Ambling with Elephants

Anna, one of our Africa Travel Consultants, had an out-of-this-world experience with a trio of elephants in Botswana recently. Read on to find out more…

As I walked along the dusty track, I was barely aware of the footsteps behind me. A shadow passed over my head, and then with a gust of hot, grass-scented breath, a heavy weight descended onto my shoulder – Morula had come to say hello. Delicately resting her sensitive trunk on me, her gentle amber eye looked deep into my own.

Since I was a child, I have been besotted with elephants. From the stories my Granny told me about her childhood in Kenya with Keeperinjie, the elephant who used to come every day to be fed bananas by her eager little hands, to my own experiences, running a camp in Zambia. There I lived alongside a coalition of inquisitive elephant bulls. I can happily watch a herd of elephants for hours, mesmerised by their slow, deliberate movements, their interaction with each other, and more than anything, their silence.

Back in 2007, I was offered the chance to spend a morning with The Trio, as they have come to be known. I had no idea then what was in store or how utterly I would fall underneath their spell.  (Literally underneath, as the photos show)!

We met Jabulani, the bull, and Thembigela and Morula, the females; between them they were the herd. Jabu and Thembi had been rescued from the Kruger culls 25 years ago, with Morula joining a few years later. Their adopted matriarch, or herd leader, is a wonderful American called Doug Groves who, along with his wife Sandi, has devoted his life to the three. They have spent every day with them since the elephants were barely tall enough to come up to Doug’s waist. 25 years on, the situation is reversed and 6-foot-tall Doug barely comes up to Jabulani’s waist.

When I started planning my latest visit to Botswana in June 2015, I was desperate to reintroduce myself to The Trio. I was travelling with my husband, a wildlife photographer, and wanted him to experience what I had experienced. Guests can book a morning with the elephants (as an additional experience) when staying at either of two camps – Sanctuary Stanley’s and Sanctuary Baines – so we booked into Stanley’s for the night and I set about looking forward to meeting the herd again.

The second visit was, if possible, even more magical than the first. We were taken to the elephant’s home area, and much to my excitement spotted The Trio from a distance, along with Doug and Sandi.  As the five of them ambled towards us, they came to a deep channel, and Jabulani curled his trunk around Sandi, lifting her clear of the water and placing her gently down on the other side. As they approached, my husband whispered to me from behind a lens, “He’s colossal!” and he was right; Jabulani’s swaying bulk seemed to fill my field of vision – I’d swear that he’s almost doubled in size since our last meeting eight years previously.

The elephant experience is designed to be exactly that; a gentle, slow morning ambling along with the elephants while Doug and Sandi, laden with bags of freshly chopped fruit, encourage us to reach up, to touch, stroke and interact with them. Did you realise how soft the skin behind an elephants’ front leg is?  Or how sensitive the tip of its trunk can be? Or the way the trunk vibrates spectacularly as the elephant issues its communication rumbles? We learned all this and more, and the elephants genuinely seemed to enjoy the experience. When Doug brought Morula over to greet us, she immediately reached out for my face with her trunk, sniffing and snuffling before raising it beguilingly in the air.

We were able to get incredibly, wonderfully close. I leaned my head on Jabu’s side, feeling rather than hearing the steady booming of his heartbeat. I stood inside the crescent moons of his tusks, fully a foot longer than at our last meeting, and wrapped my arms around his trunk. Regal as ever, he spread his enormous ears and allowed photographs to be taken. Fully aware that I was hugging a six-ton elephant bull, I could not wipe the smile off my face. Jabulani’s eyes, the most beautiful amber colour I have ever seen, fringed with long, thick eyelashes, gazed down benevolently. Here was the gentle giant to end all gentle giants.

We ambled along, stopping here and there for the elephants to forage or to leave their own calling cards, Doug’s gentle voice encouraging The Trio.  There was a moment of drama when a herd of impala burst forth from the bush, startling the elephants and provoking Morula into a stiff-legged run. Doug kept pace with her, soothing her as she anxiously watched the impala racing about.  He told us of the infrequent times when a predator or another elephant appeared; The Trio would always bunch up with Doug and Sandi between them; protecting the rest of the herd.

Eventually, though, all good things must end. We followed the elephants into a clearing where lunch was waiting – a delicious stir-fry, cold drinks and salads for the humans and large mounds of lush foliage and elephant nuts for the Trio. We ate beside them in companionable silence, and then said our reluctant goodbyes.

As we drove away from the clearing, looking back at Doug and his herd, we marvelled at the dedication that has bonded him and Sandi to the Trio every single day for 25 years. There aren’t many people who could do that for the love of elephants. But then, as my husband pointed out, there aren’t many elephants like Jabu, Thembi and Morula.

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