Part 7: Abu Camp, Okavango Delta
April 16, 2015
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Abu is a beautiful, remote camp in the Okavango Delta where six habituated elephants provide the lucky guests with a thrill of a lifetime, whether it is riding, walking with or just observing these amazing giants of the animal world.Right now the star attraction is little Naledi, a little more than a year old and pretty much ruling the roost. If you’re at all keen on elephants, make your plans to travel to Abu soon, before Naledi passes out of the ‘cute’ stage…
This famous elephant camp is located in a beautiful 170,000 hectare concession, one of the largest in the Okavango Delta. We reach it by early afternoon on Dec 3 2014.
Abu Camp has a reputation which goes back many years to the early 1990’s when Randall Moore brought back to Africa several elephants from the USA, notably Abu – the star of several movies and award-winning TV commercials.
Abu Camp has had a couple of iterations since then. At one time it was mandatory to book a 5-night minimum stay which was not everybody’s preference. Currently, Abu Camp is owned by Paul Allen and operated and marketed by Wilderness Safaris.
The property consists of 6 deluxe rooms, each with pretty views over the Okavango Delta floodplain, and with lots of space.
There is no boardwalk except to room #3, which is the closest to the lodge. The rooms all have a high degree of privacy. They have an indoor shower and outdoor tub, his and hers wash basins and ample storage area. Plus a fully stocked mini-bar and coffee/tea station with a French press. There is a large patio with 2 chairs and a table.
The camp’s main area consists of two structures with an ‘undulating’ roof, again with ample space and light. The focus is on providing a private, exclusive experience, with a high degree of flexibility. On our first morning at Abu this became quickly evident when we were having breakfast while a Scandinavian couple was already perusing the lunch menu.
For the duration of our stay at Abu Camp, the food was superb. Amongst the memorable meals were a bush dinner in the form of ‘bush tapas’, an array of small servings of soup & various types of sate and other light bites, ending with a malva pudding. Quite satisfactory, fun and delicious.
After a thorough briefing from camp managers Aaron Gjellstad and Jamie Rose – both American – we settled into our room, unpacked, checked a few e-mails (Abu’s WIFI reaches into room #3), and then got ready for our first activity – an elephant-back ride.
To be honest, I’ve always harbored some misgivings about actually getting onto an elephant’s back, fearing that by doing so I would be crossing a line from observing wild animals to treating them like a circus animal.
Being guests at Abu we did not want to pass on the opportunity to experience elephant-back riding and anyway, I would have felt like a jerk turning down the chance to try it, simply because of my own prejudice. I did not regret the decision. But more about that in a minute.
Earlier in the day – when we first arrived at Abu – we had been introduced to the herd so we knew that we’d be riding on Cathy (leading from behind) and Sherini (out in front).
The Abu herd currently consists of:
Kathy – 52 – from Uganda via Canada
Sherini – 29 – saved from a culling operation
Lorato – 6 – daughter of Ketimetsi & sister to Naledi
Pasika – 5 – saved after an African Painted dog attack
Waruna – 3 – daughter of Sherini
Naledi – 1 – bottle-raised orphan child of Ketimetsi
After some brief interaction with the elephants – including an obligatory but rather rambunctious ‘cuddling session’ with little Naledi – we climbed up on a small metal platform, and as nimbly as we could stepped across and into one of two sturdy seats right behind the elephant handler.
Having just ridden a camel for the first time earlier in 2014 in Laikipia (see this trip report)
, I can say that riding an elephant is much more pleasant than a camel. More steady, much more gentle and far less smelly. Rolls Royce versus Volkswagen.
On the afternoon ride the elephants walk back from a spot out in the bush at a steady pace – interrupted by brief feeding stops – to their boma, which took a little more than an hour on this particular day. We were sitting on the elephant ‘saddle’ in a straddle position which is ok for an hour or so – it might become uncomfortable on a longer outing.
You can also ride side-saddle if you prefer. ‘My’ elephant – Cathy – was quite well-behaved and never lurched or made any abrupt moves. I was able to completely relax and take in the sensation of being transported through the wilderness in this most unique of ways.
Being on an elephant’s back is a singularly bizarre experience. For one thing, you are about 4 meters – 12 feet – off the ground with a fantastic view of the surrounding bush. To your immediate left and right are two giant elephant ears (fortunately with a minimum amount of flapping on this rather cool day) and most interestingly directly in front the large trunk of the elephant, occasionally being extended right up and back with the tip coming to rest in front of the handler. All the better to receive a treat in the way of an elephant pellet which the handler doles out sparingly.
The best part of the ride is to closely observe the elephants when they stop to feed on a variety of plants and trees, ranging from grass to mopane trees to fresh silverleaf terminalia vegetation. Neither Kathy nor I had ever been able to observe elephants strip the bark off a thin branch at such close range. They would very skillfully roll it from left to right, the stripped wood being discarded or stepped upon and broken off, if there was another branch to be ‘processed’.
Quite a few times the elephants would all seem to stop and fan out, do a little feeding and then re-form in their pre-allocated positions.
Twice en route Naledi consumed a large bottle of elephant formula, following on which she would rush to the front to retain her spot just behind sister Lorato – they are both dughters of the late Ketimetsi.
It was entertaining to see Naledi almost break into a trot, her short little legs practically whorling under her as she wiggled her way to the front of the line.
Not far from the boma all the elephants walked to the top of a termite hill for a ‘photo op’, clearly pausing and posing for the cameras.
All too soon we were back at the boma where we dismounted. There was more to come. We were given big handfuls of elephant pellets (from a central bin) which we either tossed directly into the elephants’ open mouths or placed in the upended tips of their trunks which they would expectantly thrust right in front of you. It was a nice way for us to say ‘thank you’ to them – job well done!
December 5 2014
Our morning activity at Abu Camp on the day was again elephant-related. As it should be. This time, however, we walked with the elephants instead of riding on them. Some guests may prefer this to elephant-back riding or they can do it as an additional activity, as we did.
It is of course completely different (then the riding) with the three of us walking behind five of the elephants and ahead of one (Cathy). Again, we were able to observe them feeding on various shoots, leaves and trees, and there was more time and opportunity to observe Naledi.
The pellet feeding at the conclusion of the walk, which also lasted a bit more than an hour, was a little less structured and Kathy was bumped by Naledi who was seemingly frustrated with the way in which the pellets were presented to her. Feisty little animal!
We had one more chance to interact with the elephants when they decided to take a mud bath & swim, close to the spot where we had earlier gone fishing out of Seba Camp, a few days ago. It was entertaining and sometimes hilarious to watch the elephants plunge into the water, splash and squirt it all over and wallow in the mud, often lying on their sides and wriggling their large bodies, clearly enjoying the sensation. This went on for well over 20 minutes with both Kathy and I taking lots of photographs.
Back in camp we enjoyed a short siesta followed by an afternoon game drive. Just like from Seba, there was plenty of game in the area and I got some useful pics of giraffe, impala and zebra and a few birds in flight.
As a final farewell to the elephants of Abu, we had breakfast with them at the Boma this morning, observing their monring routine including feeding before they head out for the day. We were sad to see them go. Our stay at Abu turned out to be one of our most memorable safari experiences ever.
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