July 11, 2014
We’ve had a few interesting elephant encounters lately here in Botswana. Our adventures stared in Chobe National Park where we were staying in a riverside campground that is located on a lighted waterhole. In the evenings you can watch the elephants come to drink under the dim glow of a few orange floodlights. Sitting on the camp’s veranda having a cold beer and watching a herd of 20 or more elephants only 40 meters away is a thrilling experience.
However it gets even better as the campground has dug an underground hide or blind only a few feet from the waterhole. The hide is mostly buried except for a two-foot high front wall that has small window slits cut in it for viewing and photography. There is only room for eight people at a time in the hide and it is entered via a 100-foot long underground and very dark tunnel.
Usually the elephants come to the waterhole from the forest on the far side but our second night camped there Dee was sitting alone in the hide when about a dozen elephants approached from right next to the hide giving her an excellent view of them from only 20 feet away.
Later that evening Rob was in the hide with five others when a second herd approached the water as usual from the far side opposite the hide. As the group began to drink one angry female continued to trumpet and chase away both the baboons and a few of the other elephants. She was easy to distinguish from the rest of the herd as she had only one tusk, the other likely broken off in fight.
At one point she chased a juvenile male across the waterhole and directly towards the hide. They stopped about 10 feet from us and both elephants suddenly smelled us and stopped their fight to probe with their trunks towards the open slits in the hide. As one trunk came within a foot of my window I leaned away and grabbed my camera. They continued sniffing but could not reconcile the human smell with the dirt-covered structure they were seeing. Eventually they returned to drinking and spraying themselves with water.
Seeing how close they had come I took stock of my bearings and checked out the construction of the underground room we were in. I could see the roof was concrete and there was a steel framework under that. On top was piled about 3 feet of dirt and the entire thing was lined with corrugated tin roofing. Being that this is Africa I wondered if anyone involved had considered engineering it to withstand the weight of an elephant. Doubtful.
Over the next half hour the angry female frequently trumpeted and often chased other elephants away from her. Then at one point she charged another elephant and chased him again right towards the hide- this time they were both running directly at us at full speed. Suddenly everyone in the hide was leaping backwards from the windows and several people fell off of the high viewing stools knocking them over in the process. The elephants both came right up to within a foot of our viewing windows then fortunately they decided the two foot high front wall was too high and they each made a high speed 90 degree turn running along the front of the hide with their toenails only inches from our noses as the female continued to chase the smaller male. In a second they were past us and out of view- the danger was over but it was certainly a bit too close for comfort.
Driving around the game reserves is a fascinating experience and we have come within feet of lions and leopard who do not view us a food as long as we stay inside our truck. The elephants are another matter though- the rangers routinely warn us that they are really the only animal that is a danger to you even inside your vehicle.
Yesterday we had a very long and difficult day of driving in deep sand all day. Even with four-wheel drive and our tire pressure lowered to 15 psi we had gotten stuck and been forced to dig ourselves out. Sometimes we might dig and dig only to move a few feet and get stuck again as the truck sunk up to the differential in the soft sand.
We were headed to an area outside the Park where we had been told we could camp near a village. It would be bush camping with no facilities nearby but were fine with that. The dirt track we were following was just two ruts with very tight turns twisting in and out around trees. Late afternoon sun was casting horizontal shadows across the road making it hard to see as we wound in and out alternating dark shadows and bright sunlight. We were only going a few miles an hour but as I rounded one tight bend Dee shouted, “STOP”. I slammed on the brakes even before I could see why she was shouting and by the time we skidded to a stop and I could see ahead an elephant was directly in the road and I was so close to him I could only see his legs and body. The top of the windshield cut off my view of his head and angry bellowing trunk.
I rammed the gearshift into reverse and floored it trying to use my side mirror to gauge the tight turn I had just come through and keep us on the road. I had almost made the turn when there was a crunch from the rear end as I bounced off the base of a tree which fortunately catapulted us back into the road. Now I looked ahead and could see the angry and startled elephant shaking his head, flapping his ears and stomping his feet which is the behavior they do just before they charge. I took a deep breath and carefully but quickly backed up another 50 feet then paused. He had not chased us so I got out to assess the damage. I could not see any bent metal so I concluded we had only hit the tree with our tire – how lucky. After waiting a few minutes to let the elephants feed and hopefully move on we continued another half mile to pitch camp under a huge Mopani tree. Time for a little Jack Daniels to settle the nerves.
Oh… also met this guy yesterday.