When we left on our ’round-the-world trip, we never dreamed we’d end up in Africa. It wasn’t part of our original itinerary and as such we hadn’t prepared or packed specifically for a safari. But, since we shifted our itinerary and now found ourselves in South Africa, it would be crazy not to go “on safari”. So we prepared ourselves the best we could on arrival by researching game parks and gearing up with some new binoculars! However nothing could have prepared us for our first game drive and an unexpected encounter with an elephant.
Our First Game Drive
To be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect from a game drive. How close would we get to the animals? Were they really wild? How would they react to vehicles and people? We’d never really done anything like it, so we eagerly absorbed any instructions and rules from the guides. We knew the animals weren’t tame and the park made that very clear by posting indemnity signs at the front gate and by the waivers they make you sign on arrival. We basically signed away our lives should anything happen while in the park—be it from an animal, an insect or a human.
After settling into our luxury tent (it had running water but no electricity) we prepared for our first game drive in Amakhala, a relatively new and small game park in the Eastern Cape. The park had most recently been farmland and the owners collaborated to reintroduce animals and turned it into a game park.
Bigger Things to Come
We piled into the Land Cruiser and set off for the park entrance. We immediately saw a few zebra and springbok from a distance. “Is this the first time you’ve seen zebra outside of a zoo?,” the guide asked. It was. And, to be honest, it was a bit more exciting seeing them than I anticipated. But I couldn’t act too excited about a silly zebra, right? I was holding out for the “Big Five”—lions, buffalo, leopards, rhinos and of course elephants.
After about an hour driving across the upper ridges in the park and then winding our way through a meadow, we entered a valley where elephants frequent. And, it didn’t take long before we stumbled on two male elephants alongside the road in front of us. Wow! To see elephants for the first time was extraordinary. Their sheer size was amazing. We sat and watched them for a couple minutes and were content watching them graze on the bushes. Then, both elephants started to move our way. The first elephant began to jog a bit and simply continued past us just a few feet from the vehicle. The second elephant came down the hill to the road and began walking directly towards us. That’s when it got a bit scary.
The elephant wanted to use the road to go past us. We wanted to use the road to continue our journey up the hill. It was a standoff. Our guide told us that elephants remember the sound of each vehicle and respond based on their previous encounters with them. So, we couldn’t back down from the elephant. We had to stand our ground … and that’s exactly what our guide did.
With a stern voice, he called the elephant by name and told him to “go the other way”. The elephant didn’t seem too pleased with that, stomped his feet and shook his head in frustration. He then wrapped his trunk around his tusk as if to polish the tips while he planned his next move. The suspense was the worst part. Would he back down or would he forge ahead and remove us from his path? There were four of us in the vehicle and we all huddled to the far left side hoping he would do the former. Check out the video to see it for yourself!
If you just watched the video, you may be thinking, “that doesn’t look all that scary.” I agree. The video doesn’t accurately portray the fear and uncertainty we felt in that moment. But, believe me, when you’re the one sitting in front of a less-than-happy elephant, it’s not a very soothing experience. Luckily, after backing up a bit, the elephant went back to grazing and then eventually turned around and walked the other way. We did the same. Our guide put the car in reverse and backed us down the hill to safety.
I guess this is the type of thing that makes safaris so intriguing. You never know what you’re going to see or how the animals are going to behave. It was a thrilling moment for us and one that has made us eager for more. We have several more game drives over the next couple weeks, but we’re hoping any future elephant encounters aren’t quite as intense.