The Call of the African Waterhole

Elephants at Camp Jabulani 2
waterhole –ˈwɔːtəhəʊl/ 
noun: a depression in which water collects, especially one that is regularly drunk from by animals.

The waterhole is where the magic happens. Both in the cities and the wilder corners of the world.

On safari, in the plains and savannahs of Africa, it is to the waterhole that the birds and wildlife flock. The waterhole is their oasis, breaking up the day’s journey.

During the rainy season, animals find water sources more easily, as rivulets, streams and lush plant life spread across their prideland. But during the dry season, after the rains have passed, the call of the waterhole and its promise of refreshment lures them out. We as travellers follow after them, hoping to glimpse those special safari moments that play out at waterholes – moments that very often include none other than the African elephant.

Elephants cannot help themselves around water. They are the Labradors of the African bush. And they love water not merely for drinking – which they do a lot of – but also for playing, keeping cool and swimming. They may be the only mammals to not be able to jump but they sure can swim, and unlike us humans, they don’t need to be taught to do it.

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Elephants at Camp Jabulani 14

Lured by the call of the waterhole ourselves, we recently visited the elephants of Camp Jabulani in the Kapama Private Game Reverse in South Africa.

The herds here can be divided into two groups – the wild and the saved. The latter include a family of orphaned elephants that have been taken in by another family, one of humans, souls who have dedicated their lives to caring for these beings. Along with the Roode Family who own the lodge, the elephants’ handlers help to protect them from the wild and its creatures, while enabling their herd of rescued elephants enjoy it simultaneously.

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Camp Jabulani 1

To do this, handlers, the humblest, most caring of men, spend their days walking with the elephants through the reserve around Camp Jabulani, within the 13 000 hectares of savannah and riverine forest that make up the greater Kapama reserve. The lodge is a similar refuge to many of the handlers themselves, men who left Zimbabwe, the same birthplace as many of the elephants, to seek a better life across the border.

On safari at Camp Jabulani, we sat back in our game vehicle, watching these elephants, Jabulani, after whom the lodge is named, along with the rest of the herd, swimming in their waterhole one late afternoon. Labradors, was all I could think, watching young ones playing with sticks in their pool – water be damned.

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Meet Camp Jabulani’s elephant family here and find out more about elephants and their love affair with water in our top 10 facts below.

Elephants at Camp Jabulani

10 Facts About Elephants & Water

1. Elephants require fresh water daily. A trunkful of water amounts to 5–10 litres and an elephant will drink between 100 and 200 litres per day.

2. Elephants don’t drink with their trunks, but use them as “tools” to drink with. This is accomplished by filling the trunk with water and then using it as a hose to pour it into the elephant’s mouth.

3. Elephants enjoy showering by sucking water into their trunks and spraying it all over themselves.

4. The dry season sees elephants spending a lot of time around permanent water sources. Knowing where the water is, the smell of it as they approach rouses their excitement and a herd can often be seen accelerating as they approach until they are actually running towards the water.


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Elephants at Camp Jabulani 8

5. Elephants in Africa have been recorded to have travelled a distance of 48 kilometers across water, and swimming for six hours continuously.

6. They swim completely submerged, with their head above the water and their mouths below, and use all four legs to paddle.

7. Elephants also use their trunk like a snorkel, so that they can breathe normally when swimming – especially handy for long distances.

8. Baby elephants often try to climb on the backs of older and bigger elephants and then splash back in the water. Calves will suck water into their trunks and spray each other playfully.

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9. By splaying the soles of their feet, elephants can propel their huge bulk forward when swimming in water.

10. Elephants’ massive bodies are surprisingly buoyant, letting them float with ease.

(1) Sanbi
(2) Elephant Conservation
(3) National Geographic
(4) Londolozi
(5-10) Wild Animal Park

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Elephants at Camp Jabulani 5

All images above taken on our safari at Camp Jabulani

Elsewhere in Africa…

Morukuru 1


Above: The elephants of Morukuru in the Madikwe Game Reserve finding respite from the afternoon heat in the local waterhole. We spotted this herd on a drive from the airport to the lodge – our first sighting on safari and a most magical one at that. Find out more about Morukuru in our blog, 10 Questions with Morukuru’s Wild Man.


Above: Elephants congregate around waterholes during the dry months. Photograph taken at Londolozi Private Game Reserve in the Sabi Sand in South Africa, by Elsa Young. Read more about when to visit Londolozi here.

IMG_68902 (1)Resident bulls at the oL Donyo Lodge waterhole

Above: Resident bulls at the ol Donyo Lodge in Kenya. Dry grassland in the Mbirikani group ranch means more wildlife visiting the waterhole, making for wonderful sightings from the viewing hide. The resident bull elephants – One Ton, Torn Ear, Ozzie, Pug, Jagged, Kali and Tom – dominate the waterhole, their combined massive bulks making it tough going for smaller creatures who have to wait their turn patiently on the sidelines.

