It almost seems blasphemy to try and describe this experience in writing but I am going to attempt to do so anyway, as I understand that not all of us are privileged enough to be out here in the African bush. The experience was one shared between Londolozi guest, Judy Boch (see her article How Patience Leads You to Four Leopards), tracker Bennet Mathonsi, Camp Manager Helen Rivett, and I.
“All days at Londolozi are amazing. On my 4th visit, however, I experienced the most unique and impactful sighting that will effect me forever. I’m not sure words can explain the feeling this occurrence caused in me but I will try.” – Judy Boch
The herd was moving slowly out of a thicket towards an open clearing. We positioned a fair distance away, in the middle of the clearing. The elephants continued on their original trajectory and began moving past us about 15 metres away. Exactly what we had hoped for…
Elephants are large animals. If you have not yet seen one close up, picture yourself sitting in your city vehicle, say a standard sedan, looking up at a yellow school bus next to you. Although not the best size analogy, that’s definitely what it feels like when an adult elephant approaches you. And that’s exactly what happened. Two of the largest elephants in the herd, the matriarch and the next biggest cow, changed their route slightly and paused about five to eight metres from us. No aggressive signs were being displayed. It was as if we did not even exist.
One of the two began to urinate. As the gallons (literally) of urine hit the dry earth, the second female came to sniff the ground where the urine was landing. Suddenly we felt vibrations passing through our bodies. The cow sniffing the urine began to release very low-frequency vocalisations, but still at a frequency we were able to hear.
Now at this stage we had not realised it but most of the herd had walked past us and up the hill to our side. This meant we were now directly between the two cows and the rest of the herd. As if a switch had been flicked, when the vocalisations of the cow next to us began, the whole herd began to run straight towards us. As strange as it may sound, we knew that we were not in danger. The herd was clearly responding to the calls of the cow next to us. I felt the instinctive urge to move us out of their path but before I could do so, the herd had already split around us! They all lifted their trunks high into the air above their heads.
A tiny calf was amongst the group that had now encircled the urinating cow. The calf was lying flat on its side wriggling about amongst the towering adults. Normally adults with calves are quite protective over their young and will ensure humans maintain a fair distance. This particular family had brought the calf right up to us! They were so unperturbed by us that they even allowed the calf to lie flat on its side, an incredibly vulnerable position, within a few feet of us! What a privilege…
We all began to ask the same questions: What was the cow telling the rest of the herd? Was she pregnant? Sick? It must have been a scent in the urine of the second cow that triggered the response of the investigating cow. We did not know the answers. That did not matter. We were partially surrounded by about 40 tonnes-worth of majestic creatures. Nothing much mattered at that moment.
” I don’t think we really need to know what was happening in order for this occurrence to have a profound effect on each of us. Elephants will forever be in my heart after this sighting.” – Judy Boch
As quickly as they had surrounded us, they dispersed into the clearing and carried on with their lives. Did they realise the impact their presence had on us? Unlikely. Often as observers of the natural environment we try to hypothesise what certain animal behaviour may mean. Sometimes it is best to take a step back and appreciate a moment for what it is, without trying to decipher what may be happening. This was one of those moments.