My Elephant Day, August 31

Twenty years ago today, it was a Sunday, I was in East Africa, at my best on a three-day walking safari with a couple from London in one of the biggest wildlife areas on the continent. It was only their second day in Africa, their first morning in a wilderness, waking up in a small fly-camp under a grove of Jackalberry trees, the smell of coffee brewing on the fire and a vastness around them that could only be found in a place like Selous Game Reserve. We had set up camp quite far from the lakes, just beyond the forests of spiny Terminalia, where the tree line thinned out to large baobabs, sporadic palms and then evened out to black cotton soils, Knobthorn thickets, and endless grassland.

As they rubbed the sleep from their eyes and followed the smell of caffeine to the fire pit, I climbed a fallen tree to survey the skies and decide on a direction to walk for the day. The sun was barely up yet vultures were straining in the cool morning air to get airborne, all with a destination in mind as they flew over camp heading North with their heavy wing beats barely giving them lift.

Apart from the small flattened grass two track that ferried equipment to the site from the nearest road to the South and ending at our small forest, no roads lay to the North so with the thought of finding a sight worth seeing, we set off, ready for another spectacular day on foot in remotest and wildest Africa.  The sun rose slowly but the temperature climbed steadily and soon we were out in the sun, in the grasslands, with sporadic Acacias dotting the landscape. In the shade of each lone tree stood a small group of Buffalo already seeking shade and, to avoid them, I decided to cross a small Karongo, a dry riverbed, which was lined with somewhat denser riparian trees and lower foliage, with the intent to emerge on the grassland on the opposite side and continue my quest to find out what the vultures had found..

It took a while to find a path to cross the deeply scoured riverbed but a hippo path soon made it possible and as we broke through the tree line on the other side, we were confronted with a huge herd of buffalo, most of who were already settling down for the heat of the day. All, though, seemed more concerned with the incessant swarm of flies that they have to contend with than our emergence out of nowhere.

Not wanting to disturb them or cause a stampede, I turned back to the riverbed and headed along the banks, following a game path that meandered along the edge of the steep side. On a particularly sharp bend, a red flash caught my eye and we were soon enthralled by a mating pair of red squirrels, a first for me and, having never seen the species before, a rare encounter. It was while we were quietly watching these two red balls of fluff scrambling up tree trunks, against such contrasting green foliage that I heard the unmistakable sound of leaves being stripped from a branch.  There was no doubt elephant were up ahead.

The riparian habitat was too dense to venture closer so I looked for a crossing to get downwind of them and to break out into the open, higher ground to the West so that we may have been able to see them. At this point I had no idea how many there were nor the composition; whether a matriarch and her family or a bull or herd of boys. I soon found another hippo trail that allowed for an easy crossing and as I emerged on the other side, I came face to face with an elephant calf who was just as surprised to see me.

The vegetation was still quite dense and as the calf turned to retreat, I saw the legs of a cow making a beeline for the riverbed to the East and felt it safe for us to continue up the slope out of the tree line and into open country where I could better grasp the situation.

Unbeknown to me, the elephant and her calf had encountered the steep sides of the karongo and were running alongside it trying to find a crossing to avoid another confrontation, but the riverbed made a sharp horseshoe, which brought her right in front of us; about 50 metres away, with me standing in the open, briefly slack jawed as she turned and came at me full tilt without hesitation, shouting her rage and trumpeting for emphasis.

I had time to get the couple behind an acacia and stepped out to the side to draw her at an angle away from them, all the while assessing her intent but knowing that she meant business. As she got closer, I waved my arms and shouted, hoping she would stop the charge but the fury and rage she was displaying (and no doubt feeling), made me realize I was in for some trouble. At the last couple of seconds, I raised the rifle and didn’t even get to contemplate a shot as she hit me full tilt with her trunk that swung out from between her legs, knocking the thing some distance from me.

Somehow, I ended up underneath her; perhaps I ducked as her trunk swung for me and her bulk overwhelmed me, maybe it was simply that her momentum took her over me, I was suddenly underneath her. In this confusion as to where I was, she swiveled around to find me, knocking me between the muscular pillars of her legs. As soon as she figured out how I lay she came at me with her left tusk, gouging a hole in the ground as I maneuvered out of its path, grabbing hold of the tusks as she withdrew, lifting me off the ground, all the while vocalising and trumpeting and screaming. I remember screaming too, shouting, aware of every moment.

