In the Crosshairs of a Desert Elephant

MORENO:After visiting Twyfelfontein, we had allotted another day to visit some nearby sites, but bumping into Jan and Jessica, a German couple we met in Sossusvlei, we were convinced that by passing up on some of these sites we wouldn’t be missing much.

We still planned to drive to Namibia’s highest peak, Brandberg, to find camp, but after being asked about our plans by a game driver on the road, we were persuaded to call it a day and find somewhere to sleep nearby.

Of Elephants

We followed him to Aabadi Camp where desert elephants had just been spotted.  We drove the Landy right down into a sandy riverbed in the direction of the elephants’ last known whereabouts.  The sand got deeper and softer and my tire pressure was too high for it while my confidence in sand still somewhat low.  So I decided to turn back before getting stuck.

Elephants walking in the dry riverbed

Back in Jo’burg, James had warned us about the power and danger that elephants can present.  “The elephant is a sexual animal: if it decides it doesn’t like you, you’re f*#%ed.”  He told us about elephants driving their tusks through the metal bodies of safari jeeps and even knocking over SUV’s and stomping on them. With those ideas in my head, I was happy to head back to the camp’s bar for a beer.

To Walk or Rove

The game driver was still there and asked if we saw the elephants, and I reported that we had not gone that far in the Land Rover for fear of getting stuck but might go on foot.  He warned us definitely not to go on foot, but assured us that we had the right vehicle and to just drop the tire pressure to between 1-2 bar (an unfamiliar unit of measure for me) and “go for it.”

Namibia’s desert elephant is specially adapted for its environment, with longer legs, a smaller body and a much meaner disposition.

“If you find you’re getting stuck,” he added, “Drop it into low range and go for it.  If you get into more trouble, lock the diff and go for it.”  And then he added, “But, if you still get stuck, you’re f*#%ed. Wait for me in my Land Cruiser.”

Even as a new Land Rover owner, my ears burned at the thought of being rescued by a Toyota. I said that we would go back and give it a try. “You’re going on foot aren’t you?” he asked. It’s as if he could read the hesitation on my face.  I denied the accusation and he smiled knowing that we were not going in the Landy.

First Sightings

So we grabbed a camera and lens and set out on foot over red boulders on the side of the river in search of the beasts, making sure to stay out of the dry riverbed. We were alone and at some point began to feel like there might be any number of predatory cats lurking behind a rock waiting to pounce on us delicious pieces of Canadian bacon. We ventured a bit further and then the fears disappeared when we I spotted a smallish, if you can ever say small when refering to an animal of its’ size, elephant.

First we saw one in the distance…

We spied them, growing in numbers, from the safety of the rocks for about fifteen minutes before feeling brave and curious enough to climb down and track the herd as it moved along, feeding as it went.

…and then they were everywhere!

Walking with Elephants

The walk was magical.  We weren’t in our vehicle like in Pilanesburg where we first saw elephants. There was no noisy diesel motor or air conditioner blowing or windows in the way.  It was just us and about twenty giants…and Jan and Jessica who we just sighted scrambling over the rocks coming to our position (we just keep finding eachother).

Jan and Jessica watch the elephants beside us

Together and in silence we moved along the bank of the riverbed in the direction of the herd, hiding behind trees, careful not to get too close, and keen to keep an eye on the one that would occasionally take notice of our presence and grunt.

The “mean one” looking at us

Eventually we followed the elephants back to our camp, but now it was getting harder to keep track of not only all the elephants but also Kat’s whereabouts as all were spreading out.

KAT (interjection): At this point, we were very close to them, and the bank was pretty much level with the ground. I was no longer comfortable with following Moreno, but as the elephants were right there, a few meters in front of us, I didn’t want to speak above a whisper and catch their attention. Moreno did not hear or see me go around the bush on the safe side, slowly making my way to a bush further away where Jan and Jessica had joined the rest of the camp in taking photos of the passing elephants from a safe distance.

kat points to elephant
A real live elephant!

As I rounded the bush, I immediately noticed an elephant further off in the river bed but with a very direct view of me. The camp audience looked to me. So did the elephant. I felt so exposed, I didn’t want to move, and was sure that once trampled I’d be a statistic case of ‘tourist that was stupid enough to be in the open with an elephant.’ I proceeded to slowly make my way behind a flimsy tree surrounded by sparse bushes, about ten meters away from the bank. I could see the rest of the camp people another 15 meters off from me, but didn’t feel safe to walk there just yet.

