Restraint. ‘The action of keeping someone or something under control’ . That is the matriarch elephant’s role at this time of year when conditions are dry and harsh and the temperature is being dialed up daily. It is a year of drought, and if ever the role of leadership is to be tested, it is at this time. The well-being of the whole herd depends on each decision she makes. Food sources are being depleted, distances are increasing and water points become oases in this desert forest.

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Shades of grey (many more than 50!) glimmer and blur in the heat haze between golden grasses. Seemingly tired, heavy footsteps silently plod, throwing up puffs of dry sand. Needles of white ivory contrast against the greys that are formed by different ages, heights and shadows as they huddle and group together, each determined step driven by their need for water. With matriarchal permission, the exuberant and thirsty young break into a trunks-and-tails-waving-run, which is more like a tumble to the water’s edge, and as they do, their restraint flies off their backs carried away by the wind that whistles around the golden grassland.

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Another herd is hidden in the teak fringe to the right of where we have parked our vehicle at the waterhole called ‘Airstrip Two’ – a very dramatic landscape for photography. The herd on the fringe appears to be in no rush; mouthful-by-mouthful they keep their cover, but edge closer to side stage. Behind us another herd makes its way from the south-east along the meandering grassy vein between the banks of teak.

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In apparent silence (beyond the limit of our ears and auditory range), the first herd members slowly soak away their thirst, lolling in the water, dampening and darkening their grey mantles. Hesitantly, and with more displays of restraint, our second herd purposefully and carefully wends its way to the water. Now appearing larger in the lens, they still have a long way to go. Meanwhile, the first-group’s trunks intertwine, sucking the water from the life-giving spout, while others in the herd peacefully drink from the water’s edge. Elephants always prefer the sweet taste of the fresh water and there is a hierarchical order of who gets access when and for how long within each herd. Without being privy to their auditory interactions, we try to interpret their actions as the first group peels off from the water and heads a little distance away to cover their wet coats with talcum-like calcrete dust. My feeling was ‘they are not done yet, they are still thirsty’.

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Twenty minutes later, our friends from behind have covered the kilometer distance and are now at the water’s edge. They gingerly approach, as if stepping into a crowded pub, looking around, not sure who will be there. They seem to display less restraint and more euphoria than our weary first lot. I watch with great interest as these joyful and carefree occupants of the waterhole cannot help but soak in the moment and their sheer bliss and joy draws the first herd back towards the water. I notice that the first herd still appears so restrained they appear to find it incredible that drinking and bathing can be so much fun. I see that some of the joyful young ellies beckon their shy counterparts hanging on the fringe to ‘come into the water, jump in, it’s great’ as they show off with huge ellie-belly flops and massive splashes from thrashing trunks. You know that person who doesn’t really want to do the crazy dance, or ride the roller coaster, or sing the karaoke – that’s what our first team of elephants is like. With long teeth they join the rowdy crowd and desperately try and achieve the same blissful feeling, letting their hair down slightly, but not entirely. And finally, almost everyone is in the pool, restraint melts away and grey turns to glistening black.

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Interested in witnessing elephants at the waterhole firsthand? Reach out to our team and let them help you plan an unforgettable African safari!

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Written by Marian Myers and photographed by Mike Myers