When you’ve been to Africa as many times as I have, you begin to collect what the safari guides term “encounters” with dangerous wildlife. I’ve had my share, especially since I prefer getting on the ground versus vehicle tours. Unlike in the movies, wildlife of all sorts have ways to let you know you’re unwelcome and one is a kind of pretend charge. An animal when threatened will come at you in a “mock charge”. Well, in all actuality it is a warning charge, but that’s just semantics. When that animal is an elephant, this entails a scary display: the ears are fully extended and flapping, the head rocks left and right, a trumpet sound and a rush towards you at full force, stopping only a few yards from where you stand. When you are in a vehicle, there is always an escape route and you have the horsepower and speed from the vehicle plus the knowledge you have steel all around you. When you are on foot, well, the options are quite a bit more limited as you might expect.
One encounter I shall never forget took place about five years ago in Zimbabwe. My wife and I were staying at Rhino Island on Lake Kariba, which is famous for its stark vistas, walking safaris and resident rhinoceros. On a dry, warm morning five of us started off for a walk over to the edge of the island where elephants were known to traverse a small strip of sand linking the island to the mainland. As we walked out of the beachside clearing, there was a small band of female elephants starting across the divide. Our guide told us to wait near a large tree trunk and if we remained still and quiet, the elephants would pass quite close to us and move on. Turns out he was only partially correct.
As the herd came within fifty yards of our little hiding spot, one of the large females turned her head towards where we were standing and spread her ears, letting out a loud annoyed “PHRUMPHHH!” in our direction. As per our instructions, we stood tall and still, hoping once she finished her mock charge, she would rejoin the group and move on by. Wishful thinking. Again, she made herself even larger, rushing towards us with another loud “PHRUMPHHH!” stopping just short of the clearing. At this point, our guide cocked his rifle, we lined up behind him and started backing up towards the beach in a line. Reality was we could only keep this up until we were in the lake along with the crocodiles. Again, the rogue elephant threw us a threatening glare and rushed towards us. This time coming right up the fallen log we had only just seconds ago been resting by and kicking it, sending it flying like a toothpick. “PHRUMPHHHHH!!”.
Our guide yelled, “Now, now girl, this is no way to treat your guests!”, drawing a bead on the huge animal. For some reason the elephant indeed then spun around and headed for the tree line along the beach. This was the first time I took a breath in a few minutes, I’m fairly sure. After a moment, the guide told us to slowly, slowly start moving along the shoreline back towards the lodge. We could still see the infuriated elephant stamping at us from the edge of the beach. Slowly, we moved along the sand all the while listening to the threatening beast noisily tramping through the short brush – following in our direction!
Since I’m writing this to you, obviously we made it back to the lodge safely. But had that elephant desired, that might have been my last trip to Africa. When in the bush, remember to respect the animals, their environment, and their power. We are visiting their home not ours, and do so only with their permission (however tenuous that may be at times).
Jody Cole is Owner and Licensed Field Guide at Wild Rainbow African Safaris. Wild Rainbow is a boutique adventure travel company specializing in safaris to sub-Saharan Africa. Providing gay and lesbian travelers and their friends and families with a safe and comfortable safari while indulging them with customized service, exceptional lodgings, and amazingly close contact with the wildlife, culture and spirit that is Africa. www.wildrainbowsafaris.com