Earlier this year, my good friend Rob and I visited my favorite place, Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Normally when on safari everyone heads back to their separate rooms during the afternoon, mostly to rest, sleep etc and get ready for the evening game drive. Depending on the time of year, it might also be extremely hot, so sleeping an hour or two is a good way to escape the heat.
But on our last day I found myself wandering around camp, unable to sleep and wanting to savor the last afternoon there. I sat down in the main area to read a book and sip some iced coffee while looking out over the beautiful river that Kwando Lagoon camp is situated on, which is a tributary of Kwando River. There is no better way to spend an afternoon! Actually if not for jet lag and the early mornings / late nights, I’d stay awake all day every day while on safari, heat or not.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before Rob showed up – turns out after he’d headed to his tent he had the same thought as me, and didn’t want to sleep away the last afternoon. So there we were chatting and looking out over the river, while the rest of the camp was incredibly quiet, no one else around. Rob was sitting to my left, so I was turned toward him while speaking. Suddenly Rob froze, and he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking at something to my right. I asked what was wrong, and he said something along the lines of “elephant” if I remember correctly. I looked to my right and there was a nice sized male ellie that had wandered into camp to stuff his face on marula fruits that had fallen on the ground.
We’d seen ellies do this around the outskirts of camp, and Kwando staff had made us aware of the situation when we arrived, so we knew to keep our eyes peeled while walking around. But we didn’t expect an elephant to walk right in to the main area of camp, right where the camp fire normally was! No guides were around, nor any other human, so it was up to us to decide what we wanted to do.
Rob asked “are we ok?” to which I immediately replied something along the lines of “we’re good, he’s just eating”. I was scanning to see if he seemed to be in musth, which would have worried me. Musth is a state of increased testosterone and aggressiveness that male elephants go into sometimes. One of the ways you can tell is excessive fluid oozing from the temporal glands, as well as lots of wetness between the back legs due to a steady drip of urine. I knew if he was in musth that we were in trouble as I would be way out of my league in terms of knowing what to do. But if he wasn’t in musth, he probably just wanted to eat some tasty fruit without being bothered by pesky humans. Fine by me.
Rob and I were on a sort of deck area, raised maybe 10 inches off the ground, sitting on some comfy couches behind a wood railing. The ellie was about 30 feet from us if I remember correctly. We watched in stunned silence while he ate, and it became clear that he was not in a good mood at all – probably because he didn’t like being surrounded by the camp structures. When random new marula fruits fell on the ground with a thump, he’d get startled, snort, shake his head and turn in the direction of the sound. I’m not sure if he was aware that Rob and I were sitting in front of him – he must have smelled us, but in any case I was still fairly calm because the ellie just wanted to eat. I was worried a marula fruit would fall right on him and really piss him off, but luckily that didn’t happen.
After 15 or 20 minutes, it was getting close to afternoon tea time, and a staff member walked over from the kitchen to bring some snacks. She saw the ellie and stopped in her tracks, then walked around the long way as quietly as she could. She had work to do though, and she was not about to let the ellie delay tea time! She continued making trips back and forth from the kitchen, with the ellie occassionally snorting and shaking his head angrily at her. Let me tell you, if you think you know that elephants are big, you realize they’re a lot bigger than you thought when they flare their ears and shake their head at you. Suddenly they’re not just calm gentle giants, they’re big fearsome beasts that could squash you like a bug, gore you with their giant tusks, or just fling you in the air like a ragdoll and move on to the next little human thing. COOL.
So there we were still watching, me holding my cell phone and filming for a while. Eventually guides and guests started to show up for tea time, and here’s where the problem started. At first everyone was cautious and quiet. Our guide, KLB, walked over to the side entryway to intercept guests before they stumbled into the elephant, and sent them around the long way. More people gathered and watched cautiously, and Rob and I continued to sit perfectly still. The ellie got more and more angry as more people showed up and started taking pictures. I suspect that some guests sort of forgot they were dealing with a wild animal, and thought it was ok to get closer, walk along the deck and take more pictures and generally gather around him. The ellie was NOT impressed.
Then a guest walked from my left to right, in front of me and at the edge of the wood platform we were all on. Suddenly the ellie had had enough, of course right at the moment when the guest was just in front of Rob and I. He charged!
In an instant, the following thoughts went through my head, all at the same time:
In hindsight it’s not quite like time slowed down when he charged, more like I just had instant clarity despite being terrified. The guest who had been walking actually tried to run, and I (or some unknown deity that had taken over my mind and bestowed an incredibly calm demeanor on me) raised my hand and said “don’t run, be calm” – ha! Be calm! I actually said that! But it was true, and luckily the other guest did not run, and the ellie stopped his charge. He shook his head and backed off a few paces, snorting and showing us who was the boss of this place. I turned to Rob and I think I said something like “cool” but who remembers for sure. Another couple of thoughts went through my head:
Of course, I had put my cell phone down so I didn’t film the charge. UNBELIEVABLE.
It took another few minutes but eventually the ellie was tired of putting up with these humans, and he wandered off. I noticed my hands were shaking and I was still very shaken up, but I told Rob I thought it was a pretty cool experience, and he said he’d need to go home and have some time to process it before he would say it was cool. And finally we could get up and go have our refreshments!
I think it’s worth pointing out the reasons why I knew how to react in this situation, so here’s another list:
If you do take a trip on safari, have fun, relax and enjoy everything, and make sure to be as educated as possible regarding how to handle the unlikely event of a charge! I highly recommend you start by reading Peter Allison’s books.