Where to watch elephants

Ellies have a special place in my heart. You can keep your lazy lions, and boring buffaloes (though I’m sure anyone who’s been chased up a tree by an angry dugga boy would say they’re far from boring), it’s a sighting of an elephant that makes my safari.

Walking Safari with Elephants, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Ellies have by far and away the most character in the animal kingdom, though I make an honourable exception for monkeys – anyone who’s ever had the sugar swiped from their morning coffee, or a triple-zipped tent miraculously burgled, can’t fail to admire their cunning. Back to elephants though. Watch an ellie for ten minutes, and we’d challenge anyone not to start anthropomorphising. I’ve seen them wipe their eyes when they’re tired, and stayed in camps where elephants drank from the outside shower. I mean, why would you bother going all of the way to the lake to drink when the water was suddenly on, and right there? In spite of their huge size, an elephant will tread delicately to avoid the smallest, most irritating stone, and frankly, when the hustle of the wildebeest migration‘s around, you’re unlikely to see too many elephants- why hang about with all of the noise going on?

Best of all, elephant memories are indeed long, and it’s not unusual for an ellie to recognise a familiar face from years ago. While safari guides tell the occasional tall tale (especially when a beautiful girl’s involved) I know at least one straight-talking bush lover who has sat in a vehicle and watched, astonished, as an elephant came racing forward, plunging straight into the vehicle with her trunk. Instead of attacking she felt gently round with her trunk to greet the guide, and returned minutes later, gently nudging her young calf forwards to meet a familar friend.

Have I won you over yet? Ooooh, I do hope so! I once planned a safari for an elephant lover, and if I could do so again, these would be my top picks:

Elephants Crossing the Zambezi, near Chongwe, Zambia

Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania & Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
These two glorious parks are both dominated by their rivers, and a late afternoon boat safari is one of the great joys of a visit here. More particularly, the chance to witness elephants crossing the river. Several years ago, on a Tanzanian safari, I watched a family crossing the Rufiji River in the Selous. First came the naughty teenagers- rushing forwards to fill their trunks with water and spraying each other. Then, the nervous babies holding their trunks high to keep breathing. Finally, the mummies, hustling everyone forwards with their trunks and keeping the whole show on the road.

The Nairobi Elephant Orphanage, Kenya

This comes with a serious warning. If you’ve never fallen in love, this could be your moment. The young elephants here have all been tragically orphaned, many by poaching, and all have heart-rending stories. We can add a day in Nairobi into any Kenyan safari, and at 11 each morning you can visit for an hour, watching the ellies as they come out for their morning play. Our top tip? We’d seriously consider fostering an elephant. Not only are you helping to support these tiny, brave little fellows, but also, sponsors are often given the chance to visit again in the afternoon, without all of the other tourists.

Walking with Elephants on a luxury safari in Botswana

Stanley’s Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana
It’s fair to say that a safari in Botswana doesn’t come cheap, but the chance to walk hand in trunk with an elephant as he goes about his day? Well, as MasterCard might say, priceless. As an added extra to a stay at Stanley’s (if you talk to me, I’ll tell you it’s mandatory), you can spend a morning wandering through the bush -or having lunch- with orphans Jabu, Thembi, and Morula, and their adoptive human parents, Doug and Sandi.

Still not sold? Try reading the autobiography of Daphne Sheldrick, a woman who’s devoted much of her life to elephants.