The agitated elephant before he charged the Vanagon
Posted Mar 08, 2011
Going to a safari is a dream for so many travelers, but I have to admit, it wasn’t a dream of mine. However, I found myself traveling to South Africa’s immense Kruger National Park several years ago, and that trip turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
The journey began with a night out at a Boys and Girls Club fundraiser in Seattle. It was the mid-1990s, and my wife, Sue, and I were going as guests of some friends. As we walked into the fundraiser, I remember saying to Sue, “Don’t bid on any travel packages. You know we can go anywhere with Princess.”
Of course, Sue commenced to bid on a five-day vacation to Kruger National Park. When another bidder was declared the winner, I was relieved. However, right away the organizers announced, “You know, there were two trips donated by the Kruger tour operator. If you match the winning bid, we can give you the other one.”
I’m still not sure why, but Sue and I decided we were in. Once we took that leap, we immediately set about planning the trip. We discovered that at 7,332 square miles, Kruger is one of the biggest game reserves in Africa. It features the so-called “Big Five” of game—lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalos and elephants—along with 253 species of birds that live there. We decided to add time before and after our visit to Kruger National Park to explore more of South Africa and venture into neighboring Botswana.
So there we were, six months later, flying into South Africa, where we rented a car and spent a week touring the absolutely breathtaking coastline. We started in Cape Town, went by the Cape of Good Hope and ended up in Port Elizabeth, staying in bed and breakfasts and visiting wineries along the way.
From there we flew back to Johannesburg, met the people who were running the Kruger tour, and started our drive to the national park. Literally, the moment we passed through the park gate, we were greeted by the sight of five giraffes as tall as the acacia trees, placidly nibbling at the leaves. One hundred yards later, a large group of impala crossed the road, distractedly bumping into each other like a herd of sheep.
We were amazed that here, seconds after entering Kruger, was wildlife — wildlife that was not skittish or afraid, not gazing warily from behind man-made enclosures, just wildlife living life. Our guide, who we discovered to be a salty character, was nonetheless a great source of detailed information about the animals living there, as well as an engaging storyteller.
Our five days fell into a pleasant routine, which began with an early breakfast from our always-comfortable accommodations, as nice as any national park in the United States. I expected it to be more rustic, but we weren’t roughing it at all. Visiting in August, South Africa’s winter meant pleasant temperatures—warm days and cool nights. We weren’t bothered by bugs either.
After breakfast, into the Volkswagen Vanagon we’d go, where our guide and his bright female partner, who did a lot of the cooking for us, would take us on photo-safari through a new portion of the camp. Come nightfall, we’d eat dinner, enjoy the campfire and a glass of wine, and then settle in for the night.
Each day brought new experiences. It was amazing how our guide could spot activity in the savanna that our eyes weren’t trained to notice. He pointed out a group of hippos in a muddy waterhole. Looking closer, we saw hippos, crocodiles and turtles in the water together, not isolated from each other as I had imagined.
One day at dusk, as we were heading back to camp, we came by three or four other cars that had slowed down. Obviously, some kind of animal had been spotted. Our tour guide decided to move ahead and drove around the waiting cars. That was when we encountered a very large male elephant. We learned that at breeding time, male elephants emit a musk substance from glands on the side of their heads. Musk was literally running down this elephant’s temples. He was clearly agitated and none of the other cars were attempting to go around him.
Sue, sitting next to the driver, picked up the video camera and started filming. The elephant slowed down for a second, and then, before we knew it, he neatly swung his rear right foot behind his left foot and pivoted around. Trunk up in the air, ears flying out, he bellowed and charged our Vanagon. The video from that day went from a charging elephant to the floor mat as my wife dropped the camera and dove into the backseat. Meanwhile, the van’s gears ground jarringly as our guide attempted to get it into reverse.
Finally, we headed in the other direction and our guide told us it was only a mock charge and nothing to be concerned about. As the car crept along the side of the dirt road, the elephant took notice and feigned another small charge at us as if to say “don’t mess with me.” Back at camp, you can bet we enjoyed that first glass of wine!
The majority of our time at Kruger was highlighted by more placid animal sightings of zebras, wildebeests, water buffalos, warthogs and lions. Sue and I carried guidebooks where we noted our findings and were surprised by the variety of birds we saw. I’ve never been a bird-watcher, but for five days, I became fascinated by avian life. The most notable sighting was of an eagle on a treetop, munching away on what looked like a baby crocodile.
On our final day at Kruger, I realized my perspective of my place in the world had changed. We were driving along a new stretch of park when we stopped to admire a small pride of lions lying near the packed-dirt road. Across the way, I noticed 20 to 30 zebras walking across a field. Then, I spotted a couple of hyenas, circling the lions. My guess is the lions had a recent kill, and the hyenas were eyeing the leftovers.
Perhaps annoyed by the hyenas, the lions suddenly got up and headed in the direction of the zebras. That startled the zebras, who took off in the opposite direction.
This simple sequence of events, routine at Kruger, took my breath away. Right in front of us was a whole tableau of wildlife, living among each other as if we in the van did not exist. I thought the big event at Kruger would be us spotting animals. But I came to realize that we (with the exception of that musk-addled elephant) were mostly ignored! Humans don’t run the show at Kruger and are not part of the play. Here was this incredible interplay of actions going on—and humans play no part in it at all.
It was a profound shift in perspective to fully realize that here, the animal kingdom has its own dramas, priorities and rhythm of life, and that humans are totally insignificant to the action.
I was sorry to leave Kruger the next day, but we were headed for a quick trip to a reserve in Botswana, another wildlife adventure, before we went back home to Seattle. When I stop and recall those special days at Kruger National Park, there’s so much to remember. Of it all, I’m most struck by that clear moment, when I had a new appreciation of the rich life of the animal kingdom.