January 2012: Elephants in a landscape I'll never forget

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Elephants in a landscape I'll never forget

Elephants in a landscape I'll never forget

Wildlife artist Robert Fuller has an encounter with a four-footed TV star in Kenya after visiting the home of a world famous conservationist as featured in the Yorkshire Post .

THIS year I was lucky enough to visit one of the most magical places on earth and meet the inspirational people who work there. Kenya is host to some spectacular wildlife. And after a week watching the great animal migration in the Masai Mara, I thought I'd seen everything. But then I visited the home of the world's most famous elephant conservationist, Iain Douglas-Hamilton.

Iain and his wife, Oria, live on the shores of Lake Naivasha, a large fresh-water lake that lies in the shadow of a volcano in the Great Rift Valley - one of Africa's most dramatic natural features. Just getting there was a breath-taking experience. As we flew in to the couple's private airstrip, our plane banked over a steep escarpment and dropped lower and lower until it was almost gliding over the lake.

Below the wing tips we could see pods of hippos wallowing in the water, fish eagles perched on treetops and herds of buffalo grazing in long, swaying grassland. We landed in a long clearing fringed by tall yellow-barked acacia trees. Zebra and Thompson's gazelle scattered as the plane touched down on to the runway.

It was like arriving in paradise. Even the grass beneath our feet was lush and damp - a stark contrast from the dry plains we had just left. We were welcomed by a local guide bearing cool drinks and refreshing flannels and invited to settle to a light breakfast under huge acacia trees threaded through with heavy, flowering bougainvillea bushes.

Giraffe browsed in the background, bird song rang out and zebra drank from a small waterhole nearby. As we sat there, drinking down the charm of the place with our coffee, the peace was suddenly shattered by the arrival of a small Cessna aeroplane, cheerfully bumping along the rough airstrip. This contained our hosts arriving from Nairobi.

It was at once a pleasure and a humbling experience to be met and then warmly welcomed into the home of these two, hugely inspirational people. Sirocco house is Oria's family home. Built by her parents in the 1930s, it is a beautiful, art deco construction overlooking Lake Naivasha and is adorned with original drawings and sculptures by Oria's mother, Giselle - an artist who was once a pupil of the famous French sculptor Rodin.

The house is still very much a family home, but is occasionally opened up to guests. In its grounds is Olerai house, the lodge to which I had brought our small group of just 11 guests from the UK to stay for three days. It was an enchanting visit. Zebra and gazelle roamed freely in the grounds meaning that we walked through herds of these enchanting animals daily. Among them was a day old zebra calf, which I spent many happy hours photographing.

After this we travelled to see the work that Iain is best known for. Elephant Watch Camp is based in Samburu, north of the equator, and is just 12kms from the headquarters of Save the Elephants, the campaigning and research charity he founded in 1993.

The eco-camp is the best place from which to see the 900 elephants that he and his team of researchers study daily. Iain's research into elephant behaviour is world famous. He was the first person to record the fact that elephants co-exist in a matriarchal society and his pioneering efforts to put a halt to the ivory trade has earned him international recognition.

Unfortunately Iain had campaigning commitments in America and could not join us on this trip, but Oria, who runs the lodge, joined us there. Oria turned 80 this year and yet is as energetic as any 20-year-old. She is so enthusiastic about sharing her intimate knowledge of the unique eco-climate of this special place and its wildlife that it is a sheer joy to be in her company.

The journey from Naivasha to Samburu took just an hour in a 12-seater plane and when we landed we were back in dry, arid conditions. We were met on the runway by four local Samburu warriors who were to be our guides for the duration of our stay. Our main focus was to see the elephants, but we hadn't gone far before one of our guides spotted a leopard up a tree with a fresh kill. It was a gerenuk, one of the more unusual species of gazelle noted for its long limbs and neck.

Elephant Watch Camp is set on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River, the main source of water for miles around and an oasis of activity in this parched landscape. Ecologically sound principles underlie the ethos of the camp. It employs local people, is built from recycled wood and the water is pumped from a well and heated by the sun.

Staying there was rather like roaming a live TV set. The elephants that walk daily to the river to drink have been so well documented by programmes like the BBC1's Planet Earth series and the BBC2 series Living with Elephants and The Secret Lives of Elephants, I felt as though I was amidst stars.

The guides know almost every elephant by name and could describe their characters and tell you how they were related to one another almost as though they were part of the family. Our days revolved around the lives of the elephants. We woke early every morning to view game in the early light, often spotting leopard or lion as well a daily display of colourful birdlife.

By late morning we would head to the river, where the elephants spent the hottest part of the day cooling off, quenching their thirst or resting in the shade. Elephants in this national park are some of the calmest I have seen and will let visitors get surprisingly close, which is quite unusual.

One day I saw Little Pink foot, a baby female elephant which featured in Planet Earth Live and is so named for her unusually pigmented left foot. She was standing in the shade of a tree, her mother towering over her, and we were able to drive right up to the mother and baby.

I lay down in the foot well of the car so that I could photograph Little Pink Foot at eye level as she suckled her mother. After she had her fill of milk, she became curious and approached me, stretching out her trunk in my direction and trying to get my scent.

I obviously didn't smell too good because she then gave her head a little shake and quickly returned to the safety of her mother's side. It was a touching moment and I felt very honoured to be so close to this wonderful animal. We followed Little Pink Foot's family group down to the river and watched as she splashed joyfully in the water.

The river is a hive of activity for all wildlife and impala filed in to drink as the baby elephant filled her trunk and playfully tossed the water about. At the feet of the elephant herds, birds such as the exotic looking vulturine guinea fowl bathed in the dust.

As we watched a second herd of elephant came down to drink and then started to wade across the fast-moving river to the other side. It was fascinating to watch how they accomplished this. The adults formed two parallel lines, sandwiching their young between them. In order to shield the little ones from the strong current, there were more adults posted on the side the current flowed than on the other. One of the larger adults then drove the group on from behind.

Despite this protective wall of adult elephants, the young calves struggled in the torrent and our hearts skipped a beat was we watched. The water was so deep that at times all you could see were their trunks and a bit of their backs and heads bobbing above the brown water.

Meanwhile the adolescents used the opportunity for a spot of elephant surfing! These reckless youngsters literally floated downstream on their sides and sometimes disappeared from sight altogether, apart from the tip of a trunk poking out of the water.

Judging by the sudden look of panic in their eyes when they eventually regained their footing, I suspect this group hadn't quite reckoned on the strength of the current. Further downstream, we found four different herds congregated on the river bank and on the other side there were yet another 50 elephants. It felt as though there was a social gathering going on.

Two large bulls wandered through the herds and I suspected they were checking to see if any of the females were in season. Some of the adult females were engaged with the job of safely guiding the young down the sandy bank to drink.

One young elephant struggled as the soft sands shifted beneath his weight and it took him ages to make it back up the bank. At one point he got seriously stuck: his back legs were going like the clappers as his belly was well and truly grounded.

When he eventually made it up, he held his trunk aloft triumphantly and we all broke into spontaneous applause. The elephants are such admirable characters I could never tire of watching them. It is no wonder that Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his family have devoted their lives to these wonderful creatures.

Robert E Fuller's next guided safari to Kenya is in August 2013. He will be giving a talk and slideshow at his gallery at 7.30pm on Saturday, January 12 about the trip. Tickets are £10 and include a glass of wine. Book online at www.robertefuller.com or telephone 01759 368355.

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