Using her front legs, she beat me in the back and sides with her wrist until I let go and fell back to the ground, giving her another chance to take a stab at me, this time the tusk missing my head by inches as it dug into the dry clay of the ground. Once again I grabbed the tusks and was lifted off the ground as she drew back her head, swiping at me with her front legs to make me let go. I don’t remember how many times this happened. It might have been the third time that I was holding on to the tusks, with my legs stretched out between her front legs as she raised a foot to push me off and somehow connected with my shoulder, dislocating it badly. I fell onto it unable to scramble with my left arm to avoid what I knew was coming next. At this, she swirled around, knocking me in the face with the clubbed end of her tail and as I fell back from the blow, she came down at me again, her left tusk piercing my groin just inside and below of my right hip bone.

Almost instantly and inexplicably, she stood up and ran off to the calf, disappearing into the riverine vegetation with a final scream that I barely heard with the ringing in my ears and the adrenaline pumping through my body. Items that I had been carrying were scattered in a radius of about 5 metres and after I was sure she wasn’t coming back, I asked Phillip and Baiju to help me gather it all together. Despite the adrenalin, my shoulder was beginning to throb with stabs of pain; the ball of my arm was well out of the socket and was sitting almost beneath my chin and already any movement sent these shockwaves through my body.

The backpack I had been carrying had broken straps from being ripped from my body, the rifle lay off to one side, the two-way radio had been ripped from my belt and lay several feet away, as did my binocular pouch, also ripped from my belt. Phillip gathered it all together and we set off back to camp.

Since leaving the fly-camp we had been walking for a couple of hours and I explained how to get back to the vicinity of camp and landmarks to look out for in case I couldn’t continue but we made slow progress over the most uneven ground one could walk on. The dried, black-cotton clay, pockmarked with the depressions of elephants and buffalo footprints from the wetter months, which made each step agonizing.

We eventually crested a ridge with a familiar baobab in sight and made our way back to the shade of the Jackalberry trees and our little campsite. Phillip and staff managed to lower me onto a mattress, propped against one of the larger trees to assess the situation. The radio didn’t work well so I sent the Game Scout, Peter, onto the ridge with a backup to try to raise someone within range. We were not likely going to reach base camp from this distance but there was at least one boat safari on the lake and with guests in the main camp, at least two vehicles out on a morning safari.

Neither Phillip nor Baiju had any first aid training and with a lot of blood leaking from down below, I needed to know what the damage was. At least it wasn’t an artery but the red streaks down my legs and the big patch of red on my shorts where they were torn from the tusk, showed that there was a gash that needed attention.

It must have been quite daunting for this random Texan from London to strip a man of his shorts to assess an injury in a rather private area of the body but Phillip didn’t blink, it was what needed to be done.  I couldn’t move my head, let alone look down with my left arm as it was, any movement elicited searing pain.  I don’t remember him mentioning anything about the gash to my lower abdomen, next to the hip bone, but I do remember him muttering and then telling me, somewhat blandly, that a testicle was completely ejected from my scrotum.  No amount of first aid knowledge prepares one for that.

I had a hard time keeping focus, my head had been knocked around between four of the heaviest legs in the animal world and I no doubt was going into shock and suffering from a concussion.

Luckily there was a vehicle watching a pride of lion further down the very same dry riverbed, closer to one of the lakes. Peter managed to communicate the urgency of the situation and soon the noise and dust trail that roared into camp delivered a game viewer, replete with ashen-faced guests and a concerned Apollo, the guide, behind the wheel. (Some years later, Apollo also had an encounter with an ele and was also gored but returned to guiding in the Selous too).

I had the vehicle pull up as close as it could get alongside me so that I could communicate with camp directly, needing someone to try to raise the alarm in Dar es Salaam, a few hundred kilometers away. But it was a Sunday. In Africa. After a while, I managed to talk to Sal, our chef and the guy I co-managed the camp with, recounting the incident in brief but highlighting the seriousness of the dilemma. At that point, it was out of our hands and we needed to settle in for a wait.

