Monday, June 27, 2011

Botswana Elephant Traffic Jam: Or How Emmylou Harris saved my life.

I've travelled Southern Africa three times now: the countries of Namibia, Swaziland, South Africa, and just last month I added Botswana to the list. Each time there have been unexpected and very close encounters with elephants. Here - Moonlight Nightmare  I told of how a large bull elephant walked up silently in the dark to within 13 metres behind me before Sam spotted him! And on a Kruger Park safari in 2009 my wife Kay and I had an unexpected adrenaline pumping incident I'll be writing about. I was going to do these stories in a series of Elephant Encounter Tales, but the following is such a mind blowing, scary, and yet beautiful experience it will be told now!

The craziest traffic jam I have ever been in!

After my EHRA 2 week volunteer project (second time) with desert elephants in Namibia in May, I joined up with Russell Frankish of Greenbushpig Safaris, guide for Britz Rentals self drive 4WD, on a 13 day tour of Botswana from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls and return.

Driving in African national parks can be chock full of surprises as all sorts of wildlife roam freely in abundance. And you never know what is around the next bend, or what may step out of the bush right in front of your vehicle.

In Chobe National Park we hit a major traffic jam - a real snarl up of the elephant kind.
Coming across elephants browsing both sides of the track, we stopped to await the herd's moving off to allow us to drive through.

Oh dear, elephant jam ahead.

All seemed good until that baby elephant wanted to frolic right in front of our vehicle.

One big Mama rushes over.

"But Mummy, I just wanna play!"

Auntie runs up to join Big Mama and baby.

"Button up kiddo!"

Big Mama and now 2 Aunties gently guide baby in between their legs for safety.
This picture has to be the greatest pic of elephants I have ever taken.

Elephant family love and concern for their young summed up in how their trunks gently caress and guide the baby, keeping it safe. Great composition. Beautiful!

All this is happening a few metres in front of us. What you don't see in those frames is the larger matriarch of the herd coming up on our vehicle's right hand side, seemingly intent on checking us out closely. Other elephants were closing in, all concerned. With young to protect, elephants can be extremely aggressive.

We should have reversed out of there, but the second 4WD had parked right up our backside: they wanted good pictures they later told us! Yeah right?! Of  us getting killed!? No thought that we may need to get out of there quick smart if things turned nasty!

So our guide Russell did the only thing possible- he switched off the motor and said "Just sit quietly and don't move."
"And enjoy this!"

This is the last picture I dared take as the elephants all moved closer. Three with the baby kept between their legs, and also the big matriarch was out of frame now right up at our right hand side, possibly trying to walk past us along that side of the track. As the elephants walked slowly right up to our 4WD I put my camera down and just watched events unfolding....that close, you don't make movements they may interpret as a threat. And I also wanted to concentrate on the moment...maybe my last. A good way to go, actually, I thought.
Fear? Yeah, momentarily. You can't help feeling fear when you have 4 big elephants around you. From my seated position looking up at those animals, which were so close, they were monstrous! Right up against our bull-bars: I noted their knees were just as high!

 But a strange thought flew through my mind - they reminded me of the gang of attendants that surrounded the vehicle at the last filling station. I was laughing to myself when I thought I should ask them to wash our windscreen...just a quick flip over with their trunks squirting water would be so easy for them.

"C'mon Jim, this is serious stuff. Stop horsing around." another thought cut across my mind.

In tense or difficult situations I rationalise out my fear; it's just a natural defense response to keep you safe.
So I ask myself  " How do you feel about this?"
"Yeah, OK. But I'm apprehensive."
"Do you feel you will survive this?"
"Yes. No harm will come to me." is the response.
I 'sense' I will come through this unharmed. My instinct tells me so. I reckon I have a strong intuitive sense so have learned to trust my instincts.
"So why be afraid?"
"I am not afraid because I know the future and it tells me I will be OK."
I convince myself I know the outcome: and if I know the outcome is OK, why be scared?
A simple, quick little conversation with my inner self and fear disappears, and I move on and enjoy the excitement of being surrounded by these huge beautiful, wonderful animals just 2 metres away from us.

One step forward, a lunge and that ele with the 2 feet long tusks would have left me looking like Swiss cheese. I noted my passenger side window was rolled down - she could hook her trunk through and have me....

Then Emmylou Harris starts singing, so gently, so clearly in my mind - 'Gold' from her 'All I Intended To Be' CD. She's singing this song in my mind, while I'm concentrating on that huge lovely elephant! Calm and peace filled the scene. I think that ele enjoyed the telepathic transference of Emmylou's singing because she stood there, eyeballing me, enjoying every word I'm sure, and that melody sure kept her calm.

