Photo by Graham Lydiatt
What a day we had had so far! A raft ride, a buffalo cart ride, a school visit, a home visit, an elephant football match and an elephant safari. Not bad for one day. No wonder we were all tired and slightly bedraggled by the time we met the jeeps that evening. However, it turned out that, despite the fact that I’d totally run out of video batteries (sod’s law), this amazing day was not over yet…
Tessa’s log: Earthdate 17 April 2012
Temperatures: 07:00 24°C 19:00 30°C
The trip back was made on the elephants as far as one army camp, where we were picked up by the Landrovers. On the way back, we found the herd of wild elephants again – 27 counted – in a meadow heading for the river. Another good sighting. The bull Bhim Gaj was still with them.
Stalking the matriarch
I had jumped into the first jeep alongside Rajan, Tony, Duncan, Graham, Tessa, Siv, Susanna and Jack. We were first off, with JBS and the others following in a second vehicle some way behind.
We hadn’t gone very far when Rajan made the driver stop. He indicated a trail of damaged vegetation.
“Look,” he said. “Many wild elephants walked this way. Shall we get out and follow their path?”
“Yes,” we agreed as one.
Rajan got out of the vehicle and walked through the brush towards a line of trees in the distance. We followed him as quietly as we could; a trail of tired expeditioners, cameras at the ready. The sun was low in the sky making the entire world glow golden. The brush turned from dry grass to the clipped, charcoal-brushed stalks of a month old burning. The woody remains crunched under my boots and left black streaks on my trousers.
We had walked for a few hundred metres when Rajan stopped suddenly and raised a hand indicating for us to freeze. He raised an arm, pointing north.
Following his outstretched finger with my eyes I saw a cloud of dust in the clearing between one row of trees and another that ran parallel, perpendicular to where we stood. Between the trees the land had begun to replenish itself following the fire, lush green grasses rising up between the remnant stalks of the old forest.
Rajan put a finger up to his mouth; ‘Quiet!’. My eyes focused on the dust cloud and eventually picked out the grey blob that quickly took on the outline of a large elephant. A second elephant stood some way behind her but the animal closest to us was large and looking directly at us.
“Stand still,” whispered Rajan. “She’s the matriarch. Get ready to run if I say run.”
We stood, frozen to the spot. I lifted my hybrid camera and aimed it ahead of me. I took a few shots without even looking at the LCD screen. My eyes were on Rajan and the elephant. The elephant continued to look directly at us. She looked edgy.
Suddenly, and without any warning, she charged towards us.
“RUN!” yelled Rajan, already bounding back towards us.
We turned and ran back in the direction of the jeep. The next few moments took on a peculiar slow motion. The world around me seemed more detailed and somehow brighter as my senses were heightened by the chemicals that washed through my body, helping me escape the danger.
I remember as I turned away from the charging animal that I was able to note that the second jeep had joined ours on the road. The second team had started out on the path to join us. They too had heard the warning call and were turning tail back to safety. Then my eyes were on the ground. I watched my feet. I was focused on the ground where my feet were going to land. My brain calculated the territory under which each step would fall. A dip in the ground ahead – I lengthened my stride to compensate. A fallen log – I leaped over it. Each footfall crunching through the clipped tops of the old grasses. I was running. I was aware that I was running.
My brain suddenly became aware of its own focus.
“Oh my god,” said an inner voice in a weirdly calm way. “This is me. Right now. Here I am running away from a wild elephant. How crazy is this? Am I over-dramatizing this situation?”
I found myself wondering if running was still necessary. I slowed slightly. My peripheral vision caught sight of Rajan passing me by on my right hand side.
“Shit!” I thought less calmly, and quickened my pace again.
I could hear the others running ahead of me and beside me. I ran.
The whole scene lasted only seconds. We probably didn’t run more than 70 metres. But, inside my head the time extended into a crystal clear memory I shall cherish forever.
Rajan, now ahead of me, stopped abruptly and looked back. The elephant had stopped. We all stopped too, turning to watch her. She had established the upper hand and was clearly much more relaxed about us being there. We were prey rather than predator. She could make us run like rats if she so wished. She snorted in disgust and turned away, hustling her herd ahead of her in a northerly direction.
