Indian Ocean, Plettenberg Bay & the Crags, South Africa

Today treated us to our first day of overcast skies since commencing our trip. Nevertheless, we again headed east down the coastal highway as I wanted to share the experience of being up close to African elephants with my mother. In past years, I had been to the Knysna Elephant Park but on this occasion I wanted to see what another similar operation had to offer. We drove back towards Tsitsikamma National Park and took the turn off for The Crags, about 10 miles east of Plettenberg Bay.

The Crags boasts a number of interesting spots to visit; all within a few miles of one another. There is a snake sanctuary complete with all the poisonous snakes of Africa. For those already knowledgeable about snakes and with a propensity for discomfort with the idea of snakes, it might be best to not visit this park. I have a genuine interest in all the wildlife that I see in southern Africa but I am reluctant to visit the snake parks out of concern that my imagination will prevent me from sound sleep the subsequent nights following my visit.

Monkeyland is also an option as is the Bird Sanctuary. Both spots offer more intimate views of the wildlife while still yielding the animals a wide berth from visitors if they so choose. Monkeyland is home to hundreds of monkeys indigenous to Africa. Multiple acres of forest are available to these primates with the only fencing being far from the entrance to the park. When you walk into the area, you cannot help but notice how much more satisfied these animals are versus those in the smaller confines of a zoo. Most of the animals were brought in from other parts of Africa after been kept as pets. They are unable to be released into the wild and have found a home in Monkeyland. Much of the same story holds true for the Bird Sanctuary.

We drove to the end of the dirt road and walked into the reception area of The Elephant Sanctuary. Like many wildlife businesses in South Africa, the décor has a genuine bush feel with plaster walls, concrete floors and thatched roofing. We were instructed that there was tour leaving shortly so we waited for the remainder of the group while taking in a cup of tea provided to all the guests. Outside, the weather looked a little damp but we took it all in stride considering this was what is called a South African winter day. Not too bad if this was a bad day.

Our guide, Marcus, was a young man of only 21 years of age who had recently graduated from the game ranger school conducted on the premises of CC Africa’s Phinda Lodge on the east coast of South Africa north of Durban. CC Africa trains all of its rangers through its Phinda location and produces some of the better guides in the country. Marcus graduated but elected to join the owner of the Elephant Sanctuary, Chris ????, instead.

Chris started with one Elephant Sanctuary location a few years ago located outside of Johannesburg and its early success enabled him to open this second location, followed by a third near Kruger Park. Chris is a personal friend of Yvonne and Paul Jansen whom we will stay with in Hermanus in a few days time. Paul told me that Chris was married to the former Miss South Africa. They took a trip down the Okavango Delta in Botswana a few years ago. They elected to paddle their canoes to take in the new explosion of wildlife presented after the annual floods. As they were paddling, unbeknownst to them, they crossed over the path of a hippo submerged under the water and hidden by the thick reeds. Without warning, the hippo came up out of the deep and snapped the canoe in half. Their jaws are powerful enough to allow it to share the same water as 20 foot crocodiles so taking a small canoe is but a simple task for such an animal. Both Chris and his wife made it to shore but not before the hippo inflicted a terrible wound to his wife’s leg. Her leg was able to be saved but not without the loss of a great deal of flesh.

Our guide, Marcus, took our group towards a placard and gave us a brief description of the African elephant and the overview of the ones housed at The Elephant Sanctuary. These 6 elephants (5 females and 1 male) were saved from a culling (killing an entire herd) operation when they were but babies. South Africa has not had to cull elephants for about 20 years but due to the human population growth, culling is being discussed again in South Africa. South Africa is home to about 25,000 elephants but has the space for only about 20,000 so decisions will have to be made. It is a sad state of affairs to consider the planned elimination of such beautiful animals. It is known that these creatures migrated from the north of the continent of Africa all the way to the south hundreds of years ago. Such a trek is hard to consider a reality but when you are on safari and see the distance these animals can cover overnight to reach better feeding grounds, the disbelief becomes easy to swallow.

Elephants live to be about 60 years old and will have 6 sets of teeth in their lifetime. Elephants that do not succumb to disease or a rare predator attack will eventually pass away after they loose their last set of teeth and cannot feed any longer. This sounds like a harsh way to go but doctors claim that a lack of food for these animals. As well as humans, is not a painful death.

