There’s something slightly unnerving about being in an open top jeep at dusk in the middle of the African savanna and seeing a tree as tall as a house start to shake uncontrollably. Even more unnerving is seeing that tree come crashing down in front of you with a loud crack and the silhouette of a fully grown elephant bull standing in its place. This is the scene that unfolded as eight of us photography volunteers sat glued to our seats in the fading light.
Under normal circumstances, we’d have had our cameras up and ready, poised for action, however our guide Letishia whispered strict and urgent orders that we were not to move an inch – that meant no standing up, no arms out of the vehicle, no talking, no fidgeting and definitely no photos. We were to act and behave as one so that the elephant perceived us as a large, peaceful being (that just happened to move on four wheels). So there we were, frozen with a mixture of fear and awe as one of the animal kingdom’s largest came trundling towards us.
Turn the clock back half an hour and we had been tracking the only two cheetahs on the reserve when our guide Letishia receive a call in that the researchers had stumbled upon a herd of elephants drinking from the watering hole. The only challenge was getting there with enough light to see the animals as they were on the other side of the reserve. Torn between the possibility of following the cheetahs and seeing them kill a prey (most likely an unfortunate impala minding its own business) or laying eyes on the elephants for the first time, we chose the latter. We’d been talking for days about wanting to see the elephants and this sighting had got our hopes up. So off we went, driving over the bumpy dirt track sending a plume of dust in our wake.
When we finally did arrive at the watering hole, two young elephants were sipping water, their grey trunks disappearing into the muddy shallows and their large ears flapping in the breeze. What a sight! However, our excitement was quickly replaced by disappointment when they promptly disappeared into the thick scrub. Fueled on by the chance to catch them on the other side of the trees, we slowly drove around and down a narrow track that barely fit the width of our jeep. It was along this tiny overgrown path that we encountered our giant tree chopping elephant bull.
Still shaken from this magnificent display of brut power and strength, I couldn’t tear my eyes off its huge lumbering frame moving towards us in the near darkness. It therefore came as a complete shock to hear Letishia bang the side of the car door and yell out over her shoulder behind us, “Hey big boy, what ya doing eh?” What the – had I missed something? I slowly turned my body around and craned by neck to see what the commotion was about (careful not to draw attention to myself, of course). There towering above the 4WD Landrover jeep was a giant elephant, its tusks reaching out over us and its trunk curled in the air ready to trumpet. It was so close you could hear it breathing in the still night air. While we sat there gob smacked, Letishia continued her confident and dominating rant, “Don’t think you’re coming any closer big boy, don’t go getting cheeky on me.” Unfortunately for us, this elephant just happened to feel very cheeky indeed and it moved its trunk over our heads and came to rest on Claudia, an assistant movie director from Germany. All of a sudden the colour drained from her face as the elephant commenced to tousle her hair and sniff her neck, its eyes peering down between two gigantic dumbo ears. If we’d been unnerved before, we were certainly overwhelmed with uncertainty now!
Unsure of where to look, my eyes darted back and forth between the cheeky elephant getting up close and personal with Claudia and the lumbering elephant moving closer and closer to the front of the jeep (who I swear was still picking tree branch splinters from in between his teeth). This was definitely no episode of Babar, that’s for sure.
But like all happy endings, we escape unscathed. The elephant bulls soon lost interest in this strange 4-wheeled beast with nine heads, and realizing that we posed no threat to them, they disappeared into the trees to find a more tasty evening meal. While the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed into a frenzy of excited chatter, only Claudia cradled her head in her hands, still coming to grips with what just happened. When she finally did look up at us, she had a huge grin on her face and her eyes danced with the light of someone who’d just experienced one of life’s little ‘moments’.
There’s a sign on the notice board at the Intibane lodge that says, “Anything that is unrelated to elephants is irrelephant.” In the near darkness of the African savanna that night, this certainly rung true.
Note: due to not being able to take photos of the elephants that evening, I have included photos of elephants that we saw on another game drive. This was also a memorable moment as we saw the whole herd this time including five baby elephant calves! They were adorable and you can see from the shots that a few of them had a lot of Dutch courage coming up and trumpeting at us. I have a feeling that these little calves are going to be cheeky when they get older too…