Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rampaging Elephant Almost Kills Tourists


I know, you are reading this to find out about the raging elephant, but alas, that is later in the tale – so be patient but do read on.

Lisa and I just returned from the most exhaustive two days I can remember in a long time. Our ship arrived at the port of Richards Bay, South Africa early yesterday morning. Richards Bay is located in the northeast corner of South Africa, very near the borders with Mozambique and Swaziland. Mid-morning we set out on a 2 ½ drive north to the Phinda Game Reserve, where we would spend the night.

Our bus arrived at the Reserve a little after noon. At the entrance to the Park, everyone was transferred to small Land Rovers for the trip to our lodge in the nearby mountains.IMG_6119 The material we had been given in advance said we would be driven directly to the lodge for lunch, check-in, and then we would have time to rest before our long afternoon safari. Well, that is not quite what happened. Immediately after setting off in the Land Rovers, our drivers began a safari drive that lasted almost two hours. This produced two problems for the group right off the bat. First, no one in the group had prepared themselves with sun screen and bug spray. Both were critical; the sunscreen because the sun was quite literally hot enough that merely touching the seats of the vehicle would burn your hand. The bug spray because the Reserve is located in a known area of malaria and we had all been advised of the importance of insect repellent, trousers and long sleeve shirts. Just to make matters even worse, unlike our last safari experience, these vehicles had absolutely no protection from the sun. That made it great for viewing and photography, but it was extremely uncomfortable. By the time we did reach our accommodations, Lisa and I were already burned to a hot red.

Far from roughing it in the African bush, the Lodge was a magnificent structure discretely built on the top of a small mountain. It had a commanding view over the valley below, and even though it had no air conditioning, the breeze kept the area quite comfortable in spite of the heat. In addition to the main lodge, each guest had an individual accommodation on one of the many trails which lined the hill. Our rooms were unreal. Far from the tent we had in Kenya, these were luxury villas, complete with a small air conditioning unit. We had a King size bed, with a step down sitting room. IMG_6282 The bathroom was unique in that the entire side wall was glass, and sitting directly in front of the glass was a beautiful stand alone tub, which had magnificent views of the surrounding hills. Outside was a beautiful deck with a table and chairs, and our own small private pool and outdoor shower. Sadly, with our schedule, we never got to enjoy the accommodations. There was one negative to the rooms; the thatched roofs. While they looked nice, they also harbored little critters, little critters that leave droppings on the unsuspecting people below. Every time we entered the room there would a new collection of droppings around, some on the bed itself. Kinda made me skitchy about sleeping with my mouth open, don’t you know.

Unlike our stay in Kenya, this lodge was not surrounded by any physical barrier to give protection from the animals, and so the animals were free to roam the property. For this reason, after dark no one was permitted outside their cabin without a security escort. You might think the animals would avoid the property, but that is not the case. Animals were all around, all of the time. In fact, the next morning a pair of male lions were roaming outside cabin 10, which was just a few paces from where we were staying in cabin 16.

Our actual safari drive started at 4:00 pm, and by then the group was fully prepared. You might wonder about why we were starting so late. The heat and the sun are almost unbearable during the mid-day, not only for the tourists, but also for the animals; for that reason, most of the animals seek shade and are not as easily seen until the early evening and early morning hours. So, for the next 4 ½ hours, we bounced and jerked along, up and down the hills, holding on for dear life, all the while searching out “big game.” Every game drive is a new experience and you never know what will happen. The fact that each of the drivers carries a large rifle does add to the excitement I must admit. For the most part, I will let the pictures tell our story, but there were two “stand out” events that distinguished this drive.

Let me setup the first scenario. Our Land Rovers were huge vehicles that in addition to the two seats in the front, had three rows of bench seats behind. In addition, mounted on the front bumper was a single seat where a “tracker” would sit. For our group, there were four vehicles in total, but the four set out in different directions in order to maximize the chance of finding animals. Whenever something was discovered, a broadcast would be sent out over the radios, and the other vehicles would close in on the find. This meant that the first vehicle to locate game would be alone with the animals for some while before the others would arrive. In charge of the entourage, was a young white driver, who appeared quite full of himself. Our driver, on the other hand, was an old native who had lived in the area his entire life. That expertise was to produce two very memorable moments for our small group.

