Africa: Safari–Charged by an Elephant

Filed in Uncategorized by on August 5, 2006 0 Comments

As we drive away from watching a lion mating ritual, my tour mates and I excitedly discuss the experience.  What a great way to end our South African safari at Kruger National Park!

We only have about 45 minutes left before Dirk, our driver and tour guide, is to take us back to our hotel near the park.  Driving fast along the paved road, Dirk suddenly slows down and calls out, “Elephants crossing the road!”  We look ahead to see a string of adult elephants intermingled with young elephants noisily come out of the bush on one side of the road and cross into the bush on the other side.  They are trumpeting and swinging their heads and trunks and moving more quickly than other similar elephant parades we’ve seen elsewhere in the park.  Dirk tells us they are female elephants with their young and points out how one adult cow leads the herd and one brings up the rear with the babies safely ensconced among the other adults in the middle.  He comments that they seem agitated.  The last elephant is especially vociferous.  I don’t have enough time to count the elephants, but I estimate eight to ten elephants cross the road.


Female elephant going into the bush.  Photo courtesy of tour-mate Cindy Stricklin

A short distance past the spot where the elephants entered the bush is a crossroad.  Surmising the herd is heading toward the river that runs to the right of the road, Dirk makes a right turn at the crossroad onto an unpaved road and pulls our vehicle off to the side where we have a view of both the river and the thicket where the elephants are.  As the elephants jostle about in the shrubbery, we can see the bushes moving and an occasional trunk lift into the air, but the elephants stay put and don’t come out to go to the water. 

With no luck in further seeing the elephant herd, Dirk backs up, intending to return to the road where we saw the elephants and continue on our way.  Coming straight toward us from the other side of the crossroad is a huge, male elephant.  He is running and is obviously distressed.  Dirk explains, “That’s why the female elephants are disturbed.  This male has been bothering the herd, and they have put him off.”

The bull apparently is in the aggressive, sexually active period adult male elephants have once-a-year for several months called musth. During this time, glands on the elephant’s temples swell and emit a dark fluid that runs down onto its cheeks. 

The previous day we had seen a young male running parallel to the road with the musth fluid running down its cheeks.  Dirk speculated this young elephant had recently been ejected from the herd because, having come of musth age, he was bothering the other elephants in the herd. 


Young male elephant in musth indicated by the black fluid running down his cheek. Photo courtesy of Cindy Stricklin

We reach the crossroad intersection at the same time as the charging male elephant, which is missing a tusk, arrives from the opposite direction.  The huge bull, his large African elephant ears outstretched, is in no mood for dialogue.  He trumpets and roars while threateningly brandishing his trunk every which way and swaying his body. Kicking up dust as he stomps his feet, he tosses his head up and down and jerks it back and forth.  His anger at rejection from the females has settled on us because we are here near the females and in his way.


Male elephant charging toward us. Musth fluid runs down his cheek. Photo courtesy of Cindy Stricklin

Dirk maneuvers the Jeep to the side of the road. I expect him to make a dash for it to get away from the elephant.  I hear the rev of the motor, but the vehicle doesn’t move.  My heart sinks.  The jeep must be stuck.  I’m sitting in the seat nearest to the elephant, and I start to get scared at being so close to such wild and dangerous strength. No one says anything. Dirk revs the motor again. My pulse quickens. The motor revs again.  The vehicle stays still.  The bull continues to threateningly heave his body back and forth and stomp the ground.  I can picture the trunk of the elephant unfurling toward me and grabbing me and . . . I can’t think any further.  I duck down low by my feet, out of sight of the elephant. 


African elephant in musth kicks up dust as he aggressively displays for us. Photo courtesy of Cindy Stricklin

I pop back up again–I can’t resist watching the elephant’s behavior.  The waving trunk and the elephant’s thunderous sounds bother me the most.  I briefly ponder if these are the last few minutes of my life.  Maybe right now is the last time in my life that I have a sound mind and body.  What should my last thoughts be? No great insights emerge.  The elephant is more interesting than my thoughts and feelings.  I move back and forth between cringing below the seat and sitting up fascinated by the scene.

The engine revs.  Someone in back of me says, “Dirk, maybe you should quit reving the motor.  I think it bothers him.”  Dirk responds, “No, we have to stand up to him.  He sees the vehicle with its oil scent as a contender, and the reving sounds of the vehicle show him we are stronger than he is.  If we drive away, he will follow and catch us.”


Elephant charges closer to our vehicle.  This is the view from my seat, but I’ve ducked down because I am scared he will stretch his trunk toward us and lift me out and swing me around.  Photo courtesy of Cindy Stricklin

Meanwhile, another vehicle with others from our tour group arrives, and the driver situates their Jeep on the road at a right angle to us.  This gives us a good view of their car.  The bull turns its attention to them.  It’s much easier watching the elephant going through its threatening display when it’s not focused on us.  The driver backs up a little, and the elephant advances toward them.  Dirk revs his motor.  The elephant looks at us.  The other driver creeps forward to regain their position.  Dirk and the other driver work together to hold the elephant off.  It’s two against one now.  The elephant goes quiet.  Finally, he turns around and runs off.

We excitedly discuss our experience as Dirk drives us back to our hotel.  Now that the experience is over, I feel thrilled to have had it.  What a second great way to end our safari!  My daughter Pam and I give Dirk a bigger tip than previously planned. 

It’s the animals, of course, which have been the stars on the safari.  We will tip them by supporting conservation of wildlife and wild places where they can live.

Previous articles in this Africa series:

Zulu Night
published March 5, 2006 

The Kingdom of Swaziland
published March 29, 2006

Safari–Watching Lions Mate published July 11, 2006 

Forthcoming final article in this Africa series:

  • Scammed at an ATM in Durban

About the Author ()

I am a retired environmental, health and safety manager who has done some work in communications. I have a knowledge of and passion for sustainability issues. In temperament I am a peculiar mix of stable soul and free spirit.

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