Being stalked by the matriarch
“Do you want to follow them?” asked Rajan.
“Yes,” we all said. At that point we hadn’t worked out the relationship we had with our guides who were bound to ask our permission, and bound to take us where we wished to go. From our perspective, they had the knowledge and were therefore in charge. From their perspective, we were in charge. This slight mismatch meant we were about to make a crazy decision. We were however, comfortably oblivious at this point.
We had total faith in Rajan. We followed Rajan. Rajan followed the elephant herd. Not one of us turned round. If we had, we would have seen JBS waving at us furiously to return to the vehicles. Ultimately, it was JBS who was in charge of all of us. We were his responsibility. But we did not look back. Rajan was in front. The elephants were in front. Our eyes were firmly ahead of us.
We were following a rough path that was half way between the two parallel rows of trees. The elephants dispersed to the right, disappearing among the lusher growth.
Rajan stopped and turned to us.
“The elephants are going to cross the river,” he said. “Do you want to try to get behind them to watch them cross?”
“Definitely,” we said.
Rajan, ever the willing guide, indicated that we must be very quiet and follow him as closely as we could. He then turned and ran. We ran. One by one we ran between the two rows of trees. Those to our left were dry, brown and stood apart. Those to our right were green, bushy and closely packed together. The grass beneath our feet got greener but the old burned growth spiked persistently through the new vegetation. The elephants were no longer in sight.
Again, my memories slow to a crawl. I was running. Rajan was about thirty feet ahead. Tessa was behind him by about twenty feet. I was behind Tessa by another ten feet or so. I could hear others running behind me. One hand held my recording equipment against my chest so it wouldn’t bang up and down as I ran. I occasionally hit the camera shutter button hoping for a lucky shot. I was exhilarated from the previous encounter with the matriarch. I was happy. The world was still glowing gold in the evening sun. The ground under my feet was bright, bright green.
As I ran I glanced to my right.
There, among the trees stood the matriarch. Staring straight at me. I was running directly across her path. She looked furious, her ears flapping madly, her eyes boring into me.
“Holy crap!” I thought with an almost comical inner voice. “There is a good chance we shouldn’t be doing this. Here I am again running in front of an elephant. I’m even closer this time. Oh dear. Should we be doing this? I should look ahead. If I don’t look ahead I might trip but I can’t stop looking at the elephant. She’s very close. She looks pretty angry. Drat. I need a pee. I wish I’d gone for a pee before getting on the jeep. But if I’d gone for a pee I wouldn’t have been on the first jeep with Tessa and Jack. I wouldn’t be having this amazing experience running away from the big, angry elephant. Oh dear. The pee is coming out a little. Can I afford to stop running so I don’t pee myself? If I stop running I could brace my muscles a little and stop my bladder letting the pee out. I’m still staring at the elephant. She’s still staring at me. I don’t seem to have run very far past her yet. I think I should keep running in case she charges me. I’m going to have to keep running. Hey! I’m a real expeditioner on expedition. How cool is this. I’m going to have to pee myself to stay safe. This is a true adventure. I’m running away from an elephant. I think I may be doing something a little stupid. Drat. Another little bit of pee escaped. I hope I can stop running soon.”
Somehow I managed to drag my eyes away from the elephant staring at me from across not far enough.
With eyes forward once again the distance I covered seemed to increase and time found a more realistic pace. Another one or two hundred feet and we rounded a clump of trees that sat in the middle of our path. This gave us enough cover to slow down and as soon as we skirted around the copse we could see a break in the treeline on our right, revealing the river.
We peeled off and each found a spot on the river bank. With a clear view south, downstream, we were able to see the herd.
A herd of expeditioners watch a herd of elephants
The next ten minutes was spent in silent wonder.
There they were. The entire herd. Peacefully crossing the river in groups. Young ones protected by older ones. Tiny ones literally held between two adults to ensure they weren’t knocked off their feet by the current.
