Silhouette of an elephant in the sunset

Spending the night with an elephant...

Seeing wildlife up close is something almost everyone headed for Africa is hoping to experience. But how close is enough when dealing with a fully grown bull elephant? A good sighting from 20 metres away, perfect for a nice picture? A bit closer yet, so you can make out the detail on the tough but beautiful skin? What about sitting up in bed and seeing the giant silhouette of an elephant through the flimsy wall of your hut – too close?

Volunteer Charlie Wheeler thinks that is just about perfect

My recent trip to Tuli, Botswana, was for six weeks, from January to March 2012, and it really was a trip of a lifetime for my girlfriend and me, which we will never forget.

It took a long time coming, but after a year of saving half of our wages each week and doing lots and lots of fundraising, including sponsored walks, a bingo night, quizzes, drive sales, car boots and having a stall in the town, our trip to Africa was upon us.

The trip to Africa was a 12-hour flight from London to Johannesburg, where we met Martin, who is extremely helpful and puts your mind at ease as soon as you say hello. Once we had met our driver, it was a further 8-hour car drive to the Botswana border.

The first person we met in Botswana was Stuart, the project leader and expert tracker. He is the most inspirational person you will meet and has the best personality – we felt at home almost immediately, which was very important and helpful.

Having travelled there in the winter, it was Africa’s wet/rainy season, so our drive from the border to the camp was a bit hair-raising, sliding all over the place on the wet, muddy roads.

The camp where we stayed in Tuli Wilderness was in the African bush. It had three huts for sleeping and a large Lapa, which accommodated a kitchen, gas-powered fridge, freezer, and table and chairs for research and eating. Our guides and helpers stay just on the perimeters of the camp.

The camp was unique! Having no fences around made it much more exciting, as you could expect occasional visits from elephants, lions and even leopards while lying in bed. On one particular night, we were all in our huts and heard some very loud rustling from outside. It was a bull elephant about 20 feet from our house. The light from the moon meant that you could see his silhouette through the hut wall; you could hear his footsteps and hear him breathing and eating. Whilst stunned to silence and trying to take in what was happening, everything suddenly fell silent. Then the snoring started, along with other sounds it produced – the big bull elephant had fallen asleep right next to us! It was fantastic knowing we would spend the night with an elephant. In the morning, we went outside, and you could see the exact spot where he had spent the night.

Another huge highlight for us whilst at Tuli was the lions. Duma and Mutla were two brothers. We were always on the lookout for them but didn’t manage to see them until about a week into our trip. But this wait made it even more impressive when we first saw them. Having no fences in Tuli, it was never sure when or how often you would see the lions, elephants or other individuals as natural migration and movement would occur. This highlight, though, was about the female lions. One was believed to have recently had cubs, but no one had ever seen them. After a couple of weeks, we saw some lion tracks one day, accompanied by three sets of tiny cub-sized tracks. We knew they were in the area. The next day, we went for a drive and found a zebra carcass, and in the bushes, a few feet behind it, was Sebatana, the mother, another female, and three very inquisitive cubs. We were the first to see these cubs, which was truly special and memorable.

We will remember many highlights from our trip forever, and it is tough to talk about just a couple. Learning to track and ID animals and birds, spot and ID tracks, faeces, plants, and trees was thrilling and extremely rewarding.

Being passionate about birds and photography, one last highlight was when I was on the tracker seat at the front of the Land Rover, with my camera poised. We were driving quite slowly and spotted a Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill perching on a tree with something in its bill. As we slowed, I picked up my camera and snapped away whilst this hornbill threw up and tucked into a vast locust. It was not very impressive to everyone else in the truck, but I loved it! A few more bird highlights were seeing three Martial eagles, a nesting pair of Verreux’s eagles, the Secretary bird and the humble Barn swallow flocks, which had flown from my doorstep back home.

I would recommend Tuli to anyone who loves nature, being outdoors, wants to help in conservation and quite simply intends to de-stress from their everyday life and go to a place like no other in the world.

Charlie Wheeler