|"Nature's great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing."|
I'm sitting on the back deck of my casita at Kapama Karula, looking down at the Klaserie River. This is the second of three lodges and private game reserves that I will visit on my safari. I arrived two days ago via a 15-minute bush plane flight from my last lodge.
There are mischievous, black-faced vervet monkeys in the tree at the end of the deck, watching my every move. I have dealt with their kind before--they're hoping for an opportunity to sweep down and run off with my cellphone.
There's a huge lizard moving along the bank on this side of the river and a solitary bull elephant grazing in the meadow on the other side. He wraps his trunk around a section of tall grass, tears it from the ground and shakes out the dirt before putting it in his mouth.
Kapama Karula is the finest of four luxury lodges sharing the enormous Kapama Private Game Reserve, just outside Kruger National Park. The lodge offers 12 lavishly decorated suites surrounded by trees and scattered across the property, ranging in size from 1,000 to 1,829 square feet.
Each suite features floor-to-ceiling windows, a private swimming pool on an elevated back deck, indoor and outdoor showers, bath, fireplace and every modern convenience.
There's a beautiful, new spa with infinity pool and a well-equipped fitness center. A spacious bar and lounge overlook the river. A library and a shop filled with local crafts and souvenirs round out the amenities. Guests do not lack for anything.
Gourmet fish, poultry and game dishes are served in the open-air dining room and in the boma, a traditional, outdoor enclosure for dining. The food here is truly extraordinary.
The grounds of the lodge are bordered by the river on one side and a mile-long fence on the other. With predators locked out, guests can walk unescorted to and from their suites, passing monkeys, mongooses and the most relaxed impalas within a hundred miles.
Game drive highlights have included close encounters with rhinos, a lion and a leopard. Rhinos are under tremendous pressure from poachers, who kill them for their horns, which can bring up to six figures on the black market. Misinformed end users in China and Vietnam believe ground rhino horn cures everything from cancer to hangovers. Middle Eastern buyers carve horns into cups and dagger handles.
On several occasions, our open-air Land Rover was surrounded by herds of African elephants, the largest land animals on Earth. Elephants can grow up to 13 feet tall and weigh up to 26,000 pounds. They look down on our vehicle and are not the slightest bit concerned by our presence.
Elephants are born blind, weighing 200 pounds or more, and calves can stand almost immediately. We saw a newborn elephant learning how to walk, staggering forward, backward and sideways as it was gently guided by the trunks of its mother and other adults.
Once they can see and walk, calves are as playful as puppies and are curious when they see a vehicle. They'll walk straight toward our Land Rover with ears flapping and trunk raised as if to trumpet until an adult nudges them in a new direction.
Elephants rarely stop moving and they don't look for trails, they MAKE them as they munch their way straight through the thickest part of the bush. Uprooted and trampled bushes, limbs stripped of bark and leaves, and the sound of trees cracking and falling are sure signs that elephants are close by.
A single elephant consumes up to 300 pounds of vegetation every day, and it takes up to 20 hours of eating to do it.
Elephants are intelligent and peaceful by nature. Despite their unmatched size and strength, they do not bother other animals, except in self-defense. They protect their young and each other. They adopt the calves of adults that die or are killed by poachers or other animals.
Elephants are said by some to have human emotions, to cry and feel loss and mourn their dead. They may return for years to stand by the bones of a fallen family member.
One herd was documented pushing and pulling the carcass of the family matriarch for a week after she died, as if to say, "Get up!"
Elephant families are led by the oldest female. When males in the herd near sexual maturity, they leave or are driven out of the family and will spend the rest of their lives alone or in loose association with other bulls.
The old fellow across the river may be past his days of mating. He's too massive for lions to bother and he should be safe from ivory poachers on this private game reserve. He could live to be 70 before he grinds down the last of his six sets of teeth and starves to death.
That would be a long and lucky life in the bush; a noble life.