This one kept hanging back….

MORENO: I had a good idea of where the mean one was. One elephant in particular was the only one to take notice of us and its demeanor was obviously not to be our friend. This elephant was always a ways off to the rear. I had moved closer to the edge of the riverbed and then right in front of me I noticed one behind a bush. Not more than five meters distance and some thin, leafy elephant food separated us.

…and turning to watch us

My immediate reaction was shock that this five ton creature could be so close without making a sound. You would think something so large would move about with loud, thundering steps, like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, but they can be remarkably quiet. So I stood motionless, but the elephant moved around the bush to reach more clumps of leaves and then made eye contact with me.

Through the bushes

I was told they have poor vision. Perhaps they do but with me standing there in my jet black shirt against a light background and only a car length away it was obvious that it would see me.  Yet I remained still, praying I was wrong and simultaniously in awe of this up close experience with such a massive and intelligent mammal. Then in my stillness, with its eyes locked on mine, it scoffs, flaps its ears and takes a few aggressive steps in my direction.

KAT: I have no idea where Moreno is, but have everyone else in my view and all of a sudden, as one, they all give out a low panicked “Oooh.” And shuffle away another few meters. I know instinctively Moreno’s pissing off an elephant but can’t see anything just yet.

MORENO: My internal “Oh shit” meter is off the charts.  I take three slow steps backwards, and then it charges at me.  Just as I turn away to begin my sprint I hear the unmistakable sound of it trumpeting and its footsteps now pounding much louder than my heart.

An elephant close up is always too close for comfort

KAT: And all I hear is a trumpet sound and then the very quick pitter patter of feet somewhere to my left. *facepalm*

MORENO: I run about 50 meters checking over my shoulder to see it still coming, but it does eventually stop after about 15 meters. It’s only when I stop (even further away) that I see that Kat is not where I thought she was, but instead hiding behind a shrub with the elephant standing quite close to her now.

Moreno reenacting running from the elephant

KAT: It’s silent. I manage to peer through some of the shurbbery and sure enough see an elephant face, bright white tusks, facing up past me towards where the footsteps have gone. Luckily, I don’t actually realize how close it is to me. I know it can’t see me because I’m smartly wearing my blendy safari shirt but I’m terrified of it hearing me crouched there, angry that I’m hiding. I look behind me. The toilet is about twenty meters away, but the walls are made of wooden sticks that even if I would make a run for it, the elephant could trample.

We had just watched Jurassic Park and all I could think was, Oh I am not going down in a toilet stall. I considered making a break for the rest of the camp people, but I couldn’t see them anymore. I did manage to be consious of the fact that they could probably see me and that I probably looked ridiculous, so while stuck for what seemed like ever hiding behind this flimsy tree, terrified the elephant would come after me if I made a run for it, I also attempted to look completely in my element and nonchalant.

Kat on guard watching the elephants from a distance…

Unfortunately, looking for an escape route, I lost my view of the elephant, and when I turned back, couldn’t see it any longer. Panic set in. Could I just not see it any more or was it slowly making its way in my direction, ever so quietly like I knew it was capable without me knowing? Visions of elephant popping out from behind the tree flooded my brain and I decided to go around the other way to get a better view.

…and hiding, trying to blend in

MORENO: I didn’t want to shout to Kat, but I could see that she didn’t have a clear site of where the elephant was and wouldn’t know how close danger was.  After a few attempts of hissing and arm waving, further agrivating the beast which maintained its staredown with me, I got her attention when she finally turned around. I signalled her to stay low and move back to keep the shrub between her and the elephant.

KAT: I was relieved to see Moreno, and glad he could guide me somehow, but after telling me to stay down, he just stood there and smiled. I frantically threw my arms in the air, signalling “Now what??” But he just stood there. I looked back on the other side and saw moving elephants, so assumed the path was clear and made my way to Moreno.

MORENO: Our signals got crossed and she started towards me, but it was at the same moment that the elephant turned and made off in the opposite direction.  It didn’t see her.  All were safe, just left with an adrenaline overload and pounding chests.

That called for a cold malted beverage to unwind.

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