The Day it Rained and the Elephants had a Pool Party

Elephants around the watering hole at Molori Safari Lodge in South Africa

For weeks the area was sucked dry with drought. The dams around Molori Safari Lodge, where I was a guest, were drying up leaving muddy holes around the edges and in the middle where fresh water used to be plentiful and deep; the bottom loomed with dark promise.

It wasn’t a state of emergency but it was awfully close. The water being pumped into the watering hole in front of the lodge was one of the few places wildlife could count on to get a drink, and throughout the day you’d see them take turns getting their fill.

Elephants drinking from the watering hole at Molori Safari Lodge in South Africa

Then it happened: The rain. It had been threatening all morning, but that wasn’t unusual. When it hit, it didn’t come with a whisper it screamed bloody murder. The wind was so strong it sent sheets of rain into our jeep. I scrambled to cover my camera equipment before it was ruined. We’d been waiting by one of the dams hoping to see some elephants, but the rain-soaked us to the bone and we decided to head to Molori to wait it out.

Susan Portnoy The Insatiable Traveler
Photo: Toni Suddes

Halfway up a small mountain where Molori sat, we perched on the main deck overlooking the bush. To our delight, from where we stood we could see herds of elephants heading towards the watering hole from various directions. It seemed as if the rain had inspired a pachyderm pool party and all of them were invited.

baby elephant trying to drink from the watering hole around the Molori Safari Lodge in South Africa

Elephants squeezed around the watering hole, each vying for a place near a smaller hole where the fresh water flowed from the pump house close by. A a giant octopus of writhing appendages, countless trunks dipped in and out as they drank.

Babies, under a year old, with trunks the length of a man’s arm, knelt at the edge, their cute little butts up in the air desperately trying to reach what their larger companions drank easily.

Nearby, elephants enjoying the festivities rolled in the red Madikwe earth, sometimes on top of each other like puppies in a dog park. Others dusted themselves by loosening the earth with their toenails and then with their trunks, throwing it on their flanks while shooting huge puffs of rust-colored dust into the air. As the soil dried, the elephants became marbled pieces of art with shades of red, rust, purple and orange covering their bodies.

Young males sparred with each other their trunks intertwined like enormous noodles. Elephants from different herds were occasionally more aggressive towards each other. One would chase the other, establishing dominance, only to be dominated by a larger elephant inserting itself into the action.

In the end, we counted over 60 elephants frolicking in the rain.

Categories: Safaris, South Africa Safaris

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24 replies »

  1. Susan, I’ve been admiring your work since Leanne Cole’s intro via her site earlier this year, and love your work. These shots are spectacular; am sure they also reflect great patience.

    • You are too kind. So happy that you enjoy the blog and thank you for spending your valuable time with my work. It means a lot. Re: patience. When it comes to watching wildlife I seem to have the patience of a saint. Everything else, I’m a typical A.D.D. Type A New Yorker. LOL

      • Not at all, and too fun re the New Yorker in you. Am looking forward to making my way to Kruger National Park in next two years or so; your work is inspiring.

      • There are many places in Africa to visit. Kruger is great but when you know you want to make plans to go, ping me and we can discuss places you might want to consider. 🙂

  2. Sounds wonderful Susan. You’ll have an amazing time.

    I typically work in Aperature mode as well unless the light is super low and I want to make sure that my shutter speed is high enough to capture the action by using S mode.

    The blurry background and sharp animal effect is called panning and takes some practice. I would recommend that you try it out at home on moving cars, people and then dogs or cats so that you get used to the action. The idea is to have your shutter speed between 1/30th-1/60 (if it’s very bright out it will be difficult to do. Early mornings or Twilight and cloudy days are the best.) and then you focus on the head of the animal and set your camera on burst or high, depending on how the Olympus works, while you pan with their movement. Not sure as I use Canon. The lower the shutter speed the more “cave painting like” (see links below) you’ll get. You’ll need to see which speed gives you the look you like.

    Here are a couple posts that may help..

    Also remember.. it’s always important that your shutter speed be equal too (or in most case higher) than the inverse of your focal length. Ie.. if you are at 300mm.. you want your shutter speed to be at least 1/300. For things like birds and running animals, at least 1/1000 if not more… That means you’ll have to keep monitoring your ISO when light is low or shady.

    If this doesn’t help let me know and I’ll figure something else out. 🙂

  3. What serindipitous timing to be able to view and photograph this “pool party”. I feel for the elephants who are so deprived of water! I’m going to S. Africa in September. What settings do you like to use in the bush? Your photos of the lions in your prior post were also amazing.

    • Hi Gutsy4! How exciting that you’ll be in SA in September. I am officially jealous. You’ll have a wonderful time. Where are you headed? In regard to your question, my settings are completely dependent on the situation at hand, the available lighting and the story I want to tell. Sorry to be so vague. Is there something more specific I can answer? I would like to help if I can.

      • Hi Susan,

        We are taking a Tauck tour to South Africa and Zimbabwe–Johannesburg, Capetown, Krueger and another preserve, Victoria Falls.

        I am fairly new to photography, but working hard to learn. I realize that settings are situation specific, but don’t want to be constantly fiddling with my camera. I usually work in A or S mode, auto ISO, and am playing with shutter speeds of 1000-1600 to freeze movement or aperture of 8 or 9 if subject isn’t moving. I use an Olympus OM-D and just bought a 125-300 lens and a wide angle lens.

        I particularly would like to capture the blurry backgrounds and sharp animals as you have. I do some post-processing on Lightroom.

        Thanks for any advice.

        Another Susan (from San Jose, CA)

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