"It has always seemed miraculous to me that these colossal
animals can move noiselessly through the bush, and are thus able to
surround one without warning."
A quote from Born Free by Joy Adamson regarding the African Elephant.
Two days before the Big Five Marathon, our packed itinerary included a post-lunch bush walk. My daughter, Angela, would miss this as she waited in our room for the doctor to assess her nasty respiratory tract infection, so I waited with the other 8 members of our group outside the main entrance of Ravineside for the walk to begin. Eventually, our rangers Sander and Marco arrived, Sander armed with a rifle. He grinned, explaining that it was a necessary precaution, but that in over 5 years of bush walks he had never had to fire a shot in anger. He gave us a thorough safety briefing emphasising the need to stay in single file, Sander at the front and Marco at the back. We could rotate within our single file so everybody got a chance to be near the front, but conversation should be kept to a minimum. He pointed out that we would not be sticking to paths but crossing open bushland and we should always follow the route he was taking, even if it seemed there was an easier alternative available. Any instructions from the rangers should be obeyed, and these would normally be by hand signal or whistle. If a situation did arise we should not stop to take photographs! Thoroughly briefed we set out on our way.
What was to follow was the scariest time of my life! It started pleasantly enough on relatively easy terrain and we stopped occasionally while Sander whispered descriptions of animal tracks and droppings, and what information could be drawn from them. It was clear that there had been recent elephant activity in the area as there was still damp urine in some of the tracks despite it being a windy day. Sander, had noticed the tracks had turned down into a deep wooded ravine – the slightly rounded front part of the footprint indicating which direction the elephant was travelling in. We climbed part of the way down to a large flat rock known locally as 'the lookout' and we were all hoisted onto it by the rangers to see if we could spot where the elephants were. We saw nothing and Sander concluded that they had probably gone right to the bottom to the valley floor. As we had now been out for some time, we decided to return to the lodge and started to climb out to the top of the ravine.
At this point, I was following immediately behind Sander when a large elephant suddenly emerged from the trees above us, maybe 50 yards away. My immediate and naïve reaction was 'wow, we have found an elephant!' but the urgency of Sander's reaction left me in no doubt that this was not a good situation. The elephant immediately began to react aggressively and Sander and Marco signalled us to descend into the ravine as quickly as we could. It was steep terrain littered with trees, bushes and boulders and I was now at the back of the party with just Sander behind me. He was yelling and screaming and waving his arms at the matriarch female who had now been joined by five others. Marco was yelling instructions to us to try and keep together and not to isolate ourselves. I was focused on leaping from boulder to boulder but could hear the elephants were getting closer as they ripped out small trees and bushes in their path.
My over-riding memory was the noise they were making, with continuous piercing trumpeting and deafening roaring. At one point I stumbled briefly and fell, twisting the back of my knee and, glancing back, saw the lead elephant no more than 20 yards behind us, huge ears flared out and tusks waving wildly. Sander was much closer than that, still screaming and shouting at them, and as I picked myself up, I heard him fire a warning shot into the air from his rifle. This seemed to make the elephants bellow even louder and so he fired a second warning shot. Thankfully, this slowed their charge. Sander said later that had it not done so, he would have had to fire the third and final bullet in his magazine into the lead elephant's head. As he reloaded the magazine with more ammunition from his pocket, his mobile phone buzzed in his pocket although he was in no position to answer it. Above us at Ravineside Lodge, the head ranger and other staff, including our tour guide Jonatan, had heard the shouting and screaming, the bellowing of the elephants and the gunfire, and were fearing the worst, either for us or the elephants. Marco's phone went and he was in a better position to give the lead ranger a quick assessment of the situation, our position and how we planned to make our escape. Back at 'Cuckoo Lodge' Angela was lying on her bed texting her boyfriend when she also heard the commotion. Even though she was almost a mile away, it sounded to her as if the elephants were right outside the lodge and she was too afraid to step outside onto the balcony to see what was going on. Of course, at this stage, she had no idea that it was our bush walk caught up in this situation and thought that maybe poachers were after the elephants.
Once help had been summoned we continued our descent to the valley floor, the distance between ourselves and the elephants now increasing. The initial adrenaline rush as the elephants closed on us was beginning to subside and I was beginning to tire as we continued the tricky descent, being more aware now of the discomfort in my left leg. Brita came back towards me and helped me on the more difficult sections – I will never forget that act of kindness and bravery.
"I think we pissed them off" was Sander's classic understatement, as we gathered together at the foot of the ravine.
We were still concerned that the elephants may regroup and come again so had to climb up the other side of the ravine, with Brita again looking out for me when I struggled. Eventually we reached the safety of a track where a vehicle could come and rescue us.
I have no doubt that our lives had been saved by the professionalism and training of Sander and Marco. We had followed the safety instructions given to us by Sander before the bush walk to a tee. It was also no bad thing that, with the exception of Andrew, we were all marathon runners! Andrew, as a New Zealand sheep farmer, was no doubt used to galloping up and down steep hillsides during the course of his daily work.
We waited to be picked up, and as we were driven back to
Ravineside, Marco balanced precariously on the jeep's bonnet as we were
a seat short, I sat next to Andrew's wife, Jan who was teasing her
husband about the speed he had taken off down the ravine when he saw
the elephants, leaving his wife in his wake. Plenty of black humour,
but we all knew deep down that we were very lucky to escape, and with
the elephants also being unscathed, it was the best possible outcome
from a situation that could so easily have had tragic consequences.