My first encounter with an elephant was not actually with the elephant but with the exceedingly large pile of dung it had left outside my tent. I’d slept soundly throughout the night, completely unaware that just the other side of the canvas walls an elephant was also dozing. I’d woken up in the morning and performed my ablutions in the en suite; he (or she) had taken a giant crap on the path and then wandered off in search of breakfast.
As with the hippos, you don’t want to get too close to an elephant when you’re on foot. The noise of an engine can spook them, too, so guides and rangers tend to keep their distance even when they are in a 4×4. The safest way to get an intimate encounter is by boat when the elephant come down to the water’s edge to drink from the river.
With wildlife guide Angel at the helm, we motored out from the little wooden pier at Mvuu and headed south. We zigzagged back and forth across the breadth of the Shire, avoiding the pods of hippos but also checking out the banks for sightings of crocodiles and birds. It was then that we came across our bloated crocodile corpse and the hungry hippo. It was fascinating to watch, but too gruesome to linger long.
The Shire is wide and deep in Liwonde; not too much further on, it flows into the mighty Zambezi. Meanders and occasional sandbanks break up the expanse of water, and it was on one sandy and grassy spear jutting out into the river that I saw the silhouette of my first elephant. In fact, there were two, a mother and her tiny calf just standing and looking out. They looked majestic, and I’m not being overly dramatic if I say that I wanted to cry.
But the best was yet to come. Angel’s eyes were sharper than mine and more accustomed to spotting telltale signs in the bushes. He manoeuvred the boat from its course in the centre of the river towards the bank, and as we draw closer I realised why. The mother and calf we’d sighted on the headland were just the advance party; dozens of other elephants from their herd were coming out of the trees to drink.