As they stepped into the water they would take a long drink. A swathe of pebbles just off the near bank gave them the opportunity to stop awhile and simply stand, waiting until their comrades reached the far side safely. Then the next group would follow them across. The occasional youth swishing the water with a trunk irresistably. Knocking back a trunkful, splashing their heads, sides and backs with the cooling water.
One young elephant was so busy drinking that he didn’t spot his mother and sisters depart. Looking up he realised they were almost at the other bank without him. With a nasal squeak he set off alone, rushing through the water until he had caught up with them. He reached out his trunk to make contact and howled a protest at having been left behind.
Having run out of camcorder batteries I had reverted to my camera. Luckily, I remembered that is too had video capability and was able to take some footage as well as stills. As I settled into filming, the previous inner turmoil calmed and was replaced by total awe. Cameras clicked all around me as my colleagues recorded their own versions of this incredible experience.
The moment became so peaceful that I was soon able to take in my surrounds as well as appreciate the elephants. I spotted Duncan perched out on a tree that stuck out from the bank. He was crouched with his long lens aimed at the herd. He looked the image of a wildlife photographer. Tessa sat next to me, her camera clicking away furiously. Behind me I could sense Graham’s calm presence. He took fewer photos, preferring to simply watch and appreciate this event in the moment. In between were others, strung out along the river bank, relatively evenly spaced, each respecting one another’s right to appreciate this moment as an individual.
I relaxed further and allowed myself to move from the immediate squat one takes when in a rush to get the shot. I sat firmly on the ground. Calm enough to begin thinking about getting more stability. Remembering to slow my breath so as not to shake the camera. Considering the light.
The elephants continued to cross calmly. Those who reached the opposite bank disappearing in dusty clouds, backlit by the sinking sun.
Then a single large female appeared from the near bank. She was huge. When this elephant reached the bar of shingles her elder sister joined her, even larger. This was the matriarch. She made a point of looking across at us. Letting us know that she knew we were there.
The two huge adult females crossed to the other bank.
“How many did you count?” whispered Graham.
“Twenty-seven,” said Tessa with great authority.
“Yes,” said Graham. “Me too.”
But then came yet another elephant. Even larger than the previous two. This one with the tusks and a great bulbous skull lump indicating that he was a male. Walking with the herd, but slightly apart from them.
He was enormous.
I used my camera again to video him but, as I did so I fumbled in the pouch that was clipped to my belt and took out the range finder. As he reached the shingle he was fully visible, shoulder to foot. I aimed the range finder and hit the button to take a reading.
“138 feet,” I said to myself. Just to be sure, I also unzoomed the camera completely so I knew I’d have a shot of him with no complicated optics messing up the measurement. Of course, I had Tessa a few feet away. Which meant I could easily have got away with not bothering with any of this. Tessa is ultimately reliable. I knew she would have the height data covered. But I was here to do a job too so felt satisfied knowing that I was able to carry out the task, even under these ridiculously exciting circumstances.
The bull drank copiously. He splashed himself. He stood grandly in the evening light. He strolled across the river, up and over the other bank. He was magnificent. We decided later that this was Bhim Gaj.
What a sighting!
A well deserved telling off
We walked back to the waiting jeeps. Following one of the guides who was under the impression the jeeps would drive to meet us, I ended up in a group that were still walking down the road as we overheard JBS reading the riot act to those who had already returned.
He was, quite rightly, angry that we had all put ourselves in such danger.
That evening, he read from his book ‘Mammoth Hunt’. It was an extract (p103-104) from the ‘Close encounters’ chapter and covered a similar incident. That time, the elephant had not stopped charging. Miss Alexandra Dixon had been chased, caught and tossed by a bull elephant, his tusks penetrating her hip and leg. Luckily Dr Chris Thouless had managed to save her life. A heroic act for which he was awarded the Queen’s Gallantry medal.
During my expedition interview with JBS he had told me the same story.
“How silly she was for getting so close to the elephant,” I had said. “I wouldn’t expect you to save me if I did anything that stupid.”
How quickly I had forgotten my own judgement when faced with a choice between excitement and safety.
I was ashamed.
Lesson no. 26: When escaping a charging elephant, make sure you run faster than the man behind you