I tried not to cry. Too many tears had been shed on this trip already. They started when I encountered my first lion when it strolled towards our open-topped jeep as night was falling in the wilds of South Africa's Kruger National Park. The silhouette became clearer with each step until he was less than a metre from me, with paws the size of dinner plates and three lionesses in tow.
The tears came then and rarely stopped as the next 14 days were spent hunting cheetahs, tree-lounging leopards and charging rhinos.
I have always been a sucker for the Discovery Channel and was moved by this circle of life served up from safari camp to safari camp.
But it was the red elephants of Madikwe who stole my heart. Madikwe Game Reserve sits in the north west of South Africa on the border of Botswana. This former cattle farming region has been converted into a 75,000-hectare game reserve where 10,000 animals of 27 species were relocated between 1991 and 1997. It was the largest translocation of game ever and dubbed Operation Phoenix. Now it's possible to see the big five (elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros) and a host of other animals from kudu to zebra and the rare wild dog.
Driving through the gate of this fenced reserve I almost run over a laughing hyena walking towards the car, and see giraffes to my left and rhinos to my right.
Then I see them, the great red elephants of Madikwe. They roll in the dust and mud to clean themselves and protect their skin from the sun. There is little grey on these mammoth beasts covered in Madikwe soil and when they run in a herd it's like watching the earth move and take flight.
The elephants of Madikwe were moved from war-torn regions filled with poachers and hunters. I am used to the docile (by comparison) elephants of Ngala in the east. The Madikwe elephants are feisty, almost aggressive, which is great for an adrenaline thrill when you are surrounded by a breeding herd hidden in the tall scrubland on every side of an open-top safari vehicle.
The guides and trackers at CC Africa's Madikwe safari lodge have dealt with these elephants for years. They know they mean business and they know why. It will take a number of generations for the elephants not to equate people with danger. When we stop for morning tea the day after I arrive the guides order us back into the jeep as a rogue elephant stumbles into our makeshift camp. He turns the table upside down then moves on in his red coat.
I feel for these elephants, I want to wrap myself up in their big red trunks and tell them the world is a better place than what they have experienced, but I keep hearing my mother's voice in my ears: 'An elephant never forgets, Rachael.' I'm afraid she may be right. Then I remember that elephants are said to be the only mammal, apart from man, that shed tears for emotion, and I do the same again.
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