I’ve had a few stressful encounters with elephant while a passenger on a game viewing vehicle in a posh reserve. I put my trust in the person with the car keys because they wear the uniform and spend a lot of time with the animals and de facto, should know what they’re doing when they introduce visitors to the local wildlife. The stressful encounters are taken as part of the deal when up close to a pachyderm that can flatten you if it’s had a bad day, or has a headache. It turns out the only stressful encounter happens when the person in the uniform doesn’t know what they’re doing and I’ve now learned that it’s most of them.
Wikus Potgieter is your camp manager and dedicated game ranger when you check into Tintswalo Safari Lodge’s Manor House – a private concession in the Manyeleti reserve, bordering the Kruger outside Hoedspruit. A near death experience at the hoofs and horns of a cantankerous wildebeest saw Wikus having to “get back on the bike” and take the time to observe a single species, of his choice, in the wild, as if he were part of the group. He chose elephants, and 19 168 personal encounters and 18 years later, Wikus’s interaction with these beasts is as though he’s a part of the herd.
The Manor House at Tintswalo has recently been refurbished to become a self-sufficient lodge, ideal for family groups who want privacy away from the main lodge facilities. Ground floor rooms have had the bonus of outdoor baths and showers added and décor and furnishings redone to lend a modern ambience to the traditional thatch homestead. There’s a pub in a thatch boma for pre-dinner drinks and the entire property is fenced which makes it perfect for youngsters to enjoy without the fear of any wild encounters.
But most special is the waterhole that sits just outside of the fence and which attracts a constant stream of animals, particularly in the dry season when most of the standing water on the reserve has dried up. Typical reserve itineraries mean a lot of spare time after morning game drives and before the late afternoon drive, so the waterhole is prefect entertainment as herds of impala, wildebeest and zebra come down to drink. The resident herd of elephant usually pays a visit after its call on the main lodge and then moves off to surprise visitors on their evening game drive. Warthog, kudu, giraffe and other antelope species jockey for positions throughout the day, always wary of the possibility of a thirsty (and hungry) predator coming in to drink. We weren’t lucky enough to witness any cats but were told they do make appearances to spice up the entertainment.
Elvis and his team will keep you in gin and tonic and make sure you always have a smile on your face while in camp at the Manor House and will surprise you at every meal by never repeating a venue. Breakfast in a dry river bed, dinner in the open surrounded by the bush, picnic lunches and visits to the main lodge keep the experience interesting and varied – lodge owners and management being fully aware that variety is needed on long, hot days.
Our last encounter with elephants was where Wikus came into his own in dispelling the myths that plague these experiences. While conventional wisdom says you should keep quiet and never stand in a vehicle while close to elephant, Wikus was quick to point out that none of these really matter. His concern was allowing the animals to get too close and make physical contact with vehicles which broke down barriers and fuelled curiosity with dangerous results. He also pointed out that there was no need to scream and shout if elephants got too close and a mere tapping of a coin against the metal bodywork was sufficient to make a four tonne beast back off.
He then emphasised that, whether sitting or standing in the vehicle, elephants see the vehicle as a whole. It’s when you leave the vehicle that they’ll move in to see what you’re about – which he did, in the middle of the herd. One extremely large male immediately started huffing and puffing, ears a waver and ready to charge. He extended his arm while not four metres from the animal and shouted, “no!”. The elephant backed off and all stress was averted. I wouldn’t try this stunt when next on a game drive but I’ve never felt more comfortable up close to elephant than with this extremely knowledgeable and confident fellow.
And that’s the essence of Tintswalo Safari Lodge’s Manor House. You’re always comfortable, there’s a different and interesting encounter every day, whether with animals or simply having a meal in a unique location, and it feels like your own piece of the bush with people around you who care intimately and are dedicated about their surroundings and your wellbeing.
Written by Chris Buchanan