The New Elephant Experience at Camp Jabulani

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We have always supported the elephant-back safaris at Camp Jabulani, because we know from our own experience how well the elephants are treated, how much a part of the family they are considered – not only Jabulani (the original, the namesake, the elder), but the whole herd. Jabulani’s ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, a herd connected not entirely by blood, but through bonds created and deepened through time spent playing, eating, walking, washing, sleeping and playing (some more) together.

The herd is always by each other’s side. Just as the founders of Camp Jabulani, Lente and Adine Roode, have been beside the herd’s over the years. Just as the team of handlers are, daily. Because that is what it means to be family, and, “We must take care of our families wherever we find them,” as Elizabeth Gilbert writes.

Since Camp Jabulani, in the Kapama Private Game Reserve of South Africa, is just as much a part of our Relais & Châteaux Africa family, we similarly support their decision to, as of the first of this month, no longer include elephant rides in the Elephant Experience at the lodge. It is a move the lodge calls, “the most profoundly significant change in our history,” and one that still welcomes travellers to visit and connect with the animals in a respectful but uniquely intimate way.

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The new Elephant Experience is more of an interactive and observational one, where visitors will have the opportunity to meet the elephants and see them close-up, learning more about their behaviour, their unique character traits, their incredible story, and what is takes to take care of a herd of this size. Much of this will take place while the elephants are in their natural environment, foraging in the bush, walking through the reserve or swimming in the waterhole. There will also be plenty of opportunity to photograph the elephants in close proximity.


Timisa’s introduction to the Jabulani elephant herd was a momentous occasion, for both man and elephant. The herd’s thunderous trumpeting evoked such deep emotions, that all who were present had goosebumps and choked back tears. What a noble way for little Timisa to be received into this family!

Posted by Camp Jabulani on Tuesday, April 4, 2017

In their words… “The increasing international pressure against elephant-back safaris, because of the abusive way in which a proportion of the animals are sadly trained (in many parts of the world), prompted this decision. Based on our approach to animal welfare issues, we are in agreement with the negative sentiments relevant to abusive methods of training.

“The well being of the Camp Jabulani elephant herd has always been at the forefront of the operation. Those who have visited us will know that our elephants spend most of their day in the open on the Big Five Kapama Private Game Reserve under the close supervision of the grooms (letting them roam free would invite the risk of potential conflict with wild elephant herds on the reserve).”

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“Our model of training has always been based on positive re-enforcement, and no animal in our care has ever been physically or spiritually abused in any way. We abhor any practice that removes an animal from the wild for the purpose of commercial gain, as well as the harmful treatment of any living being. We are thankful that the world is acquiring a greater respect for the animal kingdom, and we pledge our support in being part of the changes that we all wish to see. Looking after this group of elephants was a responsibility that we accepted from the very beginning, and it is a commitment that we have no intention of forfeiting.”

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How the Camp Jabulani herd came to be

Camp Jabulani’s twelve elephants, all of which had been left orphaned after culling operations in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, were trained for elephant-back safaris on a commercial farm in Zimbabwe from which they were rescued in 2002 at the time of a highly unstable political situation in the country.

At the expense of the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC), a massive rescue operation was planned in a matter of days, and all twelve elephants were relocated to South Africa. Stables were built in record time (the cost of which was also covered by HESC), and the elephants were moved into their new home. The groomsmen who took care of them in Zimbabwe were also relocated, and their jobs kept secure as they once again became the elephants’ primary caregivers.

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“We built Camp Jabulani, and structured its unique offering around the elephants in order to sustain them and keep them alive. The elephant-back safaris were put in place as a continuation of what they had been trained to do in Zimbabwe. From the beginning, we worked closely with an advisory committee of veterinary specialists who guided us in respect of training the elephants, sustaining their emotional and physical well-being, and assessing which of the animals were to be used for elephant-back safaris (only six of the herd of fourteen participate in the safaris).”

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“Camp Jabulani’s proudest achievement doesn’t only lie in the successful rescue of a herd of orphaned elephants in 1996 from strife-torn Zimbabwe, nor in the the intensive rehabilitation of tiny elephant calf, Jabulani (who is also the namesake of the herd). Our success rather lies in our dedicated 20-year journey through which invaluable experience has been gained, enabling us to evolve and refine a successful model of rescued elephant care, with specific focus on infant rehabilitation.”

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“The unique background of the rescued elephants resulted in the establishment of a positive atypical family structure for the Jabulani herd. There are strong ties between both male and female animals, and clearly established matriarchs have assumed responsibility for all infants – their own (five babies were born to the herd), as well as new orphans. A number of babies have arrived over the last five years, and they’ve been successfully introduced to the herd with minimal human intervention.

“We’ve come to realize that the Jabulani rescued elephants themselves are the perfect solution, and have plans into the future to continue to help to rescue and rehabilitate elephants in need. And this is ultimately our purpose.”

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To find out more about the evolved Camp Jabulani Elephant Experience, simply e-mail the lodge at

Safaris and the Things That Really Matter in Life


We have been inspired this week by a simple sentence. One shared by the Great Plains Conservation, the organisation encompassing a few of our favourite safari lodges and camps in Botswana and Kenya. The image accompanying the sentence, posted on Facebook, showed an elephant in the Selinda area, where Zarafa Camp can be found, lifting its trunk to its mouth for a drink from the river. In the foreground, a few hippos bob, while in the background a swathe of trees, alive and fallen, and bush, hopping a ride on a growing termite mound, fade into a blur. The sentence with it reads:

“Maybe the best thing about spending time in the wild and observing the animals who willingly share their space with us, is being reminded of the things in life that really matter.”

