Travel

TAKE A LOOK | This underground photography hide offers a thrilling encounter with elephants

Business Insider SA
A bull elephant drinks water centimetres from guests in a sunken photography hide in Botswana. Photo: Andrew Thompson.
A bull elephant drinks water centimetres from guests in a sunken photography hide in Botswana. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Review

  • An underground animal hide in Botswana's Khwai Private Reserve offers an incredible perspective on various wildlife.
  • It's a bucket list destination for wildlife photographers and elephant fans.
  • Guests get close enough to the elephants to hear their flapping ears and rumbling bellies, and may even get a light spraying.
  • But due to the camouflaged hide sunk to elephant ankle height, they have no real clue you are centimetres away.
  • Here's what to expect from a morning spent at the underground elephant hide.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

An underground shipping container buried adjacent to a waterhole in Botswana's Khwai Private Reserve has become a revered destination for many wildlife photographers and elephant fans. 

Few places in the world will get you as close to wild bull elephants, which weigh up to seven tons and can reach four metres at the shoulder, as this unique attraction in the middle of the Botswana wilderness.

elephant hide
Outside view of the sunken shipping container elephant hide. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

The 200,000-hectare Khwai reserve sits between Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve. Although thick Mopane makes game and predator viewing difficult, it's a haven for elephants who appreciate the vegetation and flock regularly to the permanent waterholes dotted sparsely among it.

One such rare permanent water source in the reserve is Hyena Pan, where an intimate eight-bed lodge offers the perfect introduction to the region's thirsty elephants. 

Particularly during the drier winter months of June, July, and August, elephants make daily pilgrimages to the pan to top up their supplies - often within metres of guests eating lunch or enjoying sundowners around the fire.

From Hyena Pan, it may seem as if elephant sightings can't get much better - especially when you're watching them metres away, from comfortable sofas or poolside deckchairs, with a fully stocked bar nearby. 

But the expert guides at the lodge know that you can reduce those metres to mere centimetres at the region's thrilling sunken hide a short drive away.

Although guides will offer game drives towards more traditional Okavango Delta game viewing regions, it's best to resist these in favour of a trip to the sunken photography hide deeper into the northeast of the reserve.

guide binoculars
Guide Matt scans for approaching animals. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Our early morning visit to the hide started slowly - and over hot coffee and freshly-baked biscuits, guide Matt scanned the horizon for approaching wildlife. Cushioned swivel chairs inside the hide make it possible to spend hours in comfort despite the otherwise rustic environment, and to rotate to take in all the views when necessary.

The quiet start without elephants meant we had time to appreciate smaller sightings, like flocks of Cape turtle doves having a morning drink.

doves
Doves drink in the tranquil early morning sunlight. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

A herd of zebra, rhone antelope, impala, and a family of warthogs made their way down to drink over the following hour. Although it crossed my mind that today might not be the day for elephants, Matt quietly awaited the headline act he knew would come.

elephant trunk
An elephant trunk drops down to eye-level in the hide. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

The first sign of elephants came out of nowhere when a curled trunk swung past the small side window. It paused for a second to take in the unusual scent of nearby humans but quickly moved on towards the pan ahead of us.

elephant trunk leg past hide
At times the hide offers only partial views of approaching elephants. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Moments later, more elephants joined, and kept joining, to get their fill of drinking water as the day heated up. 

Most elephants passed so close to the hide that it was impossible to see their whole bodies - instead allowing us to appreciate the hairs on their dangling trunks, their cracked toenails, and gangly knees.

elephant bulls
Boisterous bulls almost getting too close for comfort. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

As more elephants approached - we counted at least 25 during the morning - the fun and games began, with some jostling for the primary drinking spot just centimetres from our water-level faces.

Although it's billed as a photographer's hide, I quickly learnt that you were just as well ditching the professional equipment and long lenses. Fitting the giant bodies into the frame when they're within theoretical touching distance is nearly impossible with anything but a wide-angle lens. 

And for those not desperate to try - and likely fail - at capturing the ultimate high-resolution elephant images, smartphones were just as effective in photographing and filming their proximity, and the natural spectacle.

iphone elephant photography
Most guests abandoned dedicated cameras for wider-angle iPhones. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Throughout the morning, other animals continued to visit, like a herd of giraffes that tentatively approached for an awkward drink and were immediately overshadowed by the surreal perspective of the closer elephants.

elephant giraffe
An nearby elephant frames a distant giraffe attempting to approach for a drink, seen from inside the hide. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

With hundreds of elephant photos filling up my memory card and none coming close to doing the experience justice, it was rewarding to stop for a few moments and appreciate just how thrilling it is to have this ground-level view of the giant creatures. 

As renowned guide Peter Allison said of the hide, "you get the perspective of a tortoise that has wandered into a herd of elephants as they drink". And at times, it's as thrilling and tense as Allison's description makes it sound.

But despite their size, the elephants' spatial awareness and care stands out. From up close, it's easy to see them using trunks and tails to feel what their tiny eyes can't see and appreciate how they communicate with each other in a manner that's mainly inaudible to humans. 

Between the sometimes boisterous drinking, they were reticent, too - with just the slurping of water, the gentle slap of stiff tattered ears against dry bodies, rumbling stomachs, and a surprising amount of flatulence audible from our seats nearby. The latter led one American guest to comment that when he closed his eyes, it sounded and smelled not unlike his college frat house.

elephant tusk
Elephant tusk taken from inside the underground hide. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Unlike viewing elephants from a vehicle or traditional hide, the sunken container offers an entirely new look at the animals - and at times, all there was to do was appreciate the decades of wear and tear on the giant tusks that are likely many years older than most guests who notice them.

And, as is often the case with wildlife photography, a moment of good fortune arrived when I least expected it. I hastily fired up my camera and tried desperately to capture the scene in a manner that would, at the very least, remind me of what a privilege it is to sit centimetres away from more than a dozen majestic, intricately flawed elephants.

elephant spurt
Elephants cool off in the waterhole. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Eventually, Matt suggested it may be time to head back for lunch, leading me to look at my watch for the first time that morning. We'd sat in the hide for nearly five hours watching the passing parade of wildlife, yet I felt like I could do it all again the next day. Which, at my request, is exactly what we did.

Andrew Thompson was a guest of Hyena Pan.


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