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.
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.
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.
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.
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.