The words perfectly capture what it is that more and more of us are searching for in life – a feeling of purpose, an experience that goes deeper, that transforms, and that takes us away from the man-made and closer to our own wildness, to a natural pace and way. An experience that takes us closer to our own animal instincts and needs as well as our humanness – our vulnerability as well as our ability to feel gratitude and awe, and that speaks to our deep desire for belonging, meaning and fulfillment. An experience like a safari in the wild.


Time in the wild can never be taken away from you, unlike a material object. It can never be stolen. Experiences stay with us for a lifetime. As the book, Stuffocation: Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More Than Ever, by James Wallman, says, simply, “Memories live longer than things,” and, “the best place to find status, identity, meaning, and happiness is in experiences.”

The book discusses the emergence of a new type of person. Rather than a materialist, this new kind of seeker is the experientialist. A person who knows that the deep and genuinely meaningful connections and sense of individual happiness that we seek cannot be found in objects, but rather moments…


Watching a wild elephant go about a simple task like drinking is one of these moments. Having the camera to photograph the moment no doubt adds to it, because cameras are, in a way, tools of the experientialist, an experiential object, but the moment is no less powerful when you put the camera down. Most likely, it hits you even harder. Connects us more to the elephant, to the wild inside and out.

And, yes, it reminds of the things that really matter in life… like the beauty of wild things and the freedom of wild spaces and the need to protect them both.


For the Love of the Otter at Londolozi


Above: The fantastic view Chris had of the otter from the Granite Camp deck. This photograph was actually taken by a guest staying in the camp at the time.

Otters are known for their elusive behaviour and can have you in a tizz trying to glimpse and photograph them. It can take a lifetime or one lucky second. Discover the allure of the otter in this story, Otter Joy, written by Amy Attenborough, as played out at Londolozi Private Game Reserve.

When Chris Goodman, Londolozi’s Habitat Manager, was a little boy, he went on a fishing trip to Mafikeng with his father. In the middle of the night they woke up to the sound of dogs barking. Shining a spotlight towards their keep net revealed three sets of eyes. Chris’ dad told him they were otters! Knowing they were there but not really being able to see them created instant intrigue for Chris and fuelled his desire to see one in the wild from very early on in his life. Little did he know that the knowledge they were there but not really seeing them would be a lasting trend for many years to come.

As a young adult, Chris travelled to the United Kingdom. There he caught a glimpse of an otter but it was hardly a great sighting and they weren’t the same species of African/Cape Clawless Otter that we get here in South Africa. So when Chris arrived at Londolozi almost a decade ago and was told that otters are virtually crawling all over the river, he set his heart on finding one.

Being shy creatures, otters often stick to the dense reeds in the river. If spotted, they will disappear below the surface, using the current to wash downstream and pop up further along the river to avoid being detected.

Late one night, at one of the crossing points in the river, Chris saw movement, the water rippling and some eyes glancing back at him in the spotlight. The next day he returned to check and sure enough, there were otter tracks right where he had seen the eyes. Once again he had missed a proper view. Because he had become so desperate to see one, it became a bit of a running joke in the lodge. People would be standing on one of the camp decks overlooking the river and someone would shout “otter!”. Chris would almost twist his head off trying to see where the spotter was looking, only for everyone to collapse in a heap of laughter.


Tracks of a Cape Clawless Otter. Although these can be found all over the river, the animal that leaves them is not as prolific.

It got so bad that when one of the brand new trainees, who had only been at Londolozi for a few days, legitimately saw one, he radioed Chris, who almost tore a hamstring on his rush down to the deck; sure enough, just a few seconds before he got there, the otter vanished, leaving the trainee sweating and desperately trying to convince Chris (then Head Ranger) that he hadn’t been having him on.

So when Chris got a radio call just a few days ago to say that an otter had been seen from Varty Camp, it comes as no surprise that he was fairly sceptical. Having nothing to lose though, he shot down to the camp and as he stepped foot onto the deck, the team that had gathered groaned in unison. “Ahh, it’s just disappeared”.

Chris grabbed a pair of binoculars and frantically began scanning the river. After a few tense moments, through a tiny gap in the reeds, he saw it. As Chris describes it, “the otter was rummaging around in the mud.” Rubbing it’s fore-feet around in the shallows it was trying to disturb fish and crabs, which it could then snap up to eat. Chris grabbed the opportunity and shot across to Granite Camp, which is further west along the river and closer to where the otter was feeding. As he got to the deck, he caught the otter unawares where it was out in the open, on the rocks just to the east of the main deck. “It did this crazy inchworm-like manoeuvre away from me and dived into the water. The whole sighting must have lasted all of three seconds”.


Otters feed on animals such as crabs, fish, frogs and worms. They dive after prey to catch it, then swim to shore again, where they eat. Their fore paws come in handy as searching devices and are great tools for digging on the muddy bottoms of ponds and rivers, picking up rocks and looking under logs. Extremely sensitive whiskers called vibrissae are used as sensors in the water to pick up the movements of potential prey.

“What I was shocked by was how much white they have underneath their chin and chest. It’s like a crazy bright angora white, it’s really beautiful. The other thing that struck me was how big they are. It was virtually the size of a labrador.”


The inchworm manouevre Chris was describing as the otter heads back to the main stream.

“The epic thing about this sighting for me was that in order to see one you have to be in the right place at the right time. They’re not an animal that you can just track and find – it requires chance and so I feel kind of blessed. It was such a great sighting and I had it all to myself. It felt like nature threw me a bone after having been hard on me with the otter one for so long.”

Chatting to Chris, it seems what it’s shown him is that out here you’ve never seen it all. These otters, the size of labradors (we’re skeptical about this claim of Chris’), have been in and around the front of his house for the last ten years and yet they had managed to elude him until now. “That is the real joy of living out here for me,” he says, “you can never know when it is that something new will surprise you.”

Photographs by Granite Camp guest, William Ferre.