Midway through a right-hand turn, our driver yanked the steering wheel hard to left and peeled up the dirt track in the opposite direction, the rest of us gasping and gripping our seats. We stopped a minute later and sat in silence in the dark, wondering what the hell to do next.
For two days we’d been hearing about a lone bull elephant with a single tusk who had been causing issues in the game reserve. We gleaned much of what we knew about him from snippets conveyed over the crackling radio in the jeep. A ranger on the first day reported hearing angry trumpeting nearby, but he said he wasn’t getting any closer to investigate. Other guides regularly called in their sightings from around the reserve. The rangers were keeping tabs on his movements, not to give visitors a great photo op with him, but to steer clear of him.
One of the first things we learned upon arriving at the Welgevonden game reserve, after an hours-long trek from Johannesburg, was that elephants could be bad news. We had to sign liability waivers when we showed up, and while we joked about getting eaten by lions, it turns out lions were the least of our potential problems. When we climbed into the open-sided jeep that would carry us on a bumpy 35-minute journey to our lodge deep in the reserve, our guide, Moyo, told us to keep our arms and heads inside at all times. He said animals would register the jeep as being one large creature, meaning they would be less likely to charge at it—but he also said that even this seemingly solid, 11-seater vehicle would be no match for an angry elephant.
Moyo explained that the African elephants on the reserve were not like the browbeaten, seemingly docile elephants carting tourists around elsewhere in the world. Though there has never been hunting on the Welgevonden reserve, some of the elephants brought to the reserve had been taken from places where hunting was allowed—and not only do elephants have extremely long memories, they also pass on what they know to their young. As a result, many of these enormous creatures were not entirely happy in the presence of humans. On top of that, the elephants preferred to walk along the road rather than over rocks or through the bush, and they weren’t inclined to want to share that road with jeeps. It was entirely possible to have a good, safe elephant sighting on the reserve, but it was also possible to find yourself face-to-face with a 5-ton creature that would not need much provocation to go after you.
That’s exactly what happened to some of our group on the first game drive of our stay. We had divided into two smaller groups riding in two different jeeps. My group, guided by Moyo, had a lovely afternoon drive full of animals grazing peacefully: giraffes and zebras, a warthog mother and her baby, a rhino mother and her baby, elegant impala, goofy wildebeest, and some cheeky jackals loping in the grass. We met up with the other group after a few hours when we stopped in a wide, grassy area to have snacks and drinks as the sun went down. At dusk, we climbed back into our respective jeeps and headed off in different directions to make our way back to the lodge.
Bumping through the golden African afternoon in an open jeep had been pleasant and exciting, but bumping through the dark was rather more harrowing. The headlights illuminated a patch of the red trail ahead of us and some of the dense trees to our sides, but the rest of the world was pitch black—with the exception of the stars above and the Milky Way spangling overhead, a brilliant and alien Southern Hemisphere sky. We occasionally encountered jeeps from different lodges heading the other way, and as we inched past each other on the narrow road, headlights dimmed, Moyo would exchange some words with the other drivers, maybe getting status updates on animal sightings, maybe just passing the time. We were also getting messages over the radio, mostly incomprehensible to me through the stuttering static, and Moyo would sometimes respond with updates of his own.
This is how we heard about the other jeep from our lodge, which had been driving through the dark, just like us, when its headlights caught the ghostly outline of a bull elephant with one tusk standing in the middle of the road. As the story was later recounted to us, the driver, Henrik, slammed on the brakes and cut the lights, and when the elephant started to advance, Henrik performed the virtuoso feat of driving backwards on the twisting dirt track in the dark, occasionally stopping to listen and ask “Is he still coming?”—before driving backwards some more. Eventually the elephant stopped advancing and moved off into the bush, so the jeep could get back to the lodge, where those of us in the non-elephant jeep listened in awe to the tale of the “creepy elephant” (as Tas, the brilliant lone kid in our group, referred to it), who had loomed up out of nowhere and been evaded by the skills of a calm, collected Henrik.
It was generally agreed that everyone still wanted to get a good sighting of an elephant. I wasn’t so sure.
Jeremy and I got up before dawn the next morning for another game drive. We drank coffee while watching monkeys on the terrace, who were just waiting for an opportunity to steal or break something, and then we got in the jeep and drove off with Moyo again. It was a soft, quiet morning, the sky warming up from dusky pink to rosy orange, finally breaking into bright, cloudless blue. There was news of a lion sighting, so we headed to the site and waited patiently for an hour, spying through binoculars on a distant pride of lazy lions moving from one shady spot to another, while rhinos and wildebeest grazed around them and jackals jockeyed for position, hoping to pick up a scrap of something. When a pair of ostriches came onto the scene, the lions decided they had had enough and finally came in our direction, walking towards the road, then along the road, then across the road right in front of us, while we all snapped away and marvelled at these perfectly powerful animals.
After spending time with the lions, we had more coffee, went back to the lodge for breakfast, had a swim, had a shower, had lunch, and then eight of us got into the jeep with Henrik and rumbled out of the lodge again for the afternoon/evening game drive (with Henrik carefully unhooking and rehooking the coiled cables across the road that were designed to keep elephants out of the lodge).
Cheetahs were our afternoon goal, and after a bit of a drive we were rewarded by the sight of four cheetahs lazing in a patch of sand, completely unfazed by the humans gaping at them in all of their sleek, golden beauty. They rolled on their backs and stretched and flopped around like enormous house cats, and we pondered what it would be like to pet them (a short-lived endeavor, undoubtedly). We eventually left the cheetahs and rode off to another grassy plain for “sundowners,” watching the sky reverse its morning show, flaring into hot orange before shading to pink, lilac, and violet, the horizon illuminated by distant storms. As the light dimmed, we packed up our snacks and piled into the vehicle again for the long ride back to the lodge.
