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Driving with elephants

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

“Do you want to drive?” asked my dad as we climbed into the Landrover. It was our first morning at Olifants Camp after driving through from Skukuza the previous afternoon. We were in the Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves (or ‘safari parks’) in Africa. Kruger is a magical place where animals and the landscape exist naturally, almost undisturbed by the modern world. A place so far from civilisation that the sky explodes with shooting stars at night under the light of more visible constellations than you’ll probably ever see in your life.

“Sure” I called back as I grabbed the keys and plonked myself in the front. I immediately turned on the aircon, though it was late morning, it was already getting very warm. I pulled the car into drive and it jerked off a little awkwardly. I quickly refamiliarised myself with driving an automatic – and a car several times the size of the tiny Mini I drove in the UK. As we turned onto the sandy, gravel road our wheels crunched against the surface, throwing up a cloud of fine beige dust and small stones behind us.

Our day started brilliantly – much like our previous days. We spotted all sorts of wonderful animals, stopping on the side of the road to watch: playful monkeys, zebras chewing their breakfast, slow moving giraffes and numerous antelope. We even managed to spy my favourite bird, the lilac-breasted roller casually sitting on the highest branch of a leafless tree, scanning the immense landscape.

Since we were staying at a camp named Olifants (elephant, in Afrikaans), an area renowned for sightings of the beautiful giant creatures, we had high hopes of seeing many in their natural habitat. It didn’t take long for us to spot a herd. We spotted a mama elephant on the right side of the road first, chomping on a tree, her calf about 10 meters behind her. She seemed unperturbed by our presence and allowed us to pull up close next to her and watch her pulling branches from the tree – pretty much destroying it.

A few moments later she started to walk forwards and her calf moved closer to her. I felt a little nervous, knowing that elephants are infamously overprotective of their young. I remembered my grandfather’s stories about how an elephant tried to roll their car in the Kruger Park one Sunday after church, and how he’d seen them do terrible damage to other people’s cars. Soon the mama elephant was in the road. She was then joined by another huge elephant – presumably the papa. They both walked slowly. Very slowly. Another couple of elephants joined them, leaving a tiny gap in the middle of the road that only a tiny car could pass through - if they were brave enough.

There are few alternative paths in the Kruger Park, and we really needed to take that specific route to head across to another camp where we were planning to have lunch. There was no way around it really and now my path was filled with a herd elephants. I glanced at my dad who smiled back at me.

“I’m going to try go past them very carefully,” I told him.

“Ok, but be very careful.”

By this point cars had started to bunch up behind us, also cautious of the largest land mammal in the world. I pushed my foot lightly on the accelerator and moved closer.

The largest elephant turned around, stood its ground and began flapping it ears. It shouted at me with a loud trumpeting sound. It was not happy. I wasn’t happy either. I put the car in reverse and started moving backwards as it took a few steps towards us. Two of the cars behind us turned around, clearly choosing to take a different path. The car directly behind me grew impatient and overtook me. It continued towards the elephants as we all gasped in surprise. The biggest elephant stamped at him in warning and trumpeted repeatedly. As the car dashed past the group, the elephant chased him down the road a bit before it turned back to join its group.

We started to think about taking a different path. My dad pulled out the map as we discussed what else we could do that day. By the time we'd thought of a new plan, the elephants had miraculously moved out of the road. Despite feeling a little terrified and very cautious, I put the car back into drive and carefully passed them. They were now eating trees on the opposite side of the road and no longer seemed interested in us.

As we got through, I sighed with relief – as did everyone else. We moved back to our original plan, driving slowly and looking out for animals (and other angry elephants). A few hundred metres down the road we came across a windmill and a reservoir that was overflowing with water.

“I bet there’s something here,” called my mom. Given the heat of the season and the dry land, it was definitely the kind of place that animals would stay close to. We stopped for a moment to have a look around. Within minutes, the same herd of elephants started to circle the reservoir. More joined them from the other direction. There were tons of them – a dozen, perhaps more.

They grouped around the water, stretching their long trunks up and over the cement frame, collecting water and spraying it in their mouths. Some sprayed each other, others pushed for space. Baby elephants fumbled and fought with each other like awkward toddlers. They were so animated and clumsy in their water collection, it was a joy to watch. They no longer cared that we were there. This moment of humour and candidness was an absolute treat. We eventually pulled ourselves away as we headed off for lunch. When we passed by later, we saw puddles of mud and large round prints, showing the aftermath of an elephant party.

The past year has felt like a winding road of getting somewhere, then stopping, having a moment of fear and then carrying on with caution – sometimes in a slightly different direction. Though many paths have been tough, each has brought lessons of some kind – often in the area of patience and resilience. When I think back to that day in the Kruger Park, I know that had the path not opened up, we’d probably have turned back rather than putting ourselves, or the vulnerable African elephants in danger. The right approach was to wait. To watch. To be still for a moment and to face our fears - with caution. When trouble cleared we found our way through and enjoyed a wonderful treat on the other side.

As I move into another year that’s filled with things going off track, I try to remind myself that patience and resilience are more than likely the best way through. There’s urgency and stress, stomping feet and trumpeting, and while I might need to be brave and get through things, I’ll also need to find the moments when it’s best to just take a moment, catch my breath and find the right time to move forward.

(As always, I'd love to hear from you. Get in touch on: email, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram.)

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