The Elephants of Nxai Pans


It was late October, and I was on the home straight after 5 months travelling overland across Africa.


Earlier in the morning, I’d been watching a mother Cheetah and her two sub-adult cubs. At first they were relaxed: playing, chirping at one another, stretching their elastic bodies in the sun. In a heartbeat the male cub was up and sprinting across in front of me, disappearing into a nearby thorn thicket with mum and sister close behind. Barely 10 seconds later I heard a single pig-like grunt of a springbok, and I knew they’d converted a seemingly foodless day into another day’s survival.


It was an out-of-body like experience to see the event unfold so quickly, then lose sight of it, only to witness it by sound rather than sight… all within 70 metres of my vehicle. It was definitely one of the most bizarrely rewarding nature moments I’ve experienced.


Leaving the cubs to devour what they could as fast as they could, while mum stood sentry over them (they dragged their kill from the thicket into the open), I headed to the only waterhole in Nxai Pans National Park to see who or what was about.


As I slowed down on arrival, to the top left-hand side of my vision a blur of grey caught my eye, and was suddenly filled by a Cape-turtle dove plummeting down towards my car – knocked from the sky by a hungry Southern Pale-chanting Goshawk. The place was alive with chaos… Plummeting doves, jackals patrolling the water’s edge and goshawks canvassing the sky… nothing was safe!


Grateful for my arrival, the turtle-dove hit the ground hard, scrambling for my car’s underside as I pulled to a skidding stop. Dust clouded the air around me. I couldn’t see the dove anymore, though through the dust I watched the goshawk dive-bombing all around me, trying to flush his defenceless prey from cover. Curious, I opened my door to lean out from my seat and under the car, and there, not 50cm in front of my face, was the terrified dove peering back. Not meaning to get in the way of nature, but not cruel enough to move away and leave this now-lucky bird to its searching assailants nearby, I decided to sit tight and see what other entertainment the waterhole would bring.


Within the hour the hunters had disappeared with the cool morning air, and the dove had even melted away into nearby bushes. All was quiet, right here in Africa.



Tuning fully in to the moment, I scanned the horizon. There, again catching me by surprise, I noticed three more lone bulls on the horizon, coming in from 360° around the waterhole. I reparked my trusty Suzuki Samurai parallel to the waterhole, to afford me the best shooting lane to capture incoming ellies. With my tripod rested in the small space of the centre console, both windows wound down and my GoPro running time-lapse from my car roof, I was ready for action.


15 minutes of slow-elephant-walk later, those 4 bulls arrived – all at precisely the same time. They formed challenger quadrants across the water before coming together to greet via rumbles, Mexican stand-offs, the occasional head-clash, and, friendlier, putting their trunks in each other’s mouths.


Meanwhile, here’s me in “Little Red” sending my Olympus into a whir, totally snap-happy. So snap-happy it became eventually fatiguing, as over 50 bulls threw me a myriad of poses and meetings the likes of which I’d never seen in years of travels, let alone in the one sitting.


Fast forward 4 hours, and I’m nursing the worst trigger cramp I’ve ever had. I exhausted all three of my camera batteries, replaced memory cards twice, and I’m seeing stars every time I pull my eye away from my viewfinder to take in the scene. I’ve had my Goal Zero solar panel permanently on my bonnet in full sunlight recharging batteries, and even that can’t keep up.


I’m no pro photographer, and I don’t shoot in burst mode. That workload was entirely shot one-by-one, and I loved every minute of it. But, even more impressive than the morning cheetah hunt, I’d never witnessed anything like this. Over those 4 hours – what seemed like several days – I watched 50 lone bulls wander into that waterhole. Most came alone, some came in pairs or threes. Some had swagger, some threw their weight around like they were the Mafia; others were big softies, and yet more were just there for the drink. And I didn’t know where to look, or what to take photos of first. So I shot at random, and managed to pull off a few unique pics.


If I were to liken it to anything, I’d say it was something like the scene at a blokey bar on a Friday afternoon… sitting in that booth in the corner, you watch them enthusiastically bound in, form groups or keep to themselves, swig a bellyful of goodness then swagger off, drunk and happy, alone again.


I posted a poll on my social media pages earlier last week, sharing three photos from that session. If you want to check more of them out, go to www.shanerossphoto.com/photography/elephants/.


To this day I still reflect on that morning/afternoon as my most intense shooting session in 3 years of self-drive safari across Africa; in all of my 20-year photographic career, for that matter. From hearing the cheetah kill nearby to following the dove’s plummeting arc, the kamikaze goshawk and the 50 elephant bulls that came by that waterhole… I felt blessed. If it wasn’t for the dove, I’d have probably returned to camp for my midday siesta with the other self-drivers, and been none the wiser. I sometimes think that day I was chosen, but I know I’d be better to put it down to doing the hard yards, knowing my stuff and being confident in my learnings, making the right choices at the right times. It’s my gut instinct, and I rely on it more than anything – in all things in life.



*For more articles like this by Shane Ross, or to request this article to be shown in your publication (or nominate it to one), please visit www.shanerossphoto.com/travel-tales/ to view our publications process, or contact us directly: shane@shanerossphoto.com or (+61) 0475 564 636.