The winter sun rose steadily over the savannah landscape of the Selati Game Reserve in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. Grey Loeries welcomed the morning with their jarring “go-away!” calls, while in the distance the incessant barking of baboons echoed through the trees, most likely voicing their preferences for breakfast. Occasional gusts of wind travelled wildly across the barren vegetation, disturbing the sandy bottom of the Selati riverbed, tossing the golden sand into whirlwinds that dissipated and settled back down just as quickly. The camp was stirring. With hands firmly clamped over steaming tin cups of coffee, we murmured between ourselves about the hopeful wildlife sightings for the day ahead. Suddenly the sounds of cracking branches and uprooting of trees came across from the other side of the river, shattering the peace. Running to the edge of the river, it dawned on us that somewhere hidden deep amongst the wall-high vegetation was an elephant, no doubt about it.
Shoes filled up with sand as we scrambled down the steep banks, across the riverbed, and re-grouped on the other side. Straining our ears, we listened over our deep gasps of breath to hear the ranger’s whispered instructions. We were, in single file, to track down the elephant’s movements and attempt to get a visual from a safe distance. With adrenaline already pumping through our veins we silently and carefully made our way through the thick, thorn-infested Acacia bushes, attentively listening out for any signs of the whereabouts of this enormous creature.
The earlier commotion and ruckus of trees breaking now ceased. We immediately stopped in our tracks, anticipation and uneasiness started to rise. The smell of freshly trampled grass and crushed leaves wafted through the air as we cautiously moved further into the bush, eventually finding ourselves in a small clearing. It was at this point that we almost forgot how to breathe. For standing only five metres away was the elephant. In a split second, a flurry of emotions raced through our heads, from utter, sheer terror, to breathtaking exhilaration and another rush of adrenaline. Immediately aware of our unwelcomed presence, the elephant let out a low, guttural growl that emanated from his heaving chest. He started to sway his enormous head slowly from side to side, leathery ears flapped, and his muscular, long trunk rose over his ivory tusks. Sensing the impending danger, the group’s instinct was to run, though the ranger sharply hissed at us to stay still. If we were to run who knows how the elephant would react.
Without further warning, the elephant suddenly mock charged, stopping short by only three metres in front of us. Plumes of dust rose in reaction to his charge, briefly blinding us. Frozen in our places, we watched as the dust settled and there towering before us was the Hercules of the wilds, ears fully extended, trunk high and blazing dark brown and gold eyes fixed firmly upon us. We marvelled at the magnificent beast, understanding that his reaction is only natural in such a setting, where we literally and unintentionally intruded onto his territory. Kicking sand up with his giant foot in obvious frustration, he realised that he would not get a reaction out of the small stone-like statues. Releasing a final huff and growl for good measure, he turned his mammoth body and moved off slowly back from where he came, leaving us alone in dead silence.
As we slowly came back to realities of life, we noticed that the ritual morning routines of the wildlife continued around us as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. They might not have witnessed such a humbling encounter as we just did, but for us, with hearts beating like African drums in our ears, we discovered a newfound respect for the majestic African elephant that winter morning.