Allan McSmith and I had set out in search of elephants in the afternoon of a crisp winter’s day. Allan is a renowned trails guide in Botswana and the Kruger National Park who has an immense wealth of knowledge about elephants and their behaviour. The sun was shining warmly upon our faces but there was a chill in the breeze at our backs. We set out with the purpose of approaching some of these wonderful animals on foot. As a trainee ranger, I had been taking Allan out into the bush and over the course of his stay at Londolozi he had been telling me about the experiences he’s had with elephants. So while the butterflies in my stomach were beginning to flutter at the thought of seeing elephants on foot, his experience gave me a thorough sense of confidence and the excitement grew in me at the prospect of what awaited us out there. About an hour into our drive I spotted a few elephants far away on the edge of a thicket. Allan immediately began assessing the wind and with a grin on his face said to me, “let’s walk”.

Where the elephants were feeding is a vast open patch of ground with light clay filling in the gaps between the dispersed areas of short, brown grass. The area was probably the size of four football fields. Allan and I watched them, while we sat cross-legged in the shade of a large Jackalberry tree on the edge of the clearing. The herd became larger in number as more appeared out of the leadwood forest that lay beyond the clearing. Six elephants became twelve, fifteen, twenty, and then thirty as they all began to make their way across the clearing to where we were sitting. There were elephants of all sizes and ages and I was in a state of awe at how majestic they were but more so as to how quiet they were being. If I closed my eyes I would not have been able to notice that there was a few hundred tons of elephant less than a hundred meters away from me. A gentle breeze was at our backs and our scent was carried towards the approaching elephants. One by one I could see their trunks lift as they detected the familiar scent of a human. The herd swiftly deviated their course at a distance they determined to be comfortable. However there came a lull in the breeze and I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as the last of the herd was making their way towards Allan and me, unbeknownst to them that we were in their way.

Elephants’ sense of smell is uniquely proficient at detecting ripe fruits, succulent grasses, water that is meters below in a dry river bed and more noticeable threats that may come in the form of predators such as lions, spotted hyenas and in some cases, humans.

As I watched the elephants become larger through my binoculars, I immediately thought back to my dangerous game training. A flurry of instances started to race through my head involving elephants. I was searching for a similar situation that I may have found myself in. I was brought back to reality as I looked up and saw the large, heavily pregnant female elephant raise her trunk in periscope fashion to decipher what I was, a mere twenty meters away. There had been no recollection of a similar event. Sitting cross-legged and gazing up at this magnificent creature, all the fear and anxiety that had been building up while I watched the elephants come closer just seemed to fall away as I looked into her eye. Allan had referred to it in a previous encounter as a “soft” eye. However, then the security of the Land Rover may have altered my perception of what this bizarrely calm elephant’s eye was telling me. My clenched grip on my binoculars relaxed and my body eased out of tension. This elephant meant me no harm and was just curious about what we were. It seemed to me that behind this eye, the female elephant was searching through her memories of human beings. She was trying to decipher why I was not the upright figure she had seen before, possibly threatening as her instincts would suggest. I smelt like it but I was somewhat smaller. A lot smaller.

The “soft” eye of an elephant. While elephants are renowned for having a strong sense of smell and extraordinary hearing, their eyesight is the lesser of their senses, although still strong enough to detect movements at great distances.

I could make out the long eyelashes that surrounded the golden brown investigative eye as it cast its gaze over Allan and I. These eyelashes were much longer than I had originally thought and could have made some of the female Camp Managers jealous back at the lodge. The folds, cracks and creases of the skin around the eye gave me a sense of what this animal had been through. Each of those lines seemed to hold its own story in this elephant’s life; stories that I will never know. The tiniest hairs protruded from her trunk. Hairs I have only seen from a distance with strained eyes focusing through binoculars. Some were significantly shorter than others and I began to understand just how effective these trunks are at finding the right leaves that would be that much more tasteful to their palate, as well as the smallest of fruits that had fallen into the undergrowth. The enlarged white tick seemed to be that much greater in size because I was looking up at it (or it was looking down at me). Sipping my coffee that morning I would never have imagined I would be sitting in such a position.

