Of all the wild animals you might see on safari, few are more majestic and extraordinary than the elephant. These gentle giants of the savannah and the world’s largest mammal are distinct from their Asian cousins (being larger and seldom domesticated) and your chances of seeing them on an African safari are excellent.
Interacting with these incredible creatures is particularly memorable since they display a level of intelligence and emotional development (they are known to show human emotions such as grief and compassion) unseen in most other wild animals. They roam in herds and may live for more than 70 years. Female elephants lead social lives, living in tight family units, whilst the males prefer a bachelor lifestyle living alone or with a few other males. The male’s tusks are particularly impressive and grow about 7 inches per year. Since the ban on ivory trading, the decline in numbers has been arrested somewhat, and roughly half a million elephants are believed to roam freely in African game parks.
Particularly delightful are the elephant calves, rolling around in the dust or squealing with excitement come bath time at the local watering hole. The elephant’s enormous ears act as giant cooling fans while the trunk is a versatile appendix that is both sensitive and powerful; useful for feeding, water splashing and even as a snorkel!
So, where’s the best place to see them? Here are our five top places to interact with these magnificent creatures:
1. Botswana’s Okavango Delta
With its sizeable elephant population and excellent record of conservation, Botswana’s Okavango Delta is a firm favourite when it comes to safari destinations due to its pristine ecosystem which is home to a wide variety of animal and bird species. One of the best ways in the delta to see elephants up close is from a traditional dugout canoe called a ‘mokoro’.
We recommend staying at Abu Camp which is the only camp in Botswana that offers guests elephant-back safaris. Here you are invited to become part of a herd of resident elephants and in the company of skilled elephant handlers you can walk with, ride, touch and feed these gentle giants and learn more about their lives. The camp has been going for over 20 years and is the original elephant safari experience. Set amongst lush grassy plains and riverine forests, Abu Camp is well appointed and private with a distinctive touch of elegance. For the ultimate African elephant experience why not stay in the Star Bed – a luxury unit elevated high above the ground perfectly situated to overlook the elephant boma!
2. South Africa’s Kruger National Park
This world-renowned park is South Africa’s premier game viewing destination with a terrific concentration of wildlife and game. Elephants are almost always spotted here along with the rest of The Big Five, and the Kruger National Park boasts some lovely luxurious and top-rated lodges and camps. If your safari includes a visit to other parts of South Africa this is an ideal choice for all-round satisfaction.
We suggest staying at Camp Jabulani which is the only camp in the Kruger region to offer elephant-back safaris. They have a program of rescued elephants, and guests can interact with the resident herd or see wild herds on game drives. This five star exclusive safari camp is also popular for weddings. Imagine arriving at the alter accompanied by an elephant!
Combining a trip to the magnificent Victoria Falls with an elephant safari must surely rank as the ultimate African experience! This greatest of waterfalls should be on everyone’s bucket list and elephants roam freely in parks adjacent to the mighty Zambezi river, so you are assured of seeing them. The Falls are well served by towns on both the Zambian and Zimbabwean side and you can do an elephant-back safari on either side. Known as the adventure capital of Africa there are a myriad of fun activities (some wild, others tame) to choose from.
We love the Thorntree River Lodge for its incredible location right next to the Zambezi River and a mere 15 minutes away from Livingstone and the plunging waters of the legendary Vic Falls. Known as the home of the elephants, it has a resident family of ellies that can often be seen walking freely through the grounds when they are not out on safari. And chances are that you’ll hear them moving about and munching on leaves from your bed at night!
This is probably the most scenic stretch of coast in all of Africa. A lofty claim you might say, but considering the long stretches of pearly white sandy beaches and large indigenous forests of the Tsitsikamma, along with the picturesque town of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, this part of the continent is hard to beat. Within easy reach is the Knysna Elephant Park, a legacy of the great herds of forest elephants that once roamed the Garden Route, now confined to this sanctuary set up especially for rescued and orphaned elephants. Here you have the unique opportunity to get close to these domesticated giants by touching and feeding them, and you can even arrange to ride them through the indigenous fynbos landscape of the Outeniqua mountain range.
We suggest staying at Kanonkop Guesthouse which is a well placed boutique hotel situated above Knysna with expansive views over the town and its lagoon. Make the most of this pretty town which serves as an excellent base for exploring the various picturesque coastal landscapes of this area.
5. South Africa’s Eastern Cape
Beyond the Garden Route, is the Eastern Cape, best known as the birth and burial place of South Africa’s beloved Nelson Mandela. It’s rich in tribal and colonial history, with quaint university towns like Grahamstown. You’re also within reach of a number of malaria-free private game reserves where you are sure to see elephants. The most well-known of these is the Addo Elephant National Park which provides a safe-haven for African elephants (it has the densest population of elephants worldwide) and boasts all of The Big Five.
We recommend staying at Gorah Elephant Camp which is situated in a private concession of the park, enjoying the wide open spaces of Africa with elephants wandering into the grounds in full view of the main homestead. This tented camp takes you back to a bygone era of safari travel and overlooks a watering hole where elephants regularly come to drink. The vast number of elephants seen here is truly astounding, but unlike the previous places mentioned in our blog, guests are not allowed to touch the animals.
Whether you choose to visit the Okavango Delta or one of our recommendations in Southern Africa, the gentleness, grace and intelligence of these magnificent creatures is an extraordinary privilege to behold. Interacting with them in the wild is one of those rare African experiences that will stay with you for a long time.