Africa Guide
Guide to Africa

An Unexpected Elephant Encounter

Written by Matt Dry - trip leader

Elephant Encounter
Elephant Encounter

In Overland there are a million different experiences to have, some that last and last seemingly forever. Game drives through the Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater go on for seemingly endless, thrilling hours. On the Spice tour of Zanzibar one is steeped in the rich history and culture of that island paradise for several hours where one's senses feast on a myriad of different sights, sounds, and tastes. On village tours in Malawi you meet so many shining faces and are privileged to see how the people live there you feel as if you got to spend a week on another planet.

When you look back and try to remember, you see it as a collage of sensorial wonders in the paradise that is Africa. When one scrutinizes the trip as a whole, it really is a series of incredible moments, some standing out like beacons that will beckon one back to Africa long after the Overland trip has ended…Moments like this one…

It has been a long day of driving to Etosha National Park, Namibia, followed by a dramatic game drive where we have seen many of Etosha's usual suspects. Guiding the whole day, I know I need a break from the restless passengers who definitely were happy to clamber off the truck and head to the bar. I take a few moments to myself to go down to Namutoni's water hole. It is a beautifully arranged seating area for the people to come and see the animals drink from the local water source. If one is lucky one can see just about anything there, but most often zebra, wildebeest, and any number of antelope.

Etosha Elephant
Etosha Elephant

I decide to sit Indian style on the concrete column just this side of the electric fence dividing the animals of Etosha from those people coming there to appreciate them. Only Impala are present under the floodlight lighting up the waterhole. I lean back on my hands and breathe in the night air, my eyes closed.

I hear it then, the crunching of rocks beneath heavy, heavy feet. My eyes bolt open and I peer into the darkness beyond the beaming light and behind a copse of trees. Whatever it is, there seems to be many of them. Nothing could make that much noise crunching the limestone around the waterhole.

It doesn't quite register when the behemoth figure appears just beyond the light. It lumbers into the light like a phantom from the darkness of my subconscious. I am rooted to the spot and the breath catches in my lungs. I am filled with that fantastic sensation that I am seeing something very few people on Earth get to see from this perspective. At a hundred meters out, his massive ears slowly flapping, is an ancient bull elephant. Obviously he has come to the waterhole to feed on the soft vegetation found here. It is then that I hear two of passengers approaching up the boardwalk leading to one of the best moments of their lives.

Both S. and P. have shadowed me the whole trip. Hailing from Finland, they have been fascinated by all Africa's creatures, big and small, and their constant attention has already rewarded them the whole way from Nairobi. They are soon to have the best moment yet. I wave them over with a rapid hand gesture. One finger covers my lips conveying to them to be silent and to hurry. They cannot see the behemoth from where they are standing. They scurry over to me at my post and look out over the fence. It is the look on their faces that I live for in this job. It is a look of awe and wonder, one that they will probably get to wear a handful of times in their lifetime.

The elephant is fifty meters out when they reach me. It raises its trunk to smell us as he obviously heard their approach to the fence. I feel S. want to turn and run but I grab her arm gently. "It's okay. Just don't move." - She nods fearfully but trustingly. We do not move as the bull approaches us. He is obviously unperturbed by our presence. He lumbers straight for us and I am all of sudden not a hundred percent sure he isn't going to come right over to the electric fence, where he could easily touch us with his trunk. We are un-breathing statues as he approaches.

At fifteen meters I hear S. suck in her breath. He gently opens his ears and raises his trunk again toward us. At eight meters, he stops and looks at us. He then turns laterally. The only thing in the world is this elephant. He is like a living, breathing planet in front of us, a messenger from another world that we can only visit for a few precious moments.

He stands there in front of us for what seems the rest of our lives. Not one of us is breathing. Without a sound of his huge padded feet, he then trundles off to our left to the reeds that fringe the waterhole. He disappears into the reeds as silently and phantom-like as he appeared.

The Finns and I smile hugely at each other. I unfold my legs from beneath me and feel the blood pins and needle its way back into my legs. I can barely walk as much from the adrenaline leaking out of my system as the sitting in my crossed legged position. We leave the viewing area and head onto the boardwalk leading away from our revelation. We meet another group noisily coming down the boardwalk. It occurs to me that the elephant heard them long before we did and left us as a result of their noisy presence.

"Did you see anything?" the group asks excitedly. How can we possibly tell them what we got to experience? None of us say anything as if knowing we couldn't possibly express what we just got the privilege of experiencing. "No. Nothing." I say. We walk on past the people and smile at one another. We know we have shared a moment that we will relive again and again in our minds, a moment inexpressible to anyone who has not been there to see and experience it.

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