Our tracker alerted the driver to something deep in a nearby grove, and so we set out to see what had been discovered. Our driver told us that we had located a large family of white rhinoceros, but they were so far in the distance that all I could see were moving shapes. No matter how hard our driver tried to get closer, the bush was just too thick to allow it. So, he stopped, sat for a minute looking over the situation, and announced that we would move a few feet down the field and then sit quietly. He did not make any announcement on the radio to alert the other vehicles; we just sat in quietly by ourselves. In a low voice, he explained that the white rhino is almost blind and has a very poor sense of both smell and sound. Because they do not digest their food well, they are like perpetual mowing machines that keep moving and munching all the time, occasionally heading back to the water to cool off. He had observed the herd and could see that they were advancing in a line towards our direction, and behind us some distance was the water hole. He reasoned that if we just stayed put they might well come right up to where we were sitting before even sensing we were there.IMG_6385 He was absolutely correct. We watched in fascination as these huge magnificent animals slowly approached our vehicles. We all knew that if they became startled and charged that the large males could easily hook our Land Rover with its horn and turn us right over. Slowly they advanced. No one said a word. They kept getting closer and closer, until I thought they just might run into us. Suddenly the lead male reared up his head slowly and looked around. The group stopped and likewise raised their heads for the first time. At that point, the herd was no more that 10 feet distant. We stared, they stared back, and not a sound was made. Rather than being afraid, they seemed confused. They clearly wanted to go straight ahead to the water hole, but we were in the way.IMG_6408 They backed up, some turned around, and then around again. Some went left, some went right, but always they came back to the same spot and looked at us as if to say – go away. The larger male finally came to the conclusion that if they deviated just a little, they could walk around us. Slowly and cautiously he began to do just that, and when the others realized that they could proceed by us, they joined in the line marching and munching the entire time. I can tell you that to be that close to a herd of such large wild animals was quite an experience. As they moved away, our driver finally reported the finding, and winked at us saying that we can go now.

For a game drive, that was about as good an experience as you could hope to have, but it actually got even better, much better. Some time later the cocky lead driver reported locating a large herd of elephants. All of the vehicles converge on that location. As we turn a corner in the road, we can see up ahead the lead driver in the center of the road facing us. Directly in front of us half way off the road is another vehicle, and as we pull up the final vehicle comes in behind us, blocking our exit.IMG_6531 Because the vehicle in front of us stopped short of the clearing, we cannot quite see all the activity, but I can hear the bushes moving and see some small elephants to our left. Suddenly there is the sound of something crashing through the trees just to the right of our vehicle. IMG_6542 I see a tree pushed over and the sound of crashing bush gets louder when the bush parts and coming towards us less than 50 ft away is a bull elephant who is quite agitated. As he breaks out of the bush, he stops and flaps his ears at us, and rustles the bush some more, making a terrifying scene. The lead driver starts his vehicles and roars down the road telling us as he drives by to leave now, this is just too dangerous. The vehicle that was blocking us in front does a wild u-turn in the bush, and in a flurry of dust roars down the road behind him. What about us?

Our driver just sits there quietly. The bull has accomplished his goal of defending his territory and so he turns and goes off to a nearby tree to start tearing down limbs that contain a bright red fruit. The driver behind us is very young and quite scared, but he seems to figure that if our driver is staying then by golly he is too, but he is clearly not comfortable. Our driver gets out of the car and walks a little down the road. When he comes back he turns the Land Rover around to face down the road away from the herd, but then he starts slowly backing up the road towards the group. He explains that the male who charged us is “in musk” and as such can be very unpredictable. However, he thinks that having shown his prowess, that he will be happy for awhile eating the nearby fruits. Slowly, we back up until we are now in the center of the clearing. He turns off the motor and we wait. To one side of us are a group of females and some young males. They seem to be quite happy eating and playing. On the opposite side of us, we cannot see the big male, but you can clearly hear him, and you can follow his progress and he bends trees like matchsticks. From down the road behind us, a large male with beautiful tusks emerges and wanders towards the females. Soon another equally large male emerges and the two start to engage their tusks. The clicking of their tusk and the grunting noises are something to behold. Clearly the two males are determining who will get to the females tonight.