The First Footsteps of a Newborn Elephant

This Friday we bring you a little inspiration from the bush – from Londolozi Private Game Reserve‘s Amy Attenborough, as one newborn bushling attempts the delicate art of walking for the first time. This is…

Attenborough’s Africa


Young royalty is protected behind pillars and trunks. Its world is guarded and small, but its future is huge”- Heinrich van den Berg

For me there are no better words than Heinrich van den Berg’s to describe the scene we witnessed recently of a newborn elephant attempting to take its first steps amidst the melee of its herd. We watched the elephants perform the dance of birth where they pirouetted in tight circles around themselves and waltzed around each other to the music of their rumbling.

As is typical of elephants, there was great ceremony to the occasion and the herd were there to support the mother after her 22 month long pregnancy. As they jostled around the baby I kept stressing that it was about to be trampled, but their movements were gentle and controlled, and the baby bounced amongst them on new-found feet. They helped the mother to bury the afterbirth and spent a large amount of time dust bathing themselves and the baby, possibly to rid it of scent and thus prevent predators from smelling this vulnerable new creature. They also touched their trunks to it tenderly, taking turns to greet the new member of the family, all the while rumbling in the deeply comforting way that speaks to elephants and humans alike.

The video below shows how the elephants help to lift the baby to its feet, whilst barricading it from the dangers of the outside world. It is amazing to think that this tiny, defenceless creature will one day be one of Africa’s giants- roaming this beautiful wilderness. It was an incredibly touching scene to witness and I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Due to the relaxed nature of the elephants we see here on Londolozi, this is not the first time something like this has been seen. A few years ago, one of our rangers managed to get video footage of a female elephant actually giving birth, whilst others have even been privileged enough to watch a birth from the comfort of their room in camp.

We have also seen strange herd make ups that suggests the female could have given birth to twins. This is incredibly rare and only been recorded a few times in the wild. Have you ever seen an elephant birth or known of an elephant that gave birth to twins? We’d love to hear about your thoughts or experiences.


Discover more great reads on Londolozi’s Blog or experience these incredible creatures, big and small, on your own elephant safari, whether at Londolozi or our other recommended destinations for elephant encounters in South Africa – Camp Jabulani and Gorah Elephant Camp.

Top 10 Tips for a Memorable Safari

Camp Jabulani

We have often said that what distinguishes Camp Jabulani from other safari lodges is not the presence of the Big 5, nor the thousands of hectares of African wilderness that surround it in the Kapama Private Game Reserve. For us, what has and continues to make Camp Jabulani stand out is its compassion. You’ll find evidence of this compassion in their history – how they came to be – and in their conservation efforts to this day. You’ll discover it in the passion that owner, Lente Roode shares in her innkeeper video.

But, to make it all about you, the safarigoer, for a second, this compassion is evident in the camp’s care for their guests. It is vital to them that you have an indelible safari experience. To help this along, we gathered these top tips from Camp Jabulani Ranger, Ruan Reynek, a man who harboured a wealth of safari wisdom, a man who passed away too soon this month. In honour of Ruan, we bring you…

Top 10 Tips for a Memorable Safari

1. Look after yourself.
Wear sunblock and drink plenty of water. Do not underestimate the power of the African sun! You will not be able to enjoy your adventure if you’re suffering from sunstroke.

2. Bring along your binoculars.
Many of the interesting things on safari are not as obvious to the naked eye – such as colourful birds in their nests, or animals that are further away.

3. Make sure you wear the right clothing.
When participating on bush walks, consider wearing lightweight long pants so you are not exposed to ticks and sharp branches, and wear comfortable closed shoes. Dress in layers to ensure that you don’t get too hot or too cold, and always consider comfort first.

4. Pay attention.
Bring along a notebook if you are interested in learning about your surroundings. Rangers can teach you a lot of fascinating things about the animals, trees, birds, and even insects.

5. Try and be quiet when on a game drive.
You will pick up on a lot of things that you would otherwise miss, like the roar of a lion, the warning call from a baboon, or other animal sounds that could lead you to a great sighting. When at a sighting, keep as quiet as possible. Whistling/ calling to the animals will not bring them any closer, and may only serve to agitate them. This is also in consideration of others who may share your safari vehicle.

Camp Jabulani

Camp Jabulani

6. Bring along a camera.
Take as many pictures as possible, but don’t forget to also enjoy the moment. Being too obsessed with capturing photographs often means that you don’t make actual memories, and if something happens to those pictures, you will be left with nothing.

7. The best time for game viewing is in the early morning and mid-afternoon.
But also remember that the midday heat draws animals to waterholes, and this time can be a great one to see lots of animals together. The best months for game viewing are September/ October, when the grass is still dry and the bush is thinned out. Refer to point one above.

8. Use all of your senses.
You can get a lot more out of your safari experience if you not only look at your surroundings, but also listen to the beautiful sounds of the bushveld, touch nature such as leaves and bark when you are on a bushwalk, and inhale the distinctive and unique fragrances of the bush.

9. Keep calm and trust your ranger.
At a sighting on safari, remember that your ranger knows what they are doing, and will not put you in harm’s way.

10. Enjoy every moment.
It’s often the smaller, simpler moments that stay with us the longest.

Camp Jabulani

Tell us your great safari tips in the comments section below, whether from your travels to Camp Jabulani or elsewhere in Africa.