The tree ferns towered above us. The forest exuded expectation. The four of us, Sandra, Frank, Heinz and I were the only ones left of the group which had started out mid-morning for a corporate guided forest walk in the Diepvalle section of the Knysna Forest in the Garden Route National Parks.
At lunchtime all but two delegates opted for the bailout option, a litany of exhaustion and fragility from the preceding night’s revelry an overwhelming reason. While discussing the options with Sandra and Myself, I hinted that they would miss out on the opportunity of seeing the mystical Knysna Elephants.
Rather than enticing the group to continue, for most it was added motivation to cut the walk short. But Frank and Heinz were captivated and chose to continue.
Leaving the rest of the group to be collected by the backup crew, the four of us had entered the subdued forest light.
As one of my dreams to get a glimpse of the famed Knysna Forest Elephant, I had spent hours walking the trails in search of any sign of their presence. Up until the group I had found footprints, a hair and numerous heaps of dung. But never an elephant. In fact, my collection of evidence for the past five years had amounted to less than 20 tracks, dung and broken trees, though this had convinced me that the forest contained at least four elephant’s, one of which was a juvenile, significantly more than the official ‘Lone Matriarch’ publicised by SANPark’s. The presence of a juvenile indicated that there had to be at least one fecund female and obviously a male. Instead of a population on the brink of extinction, here was the potential of a breeding ‘clan’ unit with an interesting future.
So it was with mounting excitement that the four of us discovered at first a fresh set of footprints, then a recent rub mark. It was when we entered the copse of tree ferns that the adrenaline began coursing through our veins. Here, with fresh sap oozing, we stumbled across recent feeding activity. Stripped fronds littered the ground, gigantic footprints eclipsing them. And the forest was quiet, not a single bird call. No insects! In Africa silence in the wild is pre-emptive of something threatening.
And dusk was descending, the dull forest light darkening to an oppressive gloom that inhibited the evening starlight from penetrating the forest canopy.
Undeterred, we scouted for more spoor, driven by excitement and lit by the glow of cell phones. All of us were high on the anticipation of seeing a feeding elephant, though in the back of my mind I wondered what we would do if we encountered one.
Five years later I still scout the Knysna Forest looking for elephants in my spare time. I have managed to dramatically extend the range of elephant evidence that I have found. There are areas that they seem to visit more frequently.
It is always with excitement that I read of a hikers or mountain biker’s chance sighting of an elephant while they are on a trail through the forest. But this happens rarely, and there is always only one elephant sighted.
Despite this and combined with the detailed work conducted by Gareth Patterson, I still believe they are out there and one day I will be privileged enough for them to reveal themselves to me. Till that much awaited day, I will continue to indulge in the adventure of tracking these renowned mystical pachyderms.