There are few things more imposing than coming face to face with an elephant bull in the wilds of Africa. But when that bull is the elephant known as the Landlord of Marakele, you had better be on your best behaviour.
The Landlord generally ignores pesky humans in their tin can cars intent on exploring his beautiful Waterberg domain, the Marakele National Park. Unconcerned, he goes about his daily elephant business pruning a branch here, pushing over a tree there and expanding his favourite mud wallow.
But sometimes, the Landlord wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, or in his case, the leadwood tree. Ill-tempered, he roams his estate, easily annoyed by the intrusive tin cans. They are noisy, sometimes smelly and obstruct his route.
And today is a grumpy elephant landlord day, and he denies us access to my favourite area of Marakele.
My Favourite Late Afternoon Spot in Marakele National Park.
We head out for a short there and back self-drive to an intersection on the plains beneath the Lenong Mountains. For me, late afternoon is the best time to enjoy the grandeur of the predominantly west-facing Waterberg landscape.
The mountains are adorned with crowns of sandstone cliffs that glow red and orange, tinged with hints of yellow in the afternoon sunlight. And on their flanks, splendid robes of African bush greens, yellows and browns flow down onto the plains below.
Aside from the spectacular beauty of this landscape, plenty of water flows across the plain, almost guaranteeing us good game viewing too.
And during the rainy season, not far from my intersection, there is a bushveld mud spa with a handy rubbing post nearby. We’ve often seen warthog, buffalo and elephants indulging in a refreshing mud wallow followed by a good hard-to-reach itchy spot scratch against the post.
We Meet the Elephant Landlord of Marakele.
Before you reach the mud wallow, the narrow road twists and turns up the shoulder of a hill. We enter the first bend, and I think I’ve spotted an elephant at the top of the next curve. The thick vegetation lining the road makes it hard to be certain.
My husband cautiously eases the car around the next bend, and there he is, a magnificent bull elephant standing on the side of the road, and he is watching us. We will later find out this is the elephant known as the Landlord of Marakele.
Behind him, a beautiful sunlit mountain with its sandstone crown soars into an azure blue sky dotted with puffy cotton wool clouds. It’s a perfect elephant in the Waterberg landscape photo opportunity.
Do You Want to Make a Six-Ton Elephant Nervous?
We stop a respectful 100 meters or so away from him. According to the experts, this should be a comfortable distance for the elephants. With sufficient space between us, he is unlikely to feel threatened by our presence, and we certainly don’t want to make a four to six-ton elephant nervous.
My husband checks our surroundings in case more elephants hide in the bushes. Satisfied that we’re alone with the Landlord, he switches the car off.
The Landlord watches us for a while before deciding that we are not worthy of his attention.
Instead, like a discerning diner at a buffet table, he focuses on the delicious elephant snacks lining the roadside. He carefully selects only the tastiest leaves, yanks them off the shrubs, and before he pops them into his mouth, he gives them a light shake to dust them off.
Meanwhile, I am in a photographer’s heaven, clicking away.
I notice his body is damp and wonder if he’s just been for a lovely mud bath at the bushveld spa. The wrinkly folds running down his cheeks are wet, and flecks of mud are still drying on his face and ears.
Hang on a second, are those damp patches water? Or is he in musth?
So, Why is Musth a Cause for Concern?
Musth occurs periodically in healthy adult elephant bulls. During this time, they experience an extraordinary hormonal surge marked by a significant increase in aggressive and hostile behaviour.
They are grumpy and easily irritated by the slightest sound or movement, which makes them unpredictable and dangerous to other animals and us humans in our tin cans.
Usually, you can spot an elephant bull in musth by the oily fluid oozing from his temporal glands and streaming down his cheeks. He may also dribble urine or have wet hind legs. You might also notice an unpleasantly strong musky odour.
But it’s hard to tell if the Landlord is in musth. He’s still damp from his bushveld spa treatment, and we’re too far away to smell anything.
Elephants Always Have the Right of Way.
Confident that I have captured this beautiful elephant in his magnificent home, we sit quietly, waiting for him to move off into the bush.
But now, he’s found the dessert shrub trolley on the elephant buffet and stays where he is, happily munching away.
For a brief yet supremely idiotic moment, we debate if we should drive past him. But that’s an irresponsible and dangerous idea. A startled or grumpy elephant can overturn our small tin can of a car in a heartbeat.
And we know that we should never crowd an elephant, always respect their space. Instead, we’ll give my favourite spot a miss today. We’ll quietly reverse away until we can find a safe place to turn around.
My husband starts the car, and that slight noise is all it takes for the elephant Landlord of Marakele to charge us.
Are You Going to Argue with the Landlord of Marakele?
My heart feels as if it is about to explode. I am transfixed. All I can do is stare helplessly at this enormous elephant loping toward us.
Undaunted by this behemoth speeding towards us, my husband shoves the car into reverse, and we hurtle backwards down the narrow winding road.
I’m not sure what terrifies me more, the elephant, or the steep drop-off on one side into the valley below, or the winding road?
After a short distance, the Landlord stops to snack on a tasty roadside shrub. I’m guessing it’s something like an energy snack for elephants.
Re-energised, he chases us again. And this time, before terror overwhelms me, I manage to take a single in-focus photograph.
And then, he stops for another energising snack.
Meanwhile, we, or rather my intrepid husband, spots a tiny sliver of dirt on the shoulder of the road where he can turn the car around.
It’s tight, at least a five-point turn, with us both glancing nervously at the Landlord, hoping and praying that he wouldn’t choose this moment to chase us again.
But this time, he doesn’t chase us. Instead, he saunters nonchalantly down the middle of the road, apparently satisfied that he has made his point – we shall not pass today!
And we obey, leaving him to his elephant landlord business.
Oh, That’s the Landlord of Marakele.
Safely, back at Bontle Camp, we recount our adventure to the camp groundskeeper, who smiles broadly and says,
‘Oh yes, I know him. That’s the Landlord of Marakele. He does that!’
With a calming sundowner glass of wine in hand, we realise the Landlord probably woke up on the wrong side of his leadwood tree, and our little tin can wasn’t to his liking.
And maybe we needed a not-so-gentle reminder that we are guests in his spectacular sanctuary. As guests, we should always behave with great respect when we encounter him, his family and all the beautiful creatures in his domain.
But don’t let our face-to-face encounter with the Landlord put you off visiting Marakele National Park. We are frequent visitors here, and aside from today’s terrifying moments, our encounters with the elephants here have always been privileged moments of wonder and peace.
Why not click this link to read more about our other experiences in Marakele National Park – a Place of Sanctuary?
And If you want to know more about warning signs and how to behave around elephants, read these essential tips for safe elephant viewing.
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