A full moon was shining down turning the entire landscape monochromatic. Bushes on either side took on ghostly animal shapes, and sounds seemed eerily loud. The Landrover lights were off to enhance our own eyesight during this slow, meandering night drive. Without explanation our guide Steve requested the driver to stop the vehicle and turn off the engine.
And so we sat, listening to the silence of the African bush.
The snap of a branch to the left of us had heads swiveling, and sure enough one of the nearby bushes moved, transforming itself into a grazing elephant. No more than thirty feet away with only one small bush between us, this wild animal continued grazing, displaying no obvious awareness of us whatsoever.
Perhaps it was my exposed position in the single tracker seat hanging out over the front left headlight that heightened my awareness. Or perhaps it was some semi-dormant ancestral survival instinct that had me scanning the opposite side of the track.
And there lumbering at an oblique angle towards us from the right was another, larger, elephant. Slowly and deliberately and without sound this huge apparition approached through the bushes. An eerie montage of grey on grey in the moonlight. One giant foot delicately placed in front of the other. Almost caressing the earth with each pad before committing any weight. Each step a large stride in human terms.
Softly Steve’s voice calmly carried from the back “Its all right, its all right” as this grey behemoth came steadily closer and closer. Each step towards us had me pressing my spine further and harder into the back of my exposed tiny jump seat.
Just when I thought it impossible for this elephant to avoid colliding with us, it came to an abrupt halt at the right headlight of the Landrover, facing both myself at the left headlight, and the vehicle itself. By now my heart was thumping so loudly that it was all I could hear. I was certain it was all everyone else could hear, including this massive beast alongside me.
For what seemed like eternity, my night companion and I were locked in studying each other to the exclusion of all else. At least that’s what it was on my part. This elephant meanwhile stood with relaxed trunk hanging down, tip curled under and around to taste whatever messages our smells passed on. Certainly from me it was pure adrenaline.
Eventually having determined whatever news from our side and deciding we were not all that interesting after all, the trunk was raised enough to give the Landrover headlight a smart smack, before crossing directly in front of me and so close I could have stuck my foot out brushing along its flank. I was, however frozen in place and only started breathing again once this gentle grey giant had joined its companion on the far side.
To Steve’s question of “Are you OK?” I was so speechless with the fear and the excitement of it all I could only nod. All the way back that night, and ever since, I have hugged that magical moonlit experience to myself, and count myself one of the very, very lucky ones to have had such a wildlife encounter.