a certainty, least of all on a game-viewing trip or safari, however I planned a long weekend excursion to try and view these two giants on land and at sea. Our first destination was iMfolozi / Hluhluwe game reserve in the heart of Zululand where we hoped to see Elephants. This proved to be difficult and on arriving mid Saturday morning and driving the reserve’s roads it was not until mid Sunday afternoon, and less than an hour from the gate, that we saw our first Elephant. A massive lone bull standing just off the road browsing not at all bothered by our presence. After fifteen minutes of us watching him, and he occasionally glancing at us, he wandered off into the bush.
Our next stop, and bed for the night, was the coastal reserve of Cape Vidal. A stunning location with log cabins just off the beach set amidst forest and dunes. Driving into the reserve, White Rhino, Duiker and Bushbuck grazed on the verges and Vervet Monkeys swung from branches overhanging the road. The next morning and early departure time gave us a very special siting to kick start the day. A Leopard either looking for breakfast or returning from a night’s hunting appeared in front of the car and disappeared as quickly into the undergrowth. It is a both a rarity and privilege to see one of these magnificent big cats anywhere in South Africa. Leopards are generally nocturnal and solitary animals and only found in any numbers in protected reserves.
The ‘ocean safari’ was next with our pre-booked trip with Advantage Tours and Charters out of St Lucia. They are the only licensed boat operators for whale watching in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Between July and November Humpback Whales migrate up the coast to breed in the warm waters off Mozambique, then return south to their feeding grounds around Antarctica.
When booking the trip I was told, “that if you do not see any whales your money will be refunded”. Surly nothing is a certainty? On previous boat trips my only certainty seemed to be seasickness, and this was my main worry. The large ocean surf and ‘small’ boat did nothing to ease my worries.
We waded out into the sea and climbed on board. Waterproofs and life jackets were handed out and Danie the captain greeted us and ran through the plan for the mornings ‘adventure’. Seasickness was now furthest from my mind as I hung on to the rails as we crashed out into and through the surf. Once beyond the breaking waves dolphins appeared and took it in turns to ride our bow wave at the front of the boat. Then flying fish leapt from the sea, flew, and dropped back in. As we waited in the swell Danie spotted whales and immediately took us in their direction. Our first close encounter was with two young humpback whales that surfaced within metres of the boat. After that it was three more escorting a ‘small’ calf, as big as the boat. Just to break the whale watching up a marlin cruised along side us and within minutes a Hammerhead shark was spotted on the opposite side of the boat. More whales were seen on the way back into shore. In the distance we caught site of a whale breaching, leaping clear of the water.
This was truly an unforgettable adventure and the perfect end to our long weekend of elephant and whales.