I was in this elephant’s personal space, a place Allan had told me you will only ever find yourself if the elephant allows you.

The blue backdrop of the winter sky was the only other thing I could make out as this impressive gray creature in front of me edged a little bit closer. Her trunk sniffing at the ground, confirming our scent, her curiosity growing. Unlike the proverbial cat, her curiosity grew and it seemed she could sense that we intended her no ill outcome.

At this moment, Allan tilted his head to the side which could have only moved centimeters at most, but it was enough for the female to come to the conclusion that this was close enough. With an intimidating shake of her head, expelling dust and sand into a cloud which engulfed Allan and I, she proceeded to join the others as they moved off into the thicket. Just like that, she disappeared into the trees behind us, leaving our unique moment etched in our memories.

The distinct periscope trunk that elephants will use to help them decipher the vast amount of olfactory elements they’re exposed to. Quite a sight when one is gazing up at it.

There was no adrenaline rush, no euphoric moment to revel in; just a sense of calmness that I have never experienced before. My heart was not in my throat; my hands were firm and steady, my breathing was consistent. For me it was a moment of understanding with elephants. On this occasion and in this situation they were highly tolerant of us. Although inquisitive, they meant us no harm. Allan and I were both grinning like Cheshire cats with no words needing to be said.

“We are the keepers of ancient secrets, for we walked the earth when it was new.” – Eileen Lynch

Now while I do not intend to let every elephant come past me while I sit cross-legged on the ground, this was a unique experience and one I shall not ever forget.

I will remember that it is possible to be at close quarters with elephants, only if you let them approach you and remain calm during their approach. I believe that our calmness allowed them to be calm.

About the Author

Liam Henderson

Field Guide

Liam was educated in the Eastern Cape for high school and Stellenbosch for his university days where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in environmental development and conservation. His love for the bush grew from a year spent in East Africa between high school ...

View Liam's profile


on Surrounded By Elephants

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marinda Drake

Wonderful experience Liam. A privilage to be so close to Elephants. Every inter action let you understand them better. I am busy reading Elephantoms by Lyall Watson. A wonderful and informative read. You have probably read it already.

Liam Henderson

Any time spent with elephants is never wasted, you learn or appreciate something different every time. I have not read it but will keep an eager eye for it on the shelf the next time I am in a bookshop.

Joe Tyrrell

Hi Liam
Two friends and I had a similar experience on the Chobe River a few years ago, when a large herd of ellies came down to drink as we were sitting above the river enjoying the peace of the afternoon . They came over the crest of the hill behind us and were on us almost before we knew they were there. There were no trees to climb, and nowhere to go. All we could do was sit tjoepstil at the base of a small tree, stop breathing, and hope for the best. The ellies strolled past on both sides of us, not more than three or four metres away on either side. I will not say we were calm, but at least we did not let the ellies know how terrified we were! They must have known we were there, and we were astonished they paid us so little attention.
As you say, it is possible to be at close quarters with elephants, but only if you let them approach you and appear calm during their approach.
All best wishes

Liam Henderson

Amazing experience Joe. I especially enjoy the tjoepstil behaviour that you endorsed. Sometimes there are no better expressions than that of afrikaans language.

Dan Deherder

Fantastic article and photos, Liam! You described the overall feeling incredibly well. Transported me back to watching elephants at Phinda drink from our pool. Truly an epic experience to be so close to an animal so large.

Liam Henderson

Thank you Dan, it was a unique experience that we found ourselves in and will not be soon forgot.

Nickolette Karabush

What a wonderful blog! And such a wonderful experience! Thank you for sharing!

Liam Henderson

Appreciate the kind words Nickolette. Im glad you enjoyed it.

