An Important Lesson

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An Important Lesson




As I am sure you are all well aware, the bush is filled with a variety of amazing wildlife. Each animal out there is unique and special in their own way. As a guide, I have been asked a variety of questions by my guests while out and about in the bush. I have been on the receiving end of some good questions, some interesting questions and some outright silly questions. As a guide, it is your job to be professional at all times, and answer each question with sincerity and respect, as difficult as this can be at times.

One of my most commonly asked questions is, "Josh, what is your favourite animal?". My answer is always the same, I start off by explaining as I have above, that I really do enjoy every animal and each animal is special, but my all-time favourite has to be the elephant. I have the utmost respect for these powerful and majestic giants.

The fact that the elephant is my favourite animal is a little strange, as I have almost met my end a few times due to Elephants. Out of all the potentially dangerous animals in the bush, the elephant is the one that has come closest to sending me to an early grave. And a grave I probably deserved, as it was never the fault of the elephants.

I think people who spend a lot of time in the bush will usually have that one animal that they feel a special connection with. I have definitely felt that kinship with elephants, even though I am acutely aware that it is probably (most definitely) a one sided relationship. Especially when I consider how many times I have come close to becoming an elephant’s stomping bag.

I do still love every moment I am able to spend with these amazing animals. Whether it is watching a breeding herd at a waterhole or, being pushed down the road by a bull in musth, or lying in bed at night listening to the sounds of them feeding outside my tent. Each and every moment is special and a moment to cherish. I always sleep much sounder in the bush if there are elephants nearby.

My first near death experience came when I was about 18 years old. Please, as you read this, keep in mind that when you grow up in nature you do not share most peoples natural fear of the animals. You also tend to look for different was to entertain yourself. As much as I am not proud of my exploits as a young man, I am grateful for the experience I gained through these shenanigans.

My dad had always warned me to be careful of elephants and that they move a lot faster than we expect them to. And boy oh boy, was I about to learn that lesson the hard way.
At the time we were living in Botswana's Northern Tuli Game Reserve. Now, anyone who has visited this untamed land will understand and agree that Tuli elephants are not your run-of-the-mill gentle giants that we know and love from other wilderness areas. Tuli elephants are notoriously aggressive, short-tempered and volatile. This is probably due to conflict with humans and villagers within the boundaries of the reserve and silly young boys looking for a thrill.

My 2 good friends, Matthew Ross, Dane Kincaid-Smith and I had decided we would go camping in the bush for the holidays. We planned to spend the full 3 weeks camping out in the most remote area of our property. Obviously being 3 not-yet-men, with free reign and a video camera, we were planning on pushing boundaries and just getting up to nonsense for a whole 3 weeks. (I have a few more hair-raising moments from this little adventure that will most likely be mentioned in up and coming chapters.)
The day finally arrived and we headed out into the wilderness with our kit, full of excitement for the adventure that lay ahead of us.
On the fateful day in question, we headed out in the late afternoon to look for and get some close up footage of elephants. Not very clever I know, but as mentioned we were very young and as we say in South Africa, "lekker windgat".
Not long after leaving our base camp we located a small breeding herd of elephants, so we parked the vehicle some distance away and decided to proceed on foot.

After a brief discussion and evaluation of our ill- advised plan of action we decided we would try and get in close, hoping for some action and up-close footage. I was carrying a .375 bolt action rifle, which made me feel extremely brave - if only we had known that none of us were in the least bit prepared for what was to follow.

After checking the wind and deciding that it was in our favour we began stalking the oblivious and contentedly feeding elephants. We used a shallow drainage line for our approach and soon found ourselves within 40m of the giants. At that time our hearts were beating a little faster and the elephants were starting to look a little bigger. After a few moments we noticed the matriarch (lead female) lifting her trunk, and we knew that she was testing the wind. The wind that a few moments before had been caressing our sweating faces had now turned to blow our sweat filled scent straight towards the elephants. In what felt like a split second all hell broke loose. It was trumpeting and screeching and dust and panic. The video camera didn't even get switched on. While we stood frozen, the matriarch turned and located us. Without a check she fell into full charge, coming down on us like a raging avalanche.

Now, I had grown up in the bush all my life and I knew how to handle a rifle, but in a situation like this you can easily forget what you think you know and how you think you will react. It always amazes me how much can run through your mind during a situation like this. As I watched this mountain of rage hurtling towards us all I could think of was having to tell Dane and Matts's parents that I had got their kids killed. In that moment I knew that I had to get them out of there as quickly and safely as possible.

I briefly glanced back at them and screamed at them to run. Let me just add that I do not think it was bravery on my part, but more me not wanting to have to explain to their folks what had happened. The most important rule to remember is to do exactly what the guide tells you to do. I knew if they could get through the drainage line and on to the opposite bank they would be ok and then I just had to worry about getting myself out of the mess I had got us into.
Unfortunately, Matt decided to make his escape straight towards the oncoming 4 tonne berserker. I still remember standing frozen, expecting to see my friend impaled at any moment on one of the elephants gleaming tusks. Thankfully, he veered right at the last possible moment and vanished into the drainage line and on to safety. Thankfully the angry female didn't follow him but kept on towards me. Dane had the good sense to fall back to the other side of the drainage line where he waited for me.
Now, as much as I usually felt confident handling a rifle under normal circumstances these were no longer normal circumstances and this time the rifle felt like a stranger in my hands. As the elephant was getting bigger and bigger and closer and closer I was trying to fumble a round into the chamber. Thanks to my panic I was forcing the bolt and this was causing it to jam. So try as I may I could not get the bolt closed. (Keep in mind that only about 20 seconds had now passed since the matriarch picked up our scent.)

Eventually I managed to get the bolt closed and the round chambered and as soon as the bolt locked down I pulled off the shot, aiming into the ground. The bullet hit the ground between the elephants front legs and thankfully she stopped. When she stopped she was maybe 2 meters from where I stood, white-faced and shaking. She gave me one last stare down and then turned and made a hasty retreat with the rest of her panicked family.

My thoughts immediately turned to my mates. I was aware that there had been a herd of elephants and I had only dealt with the one. I was worried where Matt had gone. Dane and I called and called and eventually located Matt, who had gone to fetch the vehicle. So, thankfully we were all accounted for and no elephants had been hurt. Before the dust could settle and with adrenaline still flowing thickly through our veins we heard a car approaching. As Murphy would have it, it was my father on his way to check in on us and make sure we were still alive and staying out of trouble.

Obviously we couldn't tell him what had just happened as that would probably mean the end of our little adventure. So, as he approached we kept our emotions in check and tried our best to show no outward signs of distress or excitement.
Needless to say, our acting skills proved sufficient and my dad suspected nothing. He asked to join us for a beer or two at our camp. I am sure you can imagine how much we just wanted to talk, as since the elephant charge we had not had a chance to talk it out and get rid of all the built up adrenaline and excitement. I am sure my dad picked up on something hanging in the air and decided to cut his visit short and head home. As soon as my dad left us, all the emotion came bubbling out and our excited voices could be heard long into the night and long after the flames of the campfire had died down.

Now, this was by no means my last mistake in the bush, but it was a lesson I would never forget. It was also a much-needed lesson in respect. The elephants were minding their own business and us young jump-starts decided to put them and ourselves in a very dangerous situation where one or both parties could have been killed. As mentioned above, it was not my proudest moment, but I am grateful it happened and we managed to all (including the elephants) get out safely and unscathed, with valuable lessons learnt and experiences gained.