Elephants are extremely intelligent and live in close knit family groups. The mothers, all females and the immature males (up to age 13 or 14) will stay together in a matriarch herd. When the bulls reach sexual maturity, they will be pushed out of the herd to join older males where their education will continue. Males interact with the matriarch herd to reproduce but also to occasionally stop by and pay their mothers, sisters and cousins a visit.

Watching a herd of elephants in the wild shows to you their family instincts. Babies are closely monitored not just by the mother but by the entire matriarch herd. The babies seldom wander a few feet from their mothers and will suckle milk for 2 and ½ years after birth. Our ranger at Exeter Leadwood told us of an albino elephant born to a herd in Kruger Park. The rest of the herd instinctively knew that this baby was in need of shade from the sun. They took turns surrounding the baby so that the sun did not reach its sensitive skin. Sadly, the baby eventually succumbed but the herd worked its best towards saving the little newborn.

Marcus walked us out to the field where the elephants were. They spend their time in a 25 hectare area (about 65 acres) and are fed hay, fruits, vegetables and tree limbs from the local wattle tree. The wattle tree was imported into South Africa when shipbuilding was at its prime as the wattle is a fast growing, straight tree. However, it soaks up too much water from a climate like South African which is short of rainfall. So, taking the wattle trees is both good for the elephant and good for the environment as the trees are replaced with indigenous hardwoods or fir trees.

Once the elephants saw us coming, they almost came to us in a full run—that sight was a bit intimidating. To see these massive creatures while not in the comfort and security of a vehicle yields a vulnerable feeling that comes short of description. One would think that viewing these elephants from a vehicle would not offer such a feeling of more security, but it does. I like the idea of encountering these feelings with wild animals as long as the risk is negligible as taking hold of these thoughts is what can better link us to a relationship of one on one versus the relationship as changed through the comforts of man made protection (i.e., guns, automobiles, etc.). Taking this ground perspective also adds to the enormity of the animals and the fears that the original Dutch settlers must have had when encountering such an animal.

Marcus let us walk with the elephants, one by one, holding their trunks into the woods. How a 6 ton animal can walk softly enough to be virtually unheard is hard to believe unless you walk with them side by side. The people in the group made far more noise with their feet than did the elephants. Once in the woods, we were given a chance to feel their skin (sparsely populated with stiff black hairs) which felt a little like patting a mud pie as a child in a water filled sand box or making a sandcastle at the beach. There was real substance behind my push as I knew the animal would hardly feel it. We were able to feel the sole of the foot of the elephant. It, too, felt more soft to the touch than I would have thought. We finally were able to look into the mouth of the elephant and we were both surprised to see that the moth was much smaller than we would have thought or such a large mammal. The sets of teeth sat on either side of the mouth but only about 12 inches apart from one another. The tongue was flexible but rough. It has to be that rough to take the spikes, some of them 3-4 inches long and hard enough to puncture a tire, from the acacia tree, chew them, digest them and not have them stick into the tongue or the intestine.

We finished the adventure with a walk back to the reception lodge where we got back in the car and drove a mile down the road to The Mohair Mill Shop. As the name describes, all things made from mohair can be found here. Sweaters, blankets, mittens, scarves and socks abounded. This soft wool is provided by Angora goats found in the dry, Karoo region of South Africa, only about an hour’s drive north of where we were today. On site, were a few of the goats. Their wool hung like thick tentacles from their skin, almost touching the ground. Hair hung low in their faces, covering much of their eyesight. Viewing the goats was culminated by turning our attention towards a little Afrikaans girl who was so excited to see the animals she walked right through a rain puddle that came up to her shins. She laughed at her own joy at splashing in the dirty water and Mama got a good laugh from it, as well.

We found the pricing for the wool to be attractive and the products and staff were equally as inviting. We bought throws for the sofa, 2 scarves and some socks for Daddy—all making Mama happy to have completed her Christmas shopping by mid August!

We drove back to An Ocean Watch Guest House, changed and ate another excellent meal at La Cucina in front of a nice fire.