This latest trip has allowed me to get within touching distance of wildlife which I’d only seen in pictures or zoos before venturing to Africa. When it’s intentional, getting this close is a thrill. When it’s not, to say it’s hair-raising would be a massive understatement.
I’ll come to the elephant story later, as it’s probably in the top three of times when I’ve questioned whether I’m going to escape with my life. Other close encounters which have made my heart leap have happened recently, most notably with a baboon in Matopos National Park.
Baboons are fierce, with canines larger than a lion, and are particularly fond of food. In the seconds after our ranger said, “A baboon can rip you apart”, the male charged at full pace for our lunch area. Unmoved by our ranger trying to hit him away with whatever utensils he could grab, the baboon nicked the bag of bread rolls and sped off, before tucking in with us watching in shock.
From here we moved north to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest and in the top 10 parks in Africa in terms of area.
It has many animals, though the density of the bush makes it very difficult to spot anything. Once again, no honey badger or leopard could be found. We did see a few spring hares when driving around at night – they’re known as the ‘African Kangaroo’.
The night drive was incredible, mainly due to the unpredictability of our driver, Jordan. At one point he killed the engine and lights, allowing the car to roll a bit down the hill, before asking us if we could hear a buzzing noise. Muscles tensed up, breath intake sharpened, and then…he lit the spotlight to show us electricity pylons. He said that sometimes baboons are at the top of them; they get scared by the spotlight and touch the live wires on the way down, turning into ‘exploding light bulbs’. I don’t condone killing wild animals but could understand his glee at this after our baboon experience the previous day.
Another time he did this trick, the difference being that there were animals on the left. With your eyesight restricted, other senses need to be used. We could hear heavy movement through the bush, allowing us to work out that an elephant was closing in – slowly – on our car. When the light was turned in that direction, we were pleased to see an elephant; more concerned at seeing a lone buffalo darting short distances in various directions. A lone buffalo is generally an older male, and has to be aggressive to survive: dangerous.
This paled in comparison with our experience that afternoon when driving through Hwange with Jordan in an open 4x4. Hwange is renowned in Africa for its elephant population, numbering between 30,000 and 40,000 across the 14,000km2 area. It started nicely enough, with us seeing a lone bull (young male) elephant putting some mud on himself with his trunk as a form of sun protection and body cooling.
We then drove past a pan (water hole) which had a herd of elephants drinking. The young calves were about two years old.
Whilst this was happening, we noticed that another group of elephants, one without tusks, was slowly plodding its way up the road towards us. Jordan mentioned at this point that elephants without tusks are generally more aggressive.
Most of the elephants disappeared into the bush, heading for the pan. Not Mr Tuskless, though. He quickened his step towards the car.
It’s important to note two things at this point: firstly, you never run from an elephant; secondly, the aggression is normally shown towards the car, not the people inside it. This was vital to remember as the elephant got to ten metres…then five…then two….
I’m sure you’ll understand that I didn’t start snapping pictures at this point. It was at this point that the flapping of the ears became more pronounced and the noises started to sound louder and more threatening. The elephant was practically touching the car. It could have reached over with its trunk and changed gear for us if it felt that way inclined. At this point, Jordan decided that this was close enough and said so to the elephant. That’s right, he started talking to the elephant.
It worked, in a way. He backed off briefly, before exploring the front left of the car (this is the video below). Being sat on the left side of the open vehicle, this was when it was probably within two metres of me. Just short of a trunk length from slapping me. He stalked the front part of the car, turned, moved into the bush…then mock charged. Not for more than a metre, thankfully.
Keeping still when all of this is happening is vital and incredibly difficult, particularly when you can feel your heart thumping rapidly in your chest. Jordan later said, “I don’t know how you all kept your composure, I was terrified,” suggesting that this kind of close encounter isn’t experienced every day.
The reward was being able to watch the whole herd play at the pan. This made elephants seem endearing and cute once more, as the baby elephant moved from mother to father and back whilst they blissfully ignored it and sloshed mud over themselves.
At one point, the baby tried to climb on another elephant which had decided to lie down. It failed and fell down. Too cute, and funny, for words.
Abruptly, the whole herd upped sticks and ran away from the pan (I don’t think we’d have survived if they’d ran our way). Dumbstruck at first, we soon realised that the bull we had passed much earlier was heading to the pan. Jordan explained that he may have been exiled from the herd so confrontation could have occurred if the main group hadn’t vacated.
With heart rates returning below dangerous, we drove forward, only to soon spot a young male charging towards at an alarming speed. Jordan once again turned off the engine and pulled us to a halt, allowing the elephant to close in. It’s sensible as you don’t want to be chased, but also seems inexplicable at the time.
As you can see from the video above, he slowed and stopped within seven or eight metres, before trumpeting in annoyance and passing harmlessly around the car. Initially he just seemed like a moody teenager but we soon realised the problem when spotting the original herd on the other side of the car. The young lad had obviously been left behind when the herd ran from the bull elephant and we were now blocking his path to his mother. This was the reason that I was charged in Zambia.
Trying to justify this as being a positive experience, I was explaining to the rest of the group that whilst the first couple of safaris are amazing just because you are seeing the animals with your own eyes, with more experience you want to see more action. Ideally that action won’t happen on the front of your car, but seeing events is what can make each safari or game drive unique and special. My heart won’t thank me for it but this was certainly both.
Love you all