Amazing what thoughts flowed through my brain during those moments. Well, crazy, but seemed to work...yeah well I'm still around. Others could have sat there screaming their heads off really bringing those elephants on!

But all the time those eles were really telling us they wanted to get past. The Mexican stand-off. We couldn't move...and they wanted through. What would they do? 

Sit still, stay calm, enjoy that huge ele with the longest tusks.. I could count the hairs around her eye...every crinkle in her skin...every pore stood out so clearly. Those tusks looked pretty long and rather sharp too.

Meantime the big matriarch checked us out.

Fred's pictures tell the story. She is up so close to us in the lead 4WD.

Yes, that close!
Hours seemed to pass, but in reality probably 5, maybe 10 minutes of 4 huge elephants around us. Then the matriarch probably decided she couldn't get through beside us, and turned and walked slowly away and around that bush on our right hand side. The 3 eles in front of us seemed to take their cue from her, and slowly edged around to our left, up close by my open window. So near I could have stretched my hand out and touched them. Baby stayed safely tucked between their legs.

 I actually felt sad that the moment was over, although it wasn't quite over yet as they stood and watched us as Russell started the motor and we all drove through slowly. I was thankful to have such an experienced guide with us.

Our guard of honour?

We are watching you!

There is a story within this encounter story. We may be afraid of such huge wild animals, but these elephants while being protective of their young one, did not harm us. All they wanted is to be safe from the threat we may have posed, and go on about their business. Left alone all they want is access to food and water, and to bring up their young in safety and follow their traditional migratory routes.
We don't have to fear them. We need to respect them, understand them, change Asian attitudes to ivory and above all protect their wilderness areas from human encroachment

As more and more farms bordering Chobe National Park are fenced off, animals that traditionally would have roamed across these areas are now being cut off from water or grazing. Where public roads are now fenced off on either side, elephants are becoming confused or trapped within this maze of narrow corridors, unable to follow their usual routes. Conflict with farmers bordering Chobe when elephants break down fencing often results in them being shot.

More on that later.

NB. All the photos showing the 4WDs are taken by Fred Hodgson, driver of the last vehicle. Thanks Fred. Others are by myself. Sorry about poor pic quality but all are taken through dirty windscreens.

Emmylou Harris sings 'Gold' here.

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Laura said...

I absolutely LOVED this!!!!! The pics were not bad at all, I actually felt I was right there! AMAZING!!!

Roy Durham said...

there is quite a lot to be learned from the social behaver of those wonderful animals. just com-pair this to one in the isle of a shopping mall. god bless

Unknown said...

great photos and story. Love the Elephants and their family spirit.


adventureswithben said...

I've been stuck in one of these before. Very cool.

Caanan @ No Vacation Required said...

Those pictures are amazing. I almost had a heart attack the first time I saw an elephant in the wild. Not to sound too corny, but it really was a life changing moment. Of course, I don;t have to tell YOU that. :)

Jim said...

Hi Laura, glad you liked the experience! Too big to stick in the freezer though.

You're right Roy, and there's a lot of research going on. One day we'll be talking with elephants!

Hi Alejandro, that photo of the 3 with trunks cradling the baby I just think is the greatest!

Does it bring back exciting memories Ben? Gives you a jolt when it happens eh?

Hi ya Caanan, I'd have loved a pic of the eles right up against our bull-bars but didn't dare move. Yes, life changing. Can't wait to go back.

Savira Gupta said...

The pictures were worth it! Fantastic

Debra said...

Incredible family portraits! So glad you stopped and seized that moment – that up close and personal moment! Maybe somebody will someday train elephants to wash windshields :)

Christina said...

What a story! What an experience! And you told it so well it made my eyeballs jump from line to line. I can imagine it must have been terrifying. I've never been on a safari. I especially loved the last picture that you aptly titled "We're watching you." Haha!

Jeremy Branham said...

Wow, what a story! I've read some stuff on elephants about how aggressive they can be. It's enough that I would have been scared in your situation as well. Glad everything turned out OK as you have a story to tell and a greater appreciation and perspective. Maybe the bigger lesson were those moments just talking to yourself!

Dave and Deb said...

