Moving steadily and silently on water is the finest way to get really close to wildlife without causing any disturbance. Sometimes it can almost seem as if you are invisible. In Botswana’s Okavango Delta the transport of choice is a makoro (dugout canoe) pushed through the water by a skilled local wielding a long pole. In this fashion I have one of my most outstanding elephant encounters.
We’ve been moving at a tranquil pace along one of myriad narrow water channels forged the reeds by hippo as they forage for food when suddenly, up ahead, we see a massive elephant drinking at the water’s edge. Our silent approach is seemingly unheeded and, as we collectively hold our breath and our poler crouches in the rear of the canoe, we slip past the elephant so close it seems we might get sucked up its trunk.
It’s certainly the nearest I’ve been to a elephant in the wild, so close I can count its individual eyelashes. Amazingly our silent passing by on the water doesn’t faze this magnificent beast one iota.
But silence can equally be your enemy in the bush. In Zimbabwe I paddle a canoe down the Zambezi River for four days between Chirindu and Mana Pools. The river is teeming with life, the most evident being the many pods of hippo. They’re extremely territorial creatures and fearsome if they feel threatened.
Surprising a wallowing hippo is the last thing anyone should do – quite possibly the last thing one might ever do. So rather than silence, in this situation the golden rule is to let them know well in advance that you’re coming.
When rounding a bend in the river or passing along any stretch with reduced visibility, we repeatedly bang our paddles against the sides of our canoes. By making this noise – or so the theory goes – any hippo in your path will usually swim away to safety in deeper water. I’m pleased to say that it works!
A world away in Canada there is no such danger while kayaking magnificent Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. This is a truly special corner of the Canadian wilderness and my water-level vantage point reveals the true glory of the surrounding landscape enclosed by snow-capped mountains, a truly fabulous scene that’s reflected in the mirror-smooth surface of the Sound.
Gliding past floating gardens of bull kelp I explore the edges of rocky islands, peering down through the clear salt water at starfish and sea urchins. Occasionally a pale jellyfish drifts by. A solitary bald eagle wings its way through the bright blue sky. Peaceful, silent passage by kayak also radically increases my chances of seeing a shy black bear foraging by the water’s edge for salmon berries, thimbleberries, huckleberries and blue berries.