After the initial shock at their hasty departure from a pride of lion, a mad dash through the bushveld, arriving at an injured and bleeding person under a tree with little more than mosquito nets hanging from trees around a central fireplace, the guests on the vehicle began to understand a bit of the situation and understood that this was not a typical day on safari.

A lady climbed down and introduced herself as Diane, she said she was a nurse, from Cape Town and knelt beside me to help.  I was quite disoriented by now, well into the third hour after the incident and she was talking to me, telling me to stay awake, saying all sorts of random things. At one point she was talking about dead dodoes and it made me think of a cousin from Australia who, when visiting South Africa, had misread a sign about a dodo without knowing it was in Afrikaans and here, out of the blue, this was being repeated by a strange lady in one of the remotest wildlife areas in Africa.

After repeating it a second time, I focused more on her words and ignored my memory and realized she was telling me that Di and Dodi had had an accident in Paris and that they had not survived. This was in the biggest game reserve in Africa, in one of the remotest places in the Northern Sector, it only dawned on me later on how bizarre it was that the news had already reached so far.  So fast.

It was only four months prior to this that Charles and the boys had spent a glorious few days at our main camp, Mbuyuni, Selous Safari Camp, having fun with the guides and fishing on the banks of the mighty Rufiji.

It took a while but Sal managed to get someone at the Dar airport on the HF radio and a few calls were made, eventually the crucial one, to the Flying Doctors in Nairobi and the plane was dispatched.

There was still a long drive to the airstrip that necessitated a makeshift bed under the back seats of the game-viewer and the long, painful, bumpy ride there. I don’t remember much other than being given a shot of morphine and don’t recall whether the medics came out to the campsite or it was administered on the airstrip but it helped.  It was mid afternoon when the wheels of the Cessna 5H-DEA left the gravelly strip at Kibo, banked over the Rufiji and headed North and there was a measure of relief that I was in the right hands.

We had to land at Kilimanjaro airport to clear customs and it took a while for them to understand that I was in no position to disembark to have my passport checked and stamped and we somehow got through those formalities.

Sometime later, descending out of a dark sky, the lights of Nairobi began to reflect through the windows onto the bulkhead and as we taxied in at Wilson Airport, I had the strobe of the ambulance waiting next to the terminal filling the small interior of the plane. I don’t remember the dash through the darkness of outlying streets of Nairobi, but once at Nairobi General, I do remember looking at a clock on a stark hospital wall behind an anesthetist asking the usual questions prior to theater. It had been about thirteen hours since I had done the tango with an angry elephant cow. My shoulder still hurt like hell.

Many who know me are aware that I cannot exist without elephants. I spoke to an elephant earlier today after relocating a pair of mice that need to be far away from my bungalow after the mess they made in my absence. I have been sitting in the dark on my day bed, typing this to the sounds of elephants trumpeting in the distance and at least one closer to camp, stripping leaves and gently breaking branches. I have only just returned from an unpleasant time in the city, three months of not knowing when or if I could come home and not for the first time either. And, whilst I couldn’t be here for the 14th anniversary for my kidney transplant, it was essential that I be here for today.  My Elephant day.

11 thoughts on “My Elephant Day, August 31”

  1. Hi Sue, that couple was crouching behind a small tree, taking photo’s of the ordeal. It was only their second day in Africa and I think it only sunk in when they were on their way home. ELephants Forever!

  2. I remember this story from safari live, Marc. So glad you are here to celebrate the anniversary. Really enjoy reading your writings. Wishing you better health.

  3. Hells bells, mate, and you still love those Ellie’s! What a crazy story! I was putting myself in the shoes of that couple witnessing this event…aye yi yi! I would have been wondering, thinking you were surely a goner, what in the world was going to happen to us? Glad it all came out okay so we could enjoy you still. Glad you are home…stay well now. Sueso

  4. Happy to not have missed this one, altho it is making me late for a very important gathering. I will re-read when I return this evening but is the most exciting thing of my morning. So glad you are still on earth with us.

  5. Wonderful story Marc. I enjoyed it very much. You poor man, what an experience. It must have hurt like hell. Lucky you are tough and resilient. Thanks for sharing this amazing encounter.

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