As I’ve written in past commentaries, my wife, Bobbi, and I have been truly blessed to travel to Africa so frequently. The African bush is magical. It’s both spiritual and raw, all while its authenticity washes over you in ways that must be experienced to be understood.
Recently, I was re-reading Lawrence Anthony’s “The Elephant Whisperer” (perhaps the most enjoyable book I’ve ever read) simply because I wanted to travel back to a place we’ve come to love — even if the journey was only in my mind. As Anthony was describing an experience with the matriarch of a small elephant herd in South Africa, I was overtaken by a wave of emotion concerning a particular experience I had with a bull elephant in Botswana.
So to say that elephants are intelligent is an understatement. They are self-aware, empathetic and research has demonstrated that their communication methods are even more sophisticated than we thought. Elephants also have the ability to differentiate between languages, ages and genders among humans, and in many cases, can determine who does and who does not pose a threat.
Several years ago while at a Kwando Safari camp in the Okavango Delta, Bobbi and I had just returned from our morning game drive when the camp’s assistant manager advised everyone not to go to their tents because a bull elephant had situated himself on the path between the main area where we took our meals and the tented living quarters.
But as luck would have it, Bobbi and I were staying in tent No. 1 and this elie had positioned himself between ours and tent No. 2, so while the others were kept away, we were able to enter our tent, albeit cautiously.
The camp’s tents were built on a sloping riverbank with the outdoor shower stalls positioned at the back of each tent atop wooden supports about 5 feet above ground level. Since I wanted to take some close-up photos of our unannounced visitor I knew the best vantage point was from that shower stall.
As I took position and lifted my camera this massive pachyderm turned and looked directly at me, and for an instant, time stood still. Even experienced safari goers can be unnerved when a 6-ton elephant is 20 feet away and the only thing separating the two of you are the shower stall’s gum-pole stalks, which are about an inch in diameter and have the tensile strength of a matchstick.
This elephant was obviously relaxed and curious about this strange man snapping pictures, so he began walking toward me to investigate. Since the ground was sloped toward the river, the closer he came toward the shower stall the higher my vantage point was, relatively speaking. And by the time he was within a few yards we were nearly at eye level.
Meanwhile, the memory of the previous year when an enraged herd matriarch charged our vehicle never really left me. Had that elephant caught up to us that day she would have flipped the vehicle and crushed everyone in it—that was a heart stopping experience and the only time I’ve ever been genuinely frightened while on safari. However, on this occasion, I felt absolutely no fear.
So there I was, in the middle of the African bush with 6 tons of elephant moving toward me, and just a 5-foot-high, 1-inch-thick gum-pole wall separating us.
Bobbi implored me to get back into the tent (as if the canvas fabric would offer protection). But I would have none of it — I mean how many times does one get the chance to stand eyeball to eyeball with a wild elephant?
As the bull moved closer, I took one last photo and then stood absolutely awestruck. I was fully aware that if he got a hold me I could be yanked through the shower stall like a ragdoll and stomped flat. Yet I was mesmerized by tranquility of the moment, and a feeling unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since enveloped me — it was absolutely magical.
The bull elephant and I were perhaps 5 feet apart, eye-to-eye and every fiber in my body knew this beast wanted to communicate in some fashion. He then slowly reached out with his trunk as if to touch me when I said to myself, “Butch, this is a wild animal,” and with the tip of his trunk just inches from my face I retreated into the tent.
This may be difficult for some to accept, but as I backed away I could swear there was a look of disappointment in the elephant’s eyes. And to this day I can’t help but wonder, “What if ... ”
I think the notion of anthropomorphism is overused, and I’ve always been loath to ascribe human qualities to animals. But there is no doubt in my mind this magnificent creature was trying to make contact with me as if saying, “Welcome to my world.”
Curiosity, cognizance, instinct … who knows? But what transpired that day is just another reason Bobbi and I keep returning to Africa.
Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.