Close Encounters I

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Last week, in my Liebster Award post, I was asked if I had ever experienced a moment that took my breath away. There were a couple of these moments that came to mind immediately, and I wanted to share them with you in a two-part series I’m calling Close Encounters. Even better, both of these moments were caught on video.

Please note: this particular encounter happened under the supervision of highly-trained, armed guides with over 30 years of experience in the African bush and intimate familiarity with this reserve and its inhabitants. I hope it goes without saying, but please, never attempt anything like this on your own and even more importantly, treat all wildlife with respect.

July 2012 – Thanda Private Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Our guides, Henrik and Werner, spotted him well before we did.

They stopped the Land Cruiser and turned to us, speaking in whispers, but with a tone we had never heard them use before – one of deadly seriousness.  “You are about to see an elephant,” they told us.

I gripped my camera a little tighter. There were ten of us in the Land Cruiser besides the guides, nine students and our camp leader. We were on our way to the day’s survey site, but a certain pachyderm had apparently decided that the perfect spot for breakfast was at this bend in the road.. Henrik and Werner warned us that this elephant was a lone bull and could potentially be in musth, a poorly-understood state of testosterone-induced short-temperedness (to put it very mildly). However, this particular male was rather calmly enjoying his meal and didn’t seem at all concerned about us. Werner edged the Land Cruiser into a position so we could all see, and then killed the engine. For a few minutes, we simply watched the elephant. The only sounds that disturbed the bright African morning were the hum and click of camera shutters, but I could also hear the adrenaline roaring in my ears as I filmed and tried to keep my hands from shaking.

Later, Henrik showed us how the elephant was using misdirection; he wasn’t actually eating, but simply lifting the same stick to his mouth and putting it down again, pretending as he kept a watchful eye on the shiny vehicle full of gawking humans.

As the bull continued “eating,” Werner spoke quietly to us again from his place in the driver’s seat. “I’m going to move us as close as possible to the elephant. If he turns towards us, or takes one or two steps towards us, you sit absolutely still. If you scream, if you shout, if you move around, it will rev him up.” We all nodded silently – if the elephant decided he was even the tiniest bit unhappy with our presence, we were more than happy to leave him alone.

You could have cut the tension with a knife as the Land Cruiser growled to life and we inched forward. We all watched the elephant intently for any sign of aggression until we were parked silently again, but he just stood there, manipulating his branch (still the same one) and looking dozy. I flipped my camera back into photo mode, and started shooting pictures.

I had managed to get a few shots in and had sat back to just watch when, very smoothly and deliberately, the bull put down his stick…and started toward us.

At that point, I forgot how to breathe.

It’s hard to describe what it felt like behind the lens at that moment. It was as if someone had put time and space under a microscope and turned the magnification way up. I don’t know how or when I managed to get my camera back into video mode and I definitely don’t remember pressing the button to start recording. One thing the microphone didn’t pick up was the rumbling. It wasn’t a sound you heard so much as a sensation you felt, something so primal that I remember thinking, This is what a dinosaur must have sounded like. I wasn’t doing much clear thinking, frankly. My mind was too busy bouncing between unbridled joy and pure, unadulterated fear. If you couldn’t tell, as he brushed by, I was absolutely frozen.

I had seen elephants before. I even had faint memories of riding one at some point in my childhood, at a zoo somewhere. But this was different. He was looking at us – and I mean really looking. The intelligence in his eyes was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. He was present, to the point it felt like you should strike up a conversation, or at least say good morning and apologize for disturbing his meal. The other reality of the situation was not lost on me, however. We were on his turf and completely at his mercy – and he knew it. He knew what we were and he knew what he was. The metal cage of this vehicle was nothing to him. This incredibly intelligent creature could kill me, could obliterate all of us, if he so chose. I felt the icy certainty of it all the way down to my core.

But he didn’t. Once our breathing had resumed, our muscles jerked out of their adrenaline-induced torpor, and our cameras were turned off, we all exchanged glances of shock, excitement, and more than a little relief. One of the other girls was silently crying and we all reached over to comfort her. My eyes were wet too – I couldn’t tell if it was from happiness or fear. As I patted her shoulder, I could still see the elephant walking down the path and a strange sensation came over me. It wasn’t the last time this would happen on this trip, but as I watched the bull amble away along the dirt track, for the first time, I realized I was feeling my place in the world.

For more on elephant body language, check out this helpful blog post.

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