Of all the animal experiences I have had, feeding and interacting with a family of elephants at the Bayete Zulu game reserve, about twenty minutes away from Rhino River Lodge was one of the most unique and amazing ones that I have ever had.
As you drive up the dusty, bumpy red dirt road lined by beautiful African trees and long grass perfect for a lion or leopard to lie in just metres from you, and perhaps laughing to themselves at how close they are yet they cannot be found, the family of elephants that you are about to meet might appear, as they did for me and my family. The first one we saw from our car was the bull, Rambo, and in the distance saw the baby Jabulani, which means "happy one", and her mother, Rachael. They are magnificent to behold up close and just take your breath away. They look so gentle and calm.
The elephants gracefully walk up to the area where the encounter happens with their keeper-friends, who are referred to as family, who walk with them all day, every day around the reserve for twelve hours from six in the morning to six at night. Each one has their own companion, and this is because when Rachael and Rambo were young, they were members of a herd that was going to be culled at the Wange National Park in Zimbabwe, a selective slaughter. Because the young elephants made such a fuss, the people who were culling them were unable to and had to plan to put them down the next day, but a bond formed quickly between human and elephant: the people in charge of the culling were unable to perform the murderous act.
Because of this bond with humans, and therefore Rambo and Rachael's need for human interaction, they became destructive when released, and now have a happy home with their human family at Bayete Zulu, where once a day guests and tourists are able to interact with Rambo, Rachael and Jabulani through feeding them and touching them. These gentle giants do not flinch when the food is placed on their trunks, nor does Rambo flinch when you touch his tongue, behind his ears or his tusks. He is a gorgeous animal, and quite an attention seeker!
On our visit, the ranger giving us the story about Rambo and Rachael and elephant facts, was interrupted three times by Rambo throwing dirt at him and those waiting to help feed him. Mum and I were the first to go up, and we placed the food in the hook of his trunk, as an injury on the tip prevented him from using it properly.
After his attention-seeking performance, Rambo was docile and calm, allowing us to feel the hairs along his trunk and the smooth white tusks protruding from either side of his long, beautiful trunk. He is a wonderful and beautiful creature, so calm, yet so protective of his family as any male would be. After feeding and interacting with Rambo, we were able to move onto Rachael and Jabulani and feed them. Rachael placidly took the food and placed it in her mouth, and Jabulani had to have the food placed on the tip of her trunk, which she turned upwards for us, and then fed herself: she hadn't worked out how to feed herself as her mother and father did yet.
It is heartbreaking to know that these animals will always be used to humans but knowing that they are safe with their friends who walk all day with them, and knowing that I did something to help, even if it was just feeding them for a few minutes, reassures me that there is something magical in what Bayete Zulu and the whole of Zululand Rhino Reserve does. It is a one off experience that I would never be able to get anywhere else.