Thursday, March 4, 2010

South African Elephant

Vusi said Winter was the best time for game viewing. The Bushveld was brittle and dry. The grass was short. As a Game Ranger, and our guide, he should know.

The day started out tamely enough for us in the Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa. We probably felt a little smug when we signed up for the game drive with a group of tourists. So what if we were city dwellers - Africa was in our blood!

That afternoon we boarded the big open-sided jeep, my father taking the seat next to the driver, the rest of us huddling together in a futile attempt to warm up in the pale sun. This was not a crack-of-dawn lion spotting safari but rather a "midday overview of the diverse fauna and flora of the extinct crater floor." Our expectations set, we settled in for an easy expedition.

As we drove along the dusty road, Vusi spoke in his lilting accent about the region, ancient even by geological standards, and one of the largest volcanic complexes of its kind in the world; accommodating almost every kind of mammal in Southern Africa. Sure enough, during the course of the afternoon, we were charmed with sightings of springbok, impala, kudu, gemsbok, zebra, giraffe, brown hyena - and a herd of African buffalo. Vusi spotted a paused black rhino and we stopped to take advantage of the photogenic angle. He mentioned how dangerous the rhino is, in company with the hippo and the African elephant. All herbivores, all quite capable of killing people.

Still digesting this nugget, we moved on - cold and ready to call it a day - when we noticed a herd of elephants in the bush some distance from us. Delighted, we stopped to stare and take more pictures. Vusi pointed out the lone male standing a little apart from the rest, busily turning a tree into a passable bonsai specimen.

After a while the elephant stopped and turned in our direction. The watchers became the watched. The animal stomped his feet and flapped his ears, then he pointed his trunk at us ... and abruptly started to charge. Vusi quietly ordered us to be silent. To sit perfectly still. My heart thumped in my chest in time with the rapidly approaching footfalls. Convinced that we were about to die, I frantically looked around for my son, now sitting as far away from that side of the vehicle as possible, across the aisle, practically in a stranger’s lap. When had that happened? Now the elephant was at the jeep, looming over us. He could flip it as easily as he could snap a twig, if he wanted to. I felt woozy just looking at him.

By that time everyone who had been sitting on that side of the jeep had somehow ended up in the aisle, on the floor. The elephant stooped and peered in at us with a big dewy brown eye, his prehensile trunk feeling along the seats and the underside of the roof. A warm earthy aroma wafted in, the elephant’s sniffs and snorts magnified in the absolute silence, until he pulled his trunk out and ambled over to the front seat, the undergrowth crunching loudly under his feet. He poked his trunk back in and explored some more, touching and smelling my father's quaking chest.

After what felt like an eternity, the giant creature appeared to lose interest in us. He wandered off in the direction of the matchbox car ahead, prompting the terrified driver to grate the car into reverse and speed backwards, raising a cloud of dust. Thwarted, the elephant turned and headed back to his kind.

Vusi smiled. As if on cue, we all erupted into adrenalin-fuelled laughter and started chattering like long lost friends. For the first time that day I felt warm. Vusi pointed out that the elephant had merely been a curious adolescent, not yet fully grown, and not displaying any signs of serious aggression. Ha!

We headed out of the park, and my father, the Anglican priest, pointed jokingly to the man seated behind him:

“That’s the first time I ever heard a Jew recite the Hail Mary!”

This seemed hilarious to us in our newfound camaraderie, and we laughed dizzily - tourists one and all, in that untame African bush.


  1. So pleased to see this new post about South Africa. And did you ever bring the experience up close--though not, I venture to say, quite as close as you all, and particularly your father, experienced!

  2. Yes, it was close - so you'd think I could produce better photos, but I can't! This happened 12 years ago and these are the best I could dig up, though they are authentic - if you really squint closely at the last one you can see the elephant walking off while my father waves his arms:)

  3. I did, I did! I saw something, and looked more closely, and there, indeed, was the backside of the elephant! I loved the photo of the rhino, too. They are such magnificently odd creatures, aren't they?


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