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…

Elephant, breeding herd, calf, PT

The breeding herd of elephants making their way through the clearing past us.

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.

Elephant cow, breeding herd, PT

The very large cow that stopped next to our vehicle and started urinating.

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.

Guest image, Judy Boch, elephant interaction

One elephant touches the face of the other with its trunk, as part of a ritualised greeting. Shortly after this, the same individual proceeded to investigate the urine of the other. Image by Londolozi guest, Judy Boch

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.

Elephant, breeding herd, interaction, PT

The whole herd standing right beside us, while the two larger cows remain with their trunks interlocked. With the herd so close to us, we all struggled to capture an image of the whole scene!

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…

elephant, calf, close-up, PT

A young calf lifts its trunk to investigate scent particles in the air. This is the same calf that lay down amongst the herd, right next to us.

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

Elephant, eye, close-up, PT

Only when one is close enough, can one appreciate the calmness in an elephant’s eye.

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.


About the Author

Pete Thorpe

Field Guide

Right from his very first bush trip at the age of four, Pete was always enthralled by this environment. Having grown up in the Middle East, Pete’s home-away-from-home has always been a bungalow in the Greater Kruger National Park, where his family had ...

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on What it Feels Like to be Surrounded By a Herd of Elephants

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marinda Drake

A wonderful experience. Elephants are such special animals. They sense and feel just like we do.

Pete Thorpe

They truly are special. Its always humbling being so close to them.

Wendy Macnicol

Hi there Judy. A couple of years ago my husband, Neil, and I spent a few days at Bakubung Lodge which is on the border of the Pilanesberg Reserve.. While there we decided to go for a drive and then have breakfast at a restaurant at a lodge near the top of the reserve. En route to breakfast there was a large bull elephant with his head in a bush and his bottom in the road in front of us. Knowing how they swing around to face you and could charge, we patiently sat there – at a considerable distance away. He got bored waiting for us to try and pass him, so he stuck his head in the bush again and munched away having HIS breakfast. Suddenly we saw a white station wagon appear at the top of the next rise and it came down the road towards this elephant. He immediately swung his big head OUT of the bush and turned to face this vehicle. The driver had driven too near and the next thing was he had to reverse SPEEDILY back down the road with the elephant after him. He didn’t have time to turn his vehicle around and so sped off as fast as he could – BACKWARDS – and he and the ellie disappeared down the road. There was peace. We gave them both time and then slowly and cautiously drove down the road keeping a good eye out for elephants or squashed white station wagons! However – we arrived at the restaurant and were having our breakfast when we overheard a broad Scots accent saying ” I thought my last day had come!” It was the driver and passengers of the white station-wagon! They were sitting at a table in a far corner. We were so pleased that they had arrived safely. Needless to say we went back to the Lodge via a different road. That afternoon we decided to visit Kwa Maritane – another resort just down the main road. We thought we would get away from elephants and just sit there and have a drink or something. We were about 100 yards through the main gate and guess what? We were stuck solid in a herd of about 40 elephants and there was a baby sleeping in the middle of the road. The babies get SO tired. He was flat on his side. The elephants were almost right up against our little Chevy Spark but they took no notice of us. We just sat there patiently for about half an hour and then Small Fry in front was woken by his Mom. She helped him to his tired little feet by pushing her toe under him and they wandered off. This allowed us to drive slowly to the Lodge and I just remember saying to the Receptionist “WHERE can I get a drink please??” She kindly pointed us to the big deck and we tottered out there and sank into chairs. Right in front of us was a big plain surrounded by hills. In front of us was a dam. All over the plain and in the dam and also right below us drinking out of the rock pool were at least another 40 – 50 elephants! If they had all turned pink it wouldn’t have surprised me. The whole experience was all so surreal. We just resigned ourselves to having an “elephant day” and enjoyed our lovely Irish Coffees!!! We agree with you. The ellies we saw all had lovely calm brown eyes with looong eye-lashes. We know. We could easily have counted each eye-lash …..

Pete Thorpe

Hi Wendy,

Thanks for your story about the elephant day. Sometimes one has action packed days out here! I have emailed your comment to Judy.

Denise Vouri

I know this feeling, suspended in the midst of the “gentle giants “, trying to guess what they’re doing, thinking…… the photos are a testament to the elephant’s acceptance of you in the green vehicle. Lovely blog.

Pete Thorpe

Thank you Denise! The elephants were definitely not disturbed by us at all. It was wonderful…

Ian Hall

Any time you get really close to an Elephant it is always on their terms not yours and a wonderful moment.

Pete Thorpe

I will have to agree with you on that one, Ian!

Darlene Knott

An awesome moment for sure! Thanks for sharing, Peter. Elephants are so mesmerizing to watch. Their behaviors give us glimpses of their great intelligence. They are huge animals and can certainly make you feel vulnerable. Your experience was a very fortunate, magical moment!

Pete Thorpe

Truly magical, Darlene. I’m glad Judy and I could share the experience with you.

D. Phillips

Thank you so much. It’s true, not all of us will have the blessing of visiting your beautiful country, but you have shared a part of it here. My heart yearns for the elephants. Kindred spirits. Thank you for sharing so beautifully.

Pete Thorpe

Thanks for your comment, D. Phillips. Hopefully one day you too will also be in the presence of these majestic giants, whether it be at Londolozi (hopefully!) or elsewhere in Africa.

Callum Evans

Such an incredible sighting with beautiful photos to go with it. Hope to have an elephant sighting like that in Moremi in January!!

Pete Thorpe

Enjoy your trip to Moremi, Callum! I spent a few months working in Khwaai, which borders Moremi. You won’t be disappointed…

Callum Evans

Thanks Pete, I definetely will!! That’s lucky!! We’ll be staying at Third Bridge, but might take a trip out Khwai. Any tips for the area?

Jazz Doc

Phenomenal experience and description of it. Wonderful images, to boot! Thanks!

Pete Thorpe

I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jazz!

Janny Tam

This inter-speci encounter is sacred ! I am touched,

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