Heike Zitzer with elephants in the background. Pictures: Myrtle Ryan
Heike Zitzer with elephants in the background. Pictures: Myrtle Ryan
The bath in the bush. Picture Myrtle Ryan
The bath in the bush. Picture Myrtle Ryan
Bush Lodge, beneath the trees, is perfect for a group. Picture Myrtle Ryan
Bush Lodge, beneath the trees, is perfect for a group. Picture Myrtle Ryan

Durban - The elephant had a long, stained tusk. But when it turned its head, the other tusk had broken off – a stubby shadow of its former self. The broken tusk was cause for some concern. Had it had broken off and left the tooth’s pulp or nerve exposed, an abscess could have formed.

The old bull would then have needed urgent treatment to stop him going on a pain-filled rampage.

We were on a game drive with a difference, accompanying researcher Heike Zitzer, who spends every waking moment of her days monitoring elephants or rhino, using a Telonics device – a tracking tool which allows them to be traced through a chip embedded in the collar.

As we came across the elephant, Heike told us it had been given the name Ngane – Zulu for Little Boy – because he was the smallest bull when he arrived from the Kruger Park. Ngane is now the oldest bull in the Pongola Game Reserve, and he has adapted well to the loss of his tusk, which is slowly growing back.

Interestingly, Ngane receives a drug called GnRH which lowers hormone production. Heike said a vasectomy had been attempted but Ngane was too heavy for the surgical instruments. Other bulls in the herd had had vasectomies to curb the park’s elephant population.

Some elephants wear collars, but if the animals are in thick bush, lying down or under water, nothing registers on the tracking equipment. Sometimes you have to second-guess their movements, Heike said, as we doubled back and changed tactics.

“I try to approach them down wind, so they can pick up my smell. If they detect anything unfamiliar they become wary,” she explained. “My objective is to have no influence on their behaviour, so they carry on as normal.” It took the huge animals a year to be comfortable with her.

For research purposes, Heike takes a GPS reading every 30 minutes once she has located an animal. She then records how many other animals are present, the type of vegetation they are in, how many mouthfuls they take while feeding as well as the social interaction among the herd.

Later on the drive, we came across the skull of one of the herd’s earlier matriarchs. Heike said that after the cow died, the rangers had intentionally left her remains where she had fallen. They have since seen the matriarch of a different herd moving the skull with her foot and taking a bone in her mouth.

“We felt it would be good to give them an opportunity to connect with the remains, and the elephants have carried off some of her bones to other parts of the reserve,” said Heike.

The naming of the elephants is usually appropriate. Lucky, at first the only bull among the cows in the herd, was also the first baby elephant to arrive in the Pongola Game Reserve. There was a time when the entire elephant population in the area was decimated by hunters.

Heike explained that Ngane was the only elephant prepared to walk under a bridge. The others were afraid of the confines. It was he, too, who encouraged one nervous elephant to cross the bridge over the railway line which runs through the reserve, by leading the way.

While we spent time with the elephants of Pongola and Heike, we stayed at the White Elephant Bush Lodge, which is great for a group of friends who want to spend a holiday together. One of the most fascinating spots at the lodge was the bath. There is truth in the saying that some women are more concerned with a beautiful bathroom than any other room in the house. In this case, the en suite bath of the honeymoon cottage is underneath a tree and open to the elements, the bush, and perhaps a peeping monkey or two.

This is a self-catering camp and the accommodation is reminiscent of the Parks Board cottages of old, comfortable, unpretentious and with the smell of thatch.

In the upstairs lounge, with plump sofas, it is possible to just sit for hours, looking out and absorbing the veld and wildlife activity around the lake next to the lodge.

Another spot that caught my eye was the fly camp, deep in the forest. This is really roughing it, but there is running water, and to my mind its romance lies in its wildness. We were told this is where people are most likely to spot red duiker. While looking around the camp, we heard a strange spitting noise in the air. It was the tamboti trees popping their seeds.

Talking to the owner of the different camps – from luxury to laid-back – Heinz Kohrs was fascinating. He is passionate about the Space For Elephants Foundation, which was responsible for bringing back elephants to the Pongola Reserve, and which is involved, along with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, in plans to introduce corridors which will allow wildlife to move between conservation areas.

The “elephanting” activity, he says, was introduced as a unique way of offering guests an alternative to the usual game drive or walk, while they gain more insight through a visit to the research centre museum.

Equally fascinating was talking to head ranger Adrian Crous, who said that, apart from the usual ways of identifying a leopard from its scars, torn ears and the like, it is also possible to recognise it by counting the number of spots on the side of its face.

As leopards are incredibly swift, we mean when the animal’s image is captured by a hidden camera in the bush.

Tracks are also a give-away, showing whether it is a solitary male, or perhaps a mum and cubs. Measuring the size of the tracks also helps identify an animal.

During an outing on Lake Jozini, we encountered a couple who had rescued a swimming leopard tortoise.

“It was so far out, we didn’t think it would make it to shore,” they said. “As it was swimming close to hippos, we had some scary moments, though.” That was when we learned the leopard is the only tortoise which can swim.

We also watched a hornbill taking a bath in the sand, rolling in it until its feathers were covered in dust.

It’s moments like these that make the bush so special.

l Contact: 082 945 7173; e-mail [email protected] - Sunday Tribune