After completing my student year in Letaba and working at Olifants camp for three months, I was offered a longer contract at Berg en Dal to do day walks and activities in 2003. Moving to Berg en Dal was a huge adjustment as Letaba and Olifants were not as close to the outside world. You could see the outside lights from Berg n Dal and hear traffic from the highway. But I got used to it quickly and soon realized there were lots of advantages of staying in this camp so close to the boundary.
Having Malalane town close by was a nice surprise. I could easily go to town and get whatever I needed quickly. Also having signal was a nice change because Olifants didn’t have cell reception in those days. And when I wanted to phone my folks I would have to sit in a queue for the payphone at reception at Olifants.
But the thing that amazed me the most was the sightings of rhino on foot. This was new to me! The Northern and Central areas I previously worked in had very low populations of rhino. But the south was the epicentre of rhino both white and black as they were first reintroduced and established in the South. It was amazing to gain such valuable experience of encountering rhino on foot. On top of that, because of the granitic and Gneiss Mountains, we often had great spots to view rhino, elephant and buffalo from safety just by climbing on a boulder.
After a morning walk, one morning myself and my colleague Hein locked our rifles in the office safe and checked the bookings for the afternoon walks and drives. We walked back to our Wakkas to kick off our boots and relax when the reception phoned me. It was Oom Gordon, who was the Berg en Dal Duty Manager at the time, asking us to come back to reception. Hein and I looked at each other and wondered: “What did we do now…?”
Oom Gordon refused to tell me over the phone. I would later learn that he liked to play jokes on us. We walked into his office not sure what to expect. He looked at our faces and said: “Don’t worry it’s not bad.” and he laughed.
He then told us that a guest had just reported that he saw an elephant bull with a car tyre on his foot not far from camp. How on earth does an elephant get a tyre on his foot? I wondered. And also: what tyre was it because I needed new tyres for my corolla! Oom Gordon laughed and said he had no idea but asked us to find the elephant and let the section ranger know when we did.
Always up for an adventure, Hein and I grabbed our rifles and walked out the main gate. Apparently the Bull was seen about 300 meters from the gate and heading towards the water hole. We both figured if we saw his tracks it would be easy to find the elephant. You know, tyre flopping around his ankle and all…
On our way out the gate, I joked to Hein “Imagine it’s a Dunlop sp33 tyre, just like the ad!” Hein agreed that that would be hysterical. (Remember that ad? It still brings a smile to my face thinking of it and then thinking of the elephant.)
Anyway, not far into our search for what we nicknamed Dunlop the elephant, we bumped into two old buffalo bulls (Daga boys.) They just stood and watched us when we walked past them. We were constantly looking for the Dunlop elephant’s tracks when we spotted an elephant bull up ahead. It could only be him. So we went closer to get a better look. And sure enough here was the really large elephant bull with a tyre bangle on his left front foot. It looked ridiculous to see an elephant walking with a tyre flopping on his foot.
So I called Bruce, the section ranger, and told him we found the Dunlop elephant. He said he would phone me back once the vets were ready. He asked us to please stay with the elephant and keep an eye on him in the meantime.
So Hein and I made ourselves comfortable not far from the elephant and waited. We expected it was going to it to be a while. We thought the vets would drive down from Skukuza. But not long after, Bruce phoned back and said we are in luck! The helicopter was available and they were on their way to pick him up and would then come straight to us. I gave Bruce our location and confirmed the elephant was very relaxed, standing against a tree in the shade.
After not even half an hour we heard the helicopter approaching. Hein and I walked into the open so they could see us from the air and not accidentally chase the elephant towards us. When they spotted the elephant and us they gave a thumbs-up from the helicopter. And Hein and I moved behind a nice sturdy tree stump to watch the show.
Within a few minutes, they had darted Dunlop. And as the elephant was feeling the effects of the M99, Hein and I walked closer to be by him as soon as he went down. We needed to secure his trunk and make sure he was breathing ok. The helicopter landed and Bruce and the vet walked up to us. Dunlop took a few minutes and then, as gracefully as an elephant can, he sat on his bum and lay on his side. We went up to him quickly and I stretched out his trunk to prop a stick in to keep his trunk open. Once he was breathing comfortably and eyes shielded by his ears we assessed the tyre situation. And to my amazement and delight, it was actually a Dunlop tyre! The people from the ad could not have come up with this if they tried!
It looked like Dunlop stepped on the tyre, forcing his foot through. But when the footpad expanded it had prevented the tyre from coming off. Luckily, it didn’t look like he had it around his ankle long. We couldn’t see any abrasions on his skin.
Because this was close to the tourist road to Matjulu water hole there were numerous visitors parked on the road watching us. The vet said we could let them approach and have a look. Hein and I called the visitors over and gave them a brief safety talk. After that, we got to work trying to get the tyre off. We thought about cutting it off, but the only way to do that would be with an angle grinder. The next best thing was to stand on the tyre and force it off.
This must have looked crazy to the visitors! We lubricated the leg with Vaseline. (Strangely an important item in a vet’s toolbox for various reasons I will not get into) Two of us stood on the tyre while the rest held the elephant’s leg and we rocked and jumped to lever the tyre off. After a while sweating in the sun the tyre popped off and all the onlookers cheered.
We sprayed some antiseptic solution on the leg and then moved the guests back to their vehicles after the last photos where taken. (I never had a chance to take any pictures myself. So if anyone that reads this was there that day, or knows anyone that does have some pictures, please contact me! I would love to have a few copies!)
When everyone was clear and the helicopter was ready to take off the vet injected the antidote M5050 to wake Dunlop up. He then hurried to the safety of the helicopter to watch the elephant come round. This took only a few minutes. We watched Dunlop rocking his legs to get momentum, sit up and then stand up. He stood there for a minute smelling his leg and lifting it, clearly noticing that his rubber accessory was now gone. The helicopter lifted up and hovered some distance away not to startle him. When Dunlop started walking, we got a thumbs-up from the pilot and they flew back to drop off Bruce and head to Skukuza.
Hein and I watched the bull walk off with a spring in his step. With a huge sense of accomplishment and the Dunlop tyre on my shoulder, we then headed back to camp.
So ja, I’ve seen some strange things out here. But the Dunlop Elephant is definitely in my top ten!
Until we meet around the fire again!