You are stuck inside the confines of a vehicle for most safari experiences, jostling for space with other tourists and using what wiggle room you have to get the best angle for your photography. That’s the norm. But there are some places where wildlife comes to you, and the barriers separating you are non-existent. Elephant Sands in Botswana is one of those wild places — a bush camp built around a watering hole that’s a favorite for the local herd.
During a stay at Elephant Sands, you’ll most likely see elephants walking through camp, trudging towards the monitored water supply which ensures their survival in the dusty plains of the Kalahari.
From the vantage of the bar and pool seating, it’s possible to sit and watch the elephants as they have a drink and play in the water before moving to the dirt for a good old-fashioned dust bath. Nothing but a token concrete barrier separates you from them — there is no fence or ditch to prevent them from coming around and bopping you on the head or shaking you like a maraca.
We arrived at Elephant Sands after our time in Chobe National Park and were immediately greeted by several elephants clustered around the pool. It was hard to focus on setting up camp as elephants plodded past just on the other side of the restrooms. We managed nonetheless, and five of us made our way to the desk to register for a game drive departing later that day.
It was to be a more intimate affair than the previous evening’s drive with our entire group. Our vehicle was smaller, and our guide assumed a more active role, telling us about the area and the animals we encountered along the way. We hadn’t even arrived at the protected area before our first sighting in the form of several kudus loitering in the bushes by the side of the highway.
Further on, our guide hit the brakes, bringing the truck to a quick stop. The cause was immediately apparent — a huge elephant lumbered across the road, barely glancing at us as it did so. Back home we worry about hitting deer, which are fond of leaping in front of any pair of lights coming past. Those can mess up a car pretty well; I shudder to think what hitting an elephant would do to a vehicle!
We accessed the protected area via a turnoff from the main highway and promptly noticed a difference when compared to the previous day’s game drive — there were no other vehicles. We bumped and jostled our way to a series of water holes, each surrounded by and filled with elephants slaking their thirst and escaping the desert heat. We’d been excited to see the small herd crossing the road the day before. On this drive, we almost got bored of seeing the majestic beasts.
There were other animals in and around the watering holes as well, in the form of Cape Buffalo, bustards, guinea fowl, and even another black-backed jackal, this one at much closer proximity.
A special treat came in the form of a tiny antelope bounding across the road in front of us and pausing as we rolled to a stop. It was a steenbok. The size of a smallish dog and almost always solitary, steenboks are fascinating animals — able to subsist without drinking water, getting it instead from the plants and tubers they eat. Steenboks will even eat meat if food proves hard to find, scavenging from carcasses and killing young birds for consumption.
Dusk came all too quickly, and we made our way back along the way we’d come, seeing more elephants and even a small herd of zebras as we drove. One elephant took exception to our presence and fanned its ears in our direction before issuing a bugling call to warn us off.
We kept moving.
When we arrived back at camp, dinner preparations were in full swing, while other members of our group were clustered around the watering hole. We joined them, still feeling a rush from the afternoon’s adventure.
Next up was the Okavango Delta, a several-hour drive to the southwest. It would be a change from the desert environments we’d experienced so far — a lush terrain given life by the emptying of the Okavango into the thirsty sand of the Kalahari.