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There’s many a tale of wildlife lovers underestimating the power and speed of Africa’s grey giants. Especially in the Kruger National Park, where ellie roadblocks are a regular occurrence. One Wild traveller found out what happens when close is too close.

One of the highlights of a visit to the Kruger National Park is the chance to view these magnificent and intelligent creatures in the wild. But keeping your distance and respecting their territory is of the utmost importance in elephant encounters.

During a recent trip, Alan Watt and his wife, Florence, had a brush with one of the park’s enormous elephant bulls that was far too close for comfort. As Alan describes the experience: “Certainly more excitement than we bargained for.”

Alan writes:

On 21 April we entered the park straight after breakfast. We had hired a slightly bigger vehicle that would provide a better overall view than the usual sedan. After travelling for about three and a half hours and encountering wild dog, cheetah, crocodile, warthog and many more, we suddenly came across a large herd of elephant.

We soon realised that the herd was resting and in no hurry to move on. We made our way to Skukuza Rest Camp for some coffee and were back in safari mode before long. We decided to leave the main tarred road and head down a narrower gravel road in the hope of better sightings. At first it seemed our strategy had paid off, but we quickly grasped that we’d placed ourselves in a precarious position.

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From some 60 metres away, a massive lone elephant bull was slowly meandering in our direction. Since the bull seemed quite relaxed, scooping up dust with his trunk and covering his body, I thought it safe to move closer.

But it soon dawned on us that the large beast had no intention of moving into the bush and giving us space to drive past. Our only way out was to retreat slowly, but after reversing only 10 metres, the car’s movement caught our wild friend’s attention. I immediately came to a halt, leaving the engine to idle. Fact was: the gravel road was not wide enough to turn around. We were sitting ducks…

This should be a lesson to all elephant enthusiasts. – Alan Watt

Too close for comfort

The elephant was now in close proximity, his attention firmly focused on our car. But I had a plan. Once he was almost adjacent to our left side, a suitably wide gap to our right might allow us to make a break past him. I still had the engine ticking over.

Within seconds he was just metres from the bonnet – time for our great escape. A glance to my right indicated a sufficient gap. I quickly engaged gear and pressed hard on the accelerator. This was the moment our plan went horribly wrong. The elephant swung its head towards the car and we felt a forceful blow as it side-swiped the passenger door with its large tusks.

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Almost toppling over

The impact was so powerful that it catapulted Florence across the inside of the vehicle, and the car started to tip sideways to the right. We were now balancing on only two wheels and close to toppling over. I was convinced that the car was going to end up on its side – worst case scenario.

But Lady Luck was on our side. The car dropped back onto four wheels and was still facing straight ahead. The tyres soon found sufficient purchase on the gravel to move us forward, kicking up dust. As we rapidly pulled away, the elephant trumpeted behind us. We never even looked out the rear window to see how the elephant reacted as we escaped the drama.

Arriving at the exit gate, we stopped to inspect the damage. Aside from large dents, we noticed the six-inch hole inflicted on the front passenger door. The tusk had almost penetrated the depth of the car’s inside panel. I have newfound respect for elephants.

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What NOT to do when viewing elephants

  • Never speed past a herd.
  • Keep a safe distance: don’t drive closer than 50 metres.
  • Switching off your engine is not a good idea. It’s better if they can hear, see and smell you.
  • Revving your vehicle will not deter elephants, it will only upset them.
  • Never approach elephant bulls.
  • Close encounters should be avoided at all costs.
Above tips taken from Understanding Elephants, Elephant Specialist Advisory Group, Struik Nature, 2017.
Pictures of elephants only for illustration purposes.