Mary Beth Wheeler

What a well-told story – I could imagine myself sitting with you under that tree, breathing a little faster and shallower, as she approached! An amazing experience!

Liam Henderson

Thank you and I am glad that you are able to imagine such an experience, a little different once you are staring up at the elephant approaching.

Ian Hall

Excellent account.

Liam Henderson

Thank you Ian, took awhile to get the whole experience into words but glad you enjoyed the story.

Ian Hall

A few years ago, I was with Simon Smit, and instead of rushing around I sat on a large granite boulder by the causeway watching this small family group move towards us. It was very hypnotic and you just were absorbed into the moment . The fact I wasn’t in a Land Rover and there was absolute peace and quiet was amazing. I sat watching for an hour and a half. As sightings go it was so mundane it wasn’t true, what made it different was the Ellies were aware of us and continued on towards us. No diesels, no noise, just the Ellies walking towards us, whilst we sat on a rock. It was one of the most magical moments of my life. I just felt absorbed by it.

Liam Henderson

As you say Ian, sometimes it is best to let the animals approach you, even better when one is on foot or on a granite rock and it will make all the difference. Awesome account of your experience and I trust that you relive it every time you see elephants.

Judy Hayden

Amazing. I have to live my cream through you guys #Loveit

Judy Hayden

I mean dream 🙂

Liam Henderson

In some ways it did feel like a dream Judy, thank you for the kind words.

Wendy Hawkins

Wow Liam you are braver than me, I would never have done that even in my youth, so hats off to you both! Your pictures are stunning 🙂

Liam Henderson

A concoction of being in the right place at the right time and most importantly the right frame of mind.

Darlene Knott

Wow, what an experience for you. We have also been on the ground with elephants. It is quite intimidating! Thanks for sharing your experience!

Liam Henderson

Very intimidating and so humbling in many ways. I’m glad you enjoyed my account of the events.

Lucie Easley

My heart was beating a bit faster as I read your account of the elephant’s approach as you two sat on the ground. The experience of acceptance as a non-threatening being must have been tremendous.

Liam Henderson

Thank you for the kind words Lucie, it was a unique experience and one that will not be soon forgot.

Samantha Hamilton

What an amazing experience! I am scared of them but love them!

Liam Henderson

One must always e’r on the side of caution but this was a unique experience that the elephants allowed us into their space.

Gawie Jordaan

Thank you Liam! I was privileged enough to go out with Alan before on foot a few times & this brought back fond memories & longing to do so again. One does experience the wild in a different way.

Liam Henderson

Experiences of foot change the bush and the wild life around you. A defining experience for me.

Leonie De Young

Was holding my breath while reading the part of the pregnant ellie coming so close to you both. What an awesome experience for you two. Great blog Liam, thank you both for sharing.

Liam Henderson

Thank you for the kind words Leonie. I’m glad that you enjoyed my story.

Rich Laburn

Great write up of what must have been an incredible experience on foot. Elephants seem to mirror our human emotions so closely that we appear to know them on a deeper level of connection and understanding.

Callum Evans

That sounds like an unreal experience, to be so close to an elephant on foot, with no vehicle separated you from them. Have had that experience with rhino’s before, there is just nothing else like it! And the way you described was pure poetry.

Liam Henderson

Thank you Callum for the kind words. It was an amazing experience and I am happy that I managed to get it down into words that one would appreciate.

Jill Larone

Liam, thank you for sharing your incredible experience and beautiful pictures with us!

Liam Henderson

Thank you Jill, I enjoy creating experiences and then getting people to appreciate it through a story.

Eulalia Angédu

An enormous creature with a ‘soft eye’. This is guy is a wonder.The pictures sre captivating Liam.It must have been quiet a thrilling experience.Bravo!

Liam Henderson

Thank you Eulalia. The soft eye is something I now look for in every elephant that I come across.

Oliver Sinclair

Some of your most memorable experiences in the bush will take place on foot…

Liam Henderson

Could not agree with you more Oliver.

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