Through the trees by the dam, dust rises up from the earth beneath the feet of our herd as their joyful hop and skip hurries them along to the cool water of their swimming pool.
Their carers take seats on a log on the bank, sheltering from the noon heat beneath the trees, with a close caring glance over the elephants.
The herd slips beneath the water, stride by stride, until some of them are completely submerged, a trunk or head popping out here and there.
And the splashing begins! The quiet dam in our African wilderness transforms into a great seashore in a storm: wild waves and white water. This is the look of elephants in their element.
People often don’t realise it, but elephants are serious water-babies and excellent swimmers. Watching them in the water, as we sit in a game vehicle beside the dam, their joy is our joy, their bonding time tousling with sticks and splashing about together is our bonding time with them.
We speak often about the social lives of elephants, their need to be with each other, accepted, safe and happy, playing, exercising and communicating. It’s essential to their wellbeing as much as it is to ours. And the waterhole is without a doubt a place of great wellbeing for them. A sort of elephant spa, with mud treatments included.
Even the little ones find happiness in the water, often climbing on the backs of older, bigger elephants and splashing back in the water.
In bigger dams or rivers, you’ll notice how well these animals float – surprisingly their massive bodies give them enough buoyancy to do so easily. Their trunks make for superb snorkelling gear so that they can breathe when swimming.
They can swim for long distances and only need to rest in the water for a short time. Some elephants in Africa have even been recorded to have travelled 48 kilometres across water and to have swum for six hours continuously.
We learn so much about elephants watching our herd, wild and free, in the water, but mostly we’re handed reminders: of the essential nature of playtime, with those closest to us.