So here we are snapping pictures right and left. We have a herd of females on our left, a large male on our right still rampaging around the forest, and directly behind us two equally large males are carrying on quite a show. In front of us, the remaining vehicle with the young driver is sitting across the road, facing us – he did not turn around when we did, and he is partially blocking the road.

Then it happened. I was looking at the road behind us when suddenly right in front of my eyes appeared the largest elephant head I have ever seen, and it was attached to a huge bull elephant in a furious rampage running full bore for our vehicle; IMG_6546 trunk in the air, screeching and its ears flapping in a furious display. It happened so fast, that all I can remember is feeling my heart jump and saying out loud “Oh S#@#!”

Our driver quickly started the car and slammed the gears as that Big, BIG elephant was bearing down on us. He got to within around 10 ft of our vehicle before we flew down the road in a cloud of dust. Our driver ran over the side of the road to get around the other vehicle, whose driver was now in a wild eyed panic – his engine still not started and facing the wrong way even then. Our driver was laughing riotously at the poor guys panic. I guess he made it out safely, but we continued on down the road in a cloud of dust. Our driver’s laughter became infectious until we were all laughing – why I don’t know, except for relief of being alive.

A little after sunset, our driver pulled over at a beautiful small lake and proceeded to set up a small table complete with a tablecloth. From the trunk, he brought around a cooler and setup glasses, several different kinds of alcohol, snacks, and we quietly formed as a group for our “sundowners.” IMG_6578 The last of our trip was made in total darkness. Our tracker sat up front with a large searchlight swinging back and forth to clear our way. Several times we ran up on large animals just standing in the darkened road, so his work with the light was appreciated. Finally we arrived at the lodge and proceeded directly to dinner (since it was after 9pm). Dinner was served in a large outdoor compound called a BOMA, complete with a roaring fire to drive away the evening chill. Afterwards we had to have a security guard take us to our cabin, where we fell immediately into a deep sleep – until our

5 am wakeup call so we could start the entire thing over yet again.

We departed in our Rovers by 5:30 am hoping to catch the animals before the heat of the day. Nothing major happened this morning, and we returned to the lodge at 8:30 am. Our rooms had already been turned, so we quickly threw our things together and went to breakfast at 9 am. From there everything was in reverse, but I don’t remember very much because I fell asleep on the long drive back to the ship.

We had some absolutely wonderful moments on this trip, but sadly Lisa is now even more ill than before and has once again gone to the doctor. She had another breathing treatment, and coughs and “barks” constantly. She is miserable. They have changed her antibiotic and want to see her again tomorrow. I think, at this point, the trip is pretty much over for her. Between her bad bronchitis and her sunburn, she is pretty bummed. She will be doing good just to get home in one piece. I find that I am also exhausted and fighting sunburn, particularly my eyes, which have burned all night.

When I started this story I mentioned that these last two days were among the most difficult we had encountered, and I had to stop and ask myself why that is so. We have certainly been places that were hotter, and this trip was almost identical to our safari in Kenya, but on that trip, in addition to the safari, we had to make multiple flights and even transfer countries, which added up to extremely long days. I guess the answer is as simple as one word: “the sun.” We spent a total of ten hours out in the sun with absolutely no shade on this trip. I can not adequately describe the heat of the full sun at these latitudes. If I touched the metal railings on our vehicles it burned my hands, so we really could not hold onto anything while we bounced around. To keep from burning our bottoms on the seats, we sat on top of wool blankets. They did not burn our bottoms, but they sure kept us hot.

So, I hope to get our pictures up tomorrow, and there might be one more report before we head home on the 13th, but that will depend on how Lisa is feeling.

Looking forward to seeing everyone soon,


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