What a beautiful experience and that is amazing how close they came to the car. We had the privilege of cycling through Chobe National Park on the Elephant Highway while we cycled through Africa. Like you, it was amazing that I was never afraid of being out there in the middle of the park on a bicycle. We saw a lot of elephants during our time there, but never felt threatened. Only Once I was afraid when I saw a herd way ahead standing in the middle of the road. I was all alone on my bike as we were all spread out riding 200 km in one day and I didn't want to ride any further. I stopped a truck and asked them if they could follow me as I rode towards them. It turned out is was just a bunch of cows! That was a little embarassing:)

Dave and Deb said...

I left a message but I don't think it went through, maybe straight to spam?

Lily Trotter said...

You were never really at risk Jim. I was there to rush in and save you. After all you were due to buy the next round of Beers! But it was fun! You should have seen the scowl we got from the matriarch when she pushed by us on the off side!
But that is one terrific picture. Now hanging on my den wall duly mounted and framed.Even the picture framer said "Awwwww!"

David @ MalaysiaAsia said...

Hi Jim, truly an experience worth a lifetime! As they say, never mess with mother nature. I love how the big ones guarded the baby one with their ears all flapped open. Great write!

Jim said...

yes they can be very aggressive if they have had past bad experiences with humans.They are being slaughtered in Chad and now elephants will charge any human they see.
But in the National parks they are relaxed around humans. Problem is though that around the park's borders, conflict with farmers may affect their behaviour.

Hi Christina,
Safari is a great experience. And my eyeballs were not jumping, they were swivelling very slowly....

Yes Debra, I think that is a great family picture. I'd like to find someone to paint it.

Hi Savira, Having a photo record of my death would sure be worth it!!!!

Jim said...

Ah Dave, perhaps that's why they checked us out so close...they were looking for you! They probably wanted to introduce the baby!
Great adventure and admire you for that. Best for Mongolia!

@Lily Trotter, you guys in the back vehicle would have sat there waving me goodbye, moaning about not getting that beer round paid for. I'm sure at my funeral you could deink all the whisky in my cabinet!
Know any good painters could put that pic on canvas?

Hi David, It was a great experience, so sad when it finished. But I later had 2 repeat performances when I stayed with a vet who is Honorary Vet for Chobe. Stories coming up...stay tuned.

JIM said...

Really great story Jim.. when nature gets that close it can be exhilarating nut a little scary, actually more then just a little. Great writing letting us share your state of mind, thanks


Jim said...

It was a great experience.
Yeah, the state of mind in extreme situations intrigues me. Been in a few weird experiences and it's amazing how time seems to slow down and thoughts come through so clearly. Strange how that song came to mind so strong and clear,
. Eles probably are Emmylou Harris fans too.!

Melissa Tandoc said...

It's the first time I read a blog on elephants and it's amazing. The photos really captured great moments. I'm afraid of elephants, the look so heavy and all but my heart went soft when I saw a portrait of a family among them... It's beautiful. You also had a wonderful and unique! Can't wait to see of your other adventures as well Jim...

loved it :)

David said...

Awesome photos and the accompanying story is great, it feels as if I'm in the vehicle beside you!! It would have been so thrilling to be in the middle of that traffic jam despite the massive size of the elephants. Look forward to more posts and great pics!! :)

Unknown said...

WOW!! Jim that is awesome and scary all in one!! I love how you put a story with your pictures...

Mica said...

What an adventure. I hope one day I am lucky enough to see elephants in the wild. Lovely photos of the mama and auntie with the baby. Elephant traffic jams are the best kind, it seems.

Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista said...

Well that was certainly an experience worth waiting for! I love elephants and got chills as I was enjoying your pictures. The first one of the 3 was the sweetest thing I have ever seen. Love love love it!

Rachel Hoyt said...

What a cool story! My brother went on an elephant ride once in Thailand and couldn't stop talking about how sweet the elephants were and how they wanted to help you walk up the trunk onto their backs. Reading your story confirms my thought that not ALL elephants are quite as nice as the ones my brother encountered. I would've been scared too! But, as you say, as long as you aren't threatening them, they should just leave you be. Such beautiful creatures. I am proud to say I do not own any ivory. :)

Christy @ Technosyncratic said...

I love elephants SO MUCH. They're protective and intelligent and compassionate - all things most humans think animals can't be. Pshaw. Elephants rock, and your photos made me smile. Baby elephant for the win!

Bryan R. Dennis said...

Lovely photos. I especially enjoyed the elephants. They pretty much go where they want to, don't they?

Lisa said...

What stunning photographs. I love the one of the baby surrounded by the two large elephants. It must have been shocking to be so close to them.

AJ said...

This is a powerful post, Jim! I would've peed my pants if that were me. Amazing story. How blessed you are to have experienced that up close and personal.