Aleida K Wahn J.D.

The View From Here

Surrounded by African Elephants

When a magical vacation turns frightening

Posted Oct 21, 2016

Udo Wahn, used with permission
Botswana, Africa
Source: Udo Wahn, used with permission

The African wild dogs were magnificent as they raced all over the Botswana plains searching for prey. We had been looking for these exquisite dogs for hours, and we were delighted when they suddenly appeared and pulled us into their magical world. Other safari groups had also been waiting, and with the sighting a mad scramble ensued as six safari Land Cruisers sped into overdrive to follow the dogs. We pursued in thick clouds of dust, until our guide Mogomotsi brilliantly devised a shortcut, fearlessly maneuvering through a river and to the coveted first place position. The dogs seemed oblivious to our human presence as they continued their urgent quest. Finally, as darkness descended, it was time to bid adieu to the hunt and head back to Khwai River Lodge for our own dinner. Elated and content, we were blissfully unaware that our adventures were far from over.

As we traveled on a narrow dirt road, we soon came upon a herd of elephants drinking at a river channel. A mama elephant with her baby, a “teenager” our guide joked, turned to look at us. As we continued closer, the elephants started getting agitated, so Mogomotsi told us that it was not safe to pass and that we would just have to wait for a while. He turned off the engine and we sat in our seats—trying to be quiet and still.

Within minutes the elephants started walking toward us until the mama elephant, her baby, and the other elephants were lined up on the entire left side of our open safari truck. An elephant’s enormity is not fully understood until one is towering just feet away.

I could sense that the mama elephant was unhappy we were there. She seemed very intense as she stood staring at us, leaving us wondering what she was going to do. Suddenly she took her trunk, scooped up a batch of dirt, and threw it on us. The other elephants started to extend their trunks toward our vehicle, moving their trunks like snakes as they investigated who we were. The mama elephant kept her vigilant stare and then started to stomp her foot. Not an expert at elephant behavior, I thought, “What does THAT mean?” Our guide said calmly, “Don’t worry, you will survive.” Despite his relaxed assurances, I started getting nervous, envisioning elephants overturning our safari truck.

As we continued to sit quietly, I could hear a vehicle in the distance. I was so grateful to see the lights of a safari truck, feeling that we had been saved. I thought the vehicle would stop behind us and there would be safety in numbers. Instead the vehicle slowly passed us on our right side. I thought this was the perfect time for us to follow, but Mogomotsi cautioned that he did not want to start the engine as it might freak out the elephants. We had no other choice but to watch the safari truck disappear into the night. It was like being lost at sea and watching a ship pass by. I wanted to yell out, “Come back and save us! Don’t leave!”

As the darkness completely enveloped us, with the only light now coming from the moon and stars, we were alarmed to hear loud rustling noises to our right. More elephants were pushing through the bushes. Mogomotsi whispered, “I think the bull elephant is here,” to which my husband fervently responded, “Oh great!” These new elephants lined up on the right side of our truck. We did not need anyone to tell us that we were now surrounded by elephants on both sides! Meanwhile, the mama elephant continued to stomp her foot.

At this point, a deep panic started rising inside of me. I could truly understand how a person could just go crazy, lose it completely and jump out of the truck, screaming hysterically before being stomped to death. This would of course break the number one rule on safari, which is never run! “Run and you will die!” is the safari mantra. I kept telling myself to stay calm, yet my heartbeat was not listening as I could feel my carotid artery pumping at full throttle. The man behind me felt the same way as he said, “I am starting to get really scared.”  Then the mama elephant began to growl, causing more panic. Again I said, “What does THAT mean?” I began to seriously pray, saying, “Dear God, PLEASE get us out of here.”

We sat in the dark for what seemed like hours waiting to see what the mama elephant would do. I would look over at her and think, “Wow! She is huge!” Later I would joke that I should have just sent her a text, “Mama, we are not going to hurt your baby. Let us go.” At last the mama elephant turned and started walking away from our truck, mercifully releasing us from the grip of fear. The other elephants followed her, with some elephants walking in front of our truck.

Mogomotsi started the engine and we began to move slowly forward. We could still see elephants crossing in front of our truck, illuminated by our headlights.  Just when we thought we were home free, one elephant abruptly stopped in the middle of the road, turned toward us, fanned out her enormous ears, and let out a trumpet blast, scaring us to death. She took a step toward us and I thought, “This is it!" I commanded, “Grab Paolo,” my 12-year-old son who had a front row seat to all this action.

Thankfully, the elephant continued across the road and we drove off.  Once we were far enough away, the lady behind me started to laugh hysterically. In an instant, we all joined in, laughing like hyenas in the dark Botswana night. We laughed relentlessly, so relieved we were free. Without any doubt, our night with the African elephants is a night I will never forget.

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