On foot with an Elephant bull!
The moments that followed seemed to drag on, as we summed up the situation and the potential immediate danger that we were now in. We were so close that we could actually smell the Ele and listened carefully for any sudden movements from him. Our Guides and Trackers remained calm and signalled for us to retreat from the scene towards a very large Fever tree that grew beautifully about 20 meters from us. The idea was to secure substantial cover and avoid any confrontation. Well, that was the idea and a good one at that.
As we began moving, the Ele heard us and came out the thicket to investigate these unfamiliar sounds that had rudely interrupted his morning snack. We were now literally caught between a rock and a hard tree, without cover and in no way, safe. What happened next remained with me forever.
We continued to retreat with the trackers which we did with much haste and anxiety, whilst one Guide simultaneously chambered a round into his .375 calibre rifle. This was protocol by the way and a precautionary measure of safety and within the rules of engagement, as the Ele was within 10 meters of us.
The Ele began ripping up clumps of grass and then thrashed them on the ground with visible irritation. Then after tossing his head from side to side, quietly stood still with his trunk rested on one of his big tusks. These were all warning signs for us to vacate the area immediately or face the consequence of his wrath. He then gave a dusty challenge charge over a few meters and stopped still in the tracks, staring at us with an almost possessed look of anger. This was a challenge to move and not a so called “mock” charge which it is often referred to as – there is no mockery about it, but a definite challenge.
During all the commotion the Guides stood their ground and shouted at him to go away, with the noise and authority that was intended to deter him from any further warning signs. Noticeably, he was not in musth, which was a relief, as this is characterized by highly aggressive behaviour and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be as much as six times greater than in the same elephant at other times. As a result, an encounter with an Ele bull in musth on foot or in a vehicle, can be a very hectic experience and one that can end badly. Years later, I would unfortunately experience this first-hand whilst on game drive, which is for another story – an experience that I would never wish on my worst enemy.
So, while this was all happening, we had safely made it to the Fever tree and the Guides had begun retreating too, step by step towards us. The one Guide with the loaded rifle being the eyes on the Ele and the other being his eyes so that they never tripped over a fallen log or stood in an aardvark hole.
The Ele bull that can run forty kilometres an hour, which is equivalent to eleven meters a second, was now standing his ground, and had not challenged us again, which was a good sign that we were probably going to be okay. The Guides got back to the tree and signalled to us to stay put and stay hidden behind our cover. We awaited patiently with our hearts beating like a drum, for another few minutes and observed the Ele loosing interest and casually sauntering back into the thicket. This was our queue to get out of the area, quietly and quickly and get to a safe area away from our first Ele encounter and reflect and what just happened. We walked about one hundred meters to safety, where the one Guide unchambered his rifle and made it safe again.
Although it was frightening, it was the best lesson in how to handle such a situation and one that no book could teach us or prepare us for. Our Guides expertise and experience shone through like the iridescent colouring on a glossy starling and we were extremely grateful to be in the company of such accomplished people of the bush. Their in-depth and abundant wealth of knowledge was incredible and the manner in which it was handled, awe inspiring. Again, the bush, being the perfect classroom for we trainees to learn from and an invaluable lesson that would help prepare us for our future careers that we were all striving to make a reality. We all chatted together for a while, took a few deep breaths and continued our walk…