Written by: Ashton Mitchell
I am an elephant magnet, which I suppose would be pretty cool if it weren’t for the fact that I am terrified of them. It has become a bit of a joke because every time I have been on a walk with my fiancé, Andrew, who is the guide at Sephiri Tours, we have bumped into elephants. Needless to say, I avoid walking in the bush at all costs!
In winter 2015, just after joining Sephiri Tours, Andrew and I did some freelance work at a lodge in the Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa, where I discovered they had a resident elephant that they called Paul. Now Paul was notorious for chasing people, game viewers and ripping up the lodge’s water pipes. We weren’t there long when Andrew had his first run-in with Paul. Seeing Andrew walking towards the water tanks, Paul suddenly came charging out of the bushes and chased Andrew into one of the guest chalets. From that day on I was just that extra bit cautious when walking around.
One afternoon when all the guests had checked out, I went up to the water tanks to check the water levels with Andrew. He was concerned that they weren’t filling so he said he needed to walk the pipeline to check for any breakages. Now I wasn’t so brave as to actually walk the line with him, but I did hang out by the water tanks. They had a two-pole fence around them, similar to that of a horse paddock – not that it would keep too much out, but it was still better than nothing. Besides, my paranoid brain had also decided that if something did crop up I would jump into the 5,000 litre tank because it was pretty empty.
After Andrew had been gone for about five minutes I got a bit bored and decided to climb up onto the 10,000 litre tank, which was about six metres tall, to see what I could see. The view was amazing! The sun was starting to dip and I could see all the way to the plains right in the heart of the reserve. While I was admiring the view, Andrew returned after having found a broken pipe and said he had to go down to the workshop to get some parts. I said I would stay put, given that everything was quiet. As I had decided to stay, he said he would quickly just walk down instead of taking the vehicle, which was parked about fifteen metres from the tanks.
So there I sat watching the sun go down when suddenly I heard a branch snap. It’s just a zebra, I thought. A few minutes later I heard something moving through the grass. Please be a zebra, I thought! Then the inevitable happened, I heard that low rumble that only elephants can make. My thoughts immediately turned to Andrew who was walking around, so I started to shout for him. The wind was absolutely howling that day, which didn’t help, as my voice was getting carried in the wrong direction. However, it was also also a good thing because it kept my scent away from the elephants. After what felt like an eternity and thankfully before I lost my voice from all the screaming, he finally answered me. I warned him of the approaching elephants and he got to me pretty quickly. When he arrived he told me to climb down from the tank, which was nearly impossible as I was shaking so badly, but I managed. As I got down, the elephants finally popped out of the bush, right behind our vehicle. We were stuck and guess who was with them. Paul.
Andrew snapped me out of my state of frozen horror by nudging me and whispering to move between the two water tanks and to keep still and quiet. As I sat there doing as I was told, I could hear the sounds of the herd moving through the bush. They were so close I was positive the sound of my harsh breathing was going to give us away. Then it happened, the herd moved into my line of sight. They were about five metres away from us on either side of our hiding spot. Not only were we trapped, but we were also surrounded. As they kept walking I started to count; by the end of it I estimated that about 35 elephants had walked passed us. Quite honestly I am convinced that it was nothing short of miraculous that we weren’t seen.
After they had passed through we waited about 10 minutes to make sure there were no stragglers before we made our way back to the vehicle. I don’t think I knew whether to laugh or cry at that point, but I settled for driving back to our cottage where I was safe and surrounded by walls. I still have no idea how we survived it but I do know that I will never sit on top of a water tank in the bush alone again!