The darkness closed in quickly as we rattled along the trail, the flashbulb lightning not doing much to supplement the juddering glow of the headlights. We were, by all appearances, a happy and relaxed little group, pleased with the day’s sightings, mellowed out by the evening’s drinks, looking forward to a nice dinner with wine and then a good night’s sleep. But I kept thinking about the elephant encounter from the night before—and so, apparently, did young Tas, who was bundled up next to his dad and eventually said quietly: “I don’t want to see another elephant.” We all comforted him with false bravado: no, don’t worry, there won’t be any elephants, we’re fine, it’s all fine, everything is totally fine. And all the while I was peering into the trees, and attempting to gauge the relative freshness of the huge piles of elephant dung on the road, and really, really not wanting to see an elephant either.
Spoiler alert: we didn’t see an elephant. We bounced along in the jeep, and Lisa in the seat in front of me started filming to capture the atmosphere. I thought that was a good idea and I followed suit, trying to snap a picture of the road in the headlights. I realized after two shots that I wasn’t going to get anything decent, so I turned the camera off again and sat back for the rest of the ride. The jeep slowed as we approached a tiny intersection, and Henrik started to turn right onto the track that would take us home.
And that’s when the terrific, earsplitting trumpet blasted at us from the darkness not ten feet to our right.
The expletive was mine, not Henrik’s. Henrik was calm and quiet as he wheeled the jeep around and drove us to safety. There may have been outbursts from the other passengers, but I have no recollection of them. Or maybe I just couldn’t hear them over the blood pounding in my head, and the primal voice inside of me telling me to RUN. When we came to stop again a little way up the road, my whole body was shaking, and the sound of the elephant’s trumpet was still ringing in my ears—not the crystalline note of an orchestral instrument, but a noise that would bring down the walls of Jericho. I can hear it even now, 60 hours later, almost 6,000 miles away.
After a moment, Henrik laid out the situation for us. The elephant was blocking the road that would take us the short route straight back to the lodge. We could turn around again and try to skirt past him, or we could keep going in the direction we were currently facing, which would take us the long way back, stretching our journey to more than an hour. A unanimous call went up in the jeep: LONG WAY. But Henrik wasn’t finished yet. The longer road back was the route he had been on the night before when the lone bull had blocked his way. It was possible that we would encounter even more elephants in that direction, landing us in an even worse position. Also, we did not have endless fuel to be driving around the reserve all night.
It was a nightmare scenario, trapped between the angry elephant we knew was right behind us and the elephants we suspected might be waiting ahead, with no one to come to our rescue. The last thing any of us wanted to do was turn around, but we deferred to Henrik’s expert judgment. He had gotten around the elephant once before, he could do it again. We couldn’t just sit in the bush for the rest of the night. Turning around was our least worst option.
So Henrik did the world’s tightest three-point turn on the narrow track and we edged back to the intersection. And a moment later, One-Tusk emerged from the darkness and stood facing us in the road ahead. We stopped, all of us frozen, staring. Would he walk towards us? Would he move away?
He walked towards us. Henrik jerked the jeep into reverse and we sped backwards down the road to a safe distance, then stopped and waited again in silence, the low headlights just picking out the elephant’s massive shape. He seemed to be moving, but we couldn’t tell if he was still coming towards us or going in a different direction. We squinted. We held our breath. We waited.
He wasn’t getting closer. He was turning, lumbering into the trees at the side of the road, heading down the slope to the river, the lonely grey bulk of his body fading into the dark.
Storms passed overhead all night long, lightning popping and thunder rolling down the valley, rain rushing over the thatched roof of our villa. I lay awake thinking about all the animals in the reserve, picturing the monkeys huddling under the dripping leaves, the lions on the prowl, their cubs safe and warm, the zebras and antelope clustered together, trying to make it through another predator-filled night. And One-Tusk, the lone bull, wandering the reserve on his own.
I struggle to think of a time when I have been more terrified than I was in that jeep; I mean bone-deep terrified, the kind of terror you feel when you realize you are just a small, soft animal facing something much bigger and fiercer than you are. Maybe it’s the terror a zebra feels as a lion drags it down, if a zebra feels terror. Or maybe it’s just the pure instinct to escape and survive. Although I suspect we were not in nearly as much danger as my lizard brain thought we were, that doesn’t make the fear any less real. My brain told me there was a giant creature lurking in the dark, and it turns out there really was.
But I feel no ill will towards One-Tusk. If anything, I worry about him. He was “unhappy” according to the rangers, and who can say why? Maybe he was just flooded with testosterone and itching for a fight. Maybe he was trying to assert his dominance and make a place for himself in his world. Or maybe he had learned from his elders that humans are the really dangerous animals, and that for all of his size and power, he could be felled by a poacher or a testosterone-flooded male of a different species who likes killing majestic creatures for sport. Maybe his angry, defensive reaction to us was perfectly reasonable, the only one that makes any sense in the context of his life.
And maybe—probably, almost certainly—he was just as startled by us rumbling out of the dark as we were by him. We meant him no harm, and I don’t think he meant us any harm either (otherwise he really would have come after us). He told us to get away from him, and we did. We respected his status on his turf, he determined we were no threat to him, and we went our separate ways in the night. We never did get our great elephant photo op, but we didn’t need it. We’re always going to remember him. And, elephants being who they are, I wonder if he might remember us, too.