An encounter with elephants at Mashatu Game Reserve

Once upon a time in the Mashatu Game Reserve, I was the only women in a crew of 4; Nluu* (not his real name), a photo journalist, Sloo, the driver and Godi our tour guide. Godi occupied the furthest and elevated seat at the back, for obvious reasons.

I still recall warning signs scattered all over the Reserve, ”Mashatu animals are wild”.

I was a television producer of a magazine programme and we were taking pictures, for the ‘sights and sounds’ segment of the programme.

A magazine programme, is a collection of articles, stories, pictures and features. It is a mixed bag.

Our two day visit consisted of early morning game drives in an open Safari van. We would leave the hotel at 6 in the morning and at 9, Sloo would set a full English breakfast table, complete with steaming hot tea. This would also mark the end of our morning drive.

We occupied the rest of the morning working in and around the vicinity of our hotel, conducting interviews, and taking more pictures. The intention was to leave the reserve with as many programme segments as possible.

At 3, in the afternoon, we would be back in the truck, heading for water holes, afternoon favourites for most animals. Everything worked as scripted, even to the amazement of our tour guides. We encounted troupes upon troupes of the all types of animals.

On day two, almost halfway through our morning drive, Godi announced seeing elephants ahead.

You don’t visit the land of giants and come back without their story.

We found them, waiting. The entire clan; nursing mothers and their babies, possibly also uncles, aunts and the grandparents. Huge in numbers and build. Intimidating.

The sight of wild animals doesn’t often excite me. It is good to see them so as not to only rely on book knowledge. But it is not something I’ll move mountains for; probably because I grew up in a village, at the foot of a hill. There were seasons we would come home from school to find our yard packed with baboons, feeding on our melons. Snakes and scorpions were our regular visitors. Kudus used to appear from the hill behind.

At the lands/farm/masimo, whatever you call it, we feasted on porcupines, ostriches and kudus. I grew up with animals. I am a child of the wild. So I cannot, now all grown up, pretend to like animals so much so as to travel distances just to admire them.

But for family and relatives who fancy wildlife tourism, I am good company.

The elephants were on our left, facing us. I was sitting to the right of Nluu. The weather was good; blotches of thick clouds, left gaps of blue sky for beautiful picture quality. The only sound, was when Nluu, our photojournalist, changed positions, for good view. We needed to capture aesthetics, the ambiences, the unadulterated silences of the wild.

Things changed when the mama elephant turned around, giving us her back–and slowly, they all turned and walked away. The mother following closely behind them, driving them pack from behind.

“That is not a good sign. I think it is preparing to attack”. I don’t remember who, between Sloo and Godi, said it.

Elephants are matriarchal. Mothers and grandmothers see to the welfare of the family. They guard and protect their own. And true to tradition, she came back, flapping her ears; coming for us. Her screeching cries stayed with me for, I-don’t-know-how-long. Sloo revved the car engine. Mama elephant, stopped, turned around, towards the rest of her family. They were now a distance away.

We had continued with our video shooting. The car had not moved.

“Sloo tlou e eta. A re tsamaeng”, (Sloo, let us go, the elephant is coming), warned Godi.

To our shock, the mama elephant was approaching much faster and more furious than the first time, leaving a cloud of dust on her trail. No amount of revving could slow her down. She had made her mind.

The road ahead was rocky and bumpy, making it impossible for Sloo to drive as fast as we wanted. The elephant followed closely behind, atleast from its cries.

I was too scared to look back.

“Sloo kana tou e gorogile”, you could smell fear in Godi’s voice.
“Monna Godi o tshosa di-guests”, Sloo tried to adhere to protocol.
“Wa re ke tshosa di-guests. Ka re tou ke e”.

Although the frequency of updates on the lurking danger was unwelcome then, in retrospect, I understand his situation. He was the closest to the angry elephant.

I couldn’t bring myself to look back to check our proximity to the attacking elephant. I could only muster a silent prayer “Lord please save our lives”.

I then waited for the inevitable; her to wrap her trunk around my neck and pull me out of the truck. And she was not going to do it, while I looked.

The answer to my prayer came in the form of a river. Either from laziness or too much anger, Mama elephant chose not to descend the deep river. We watched, from middle of the river, as she angrily pulled out fully grown trees. Her voice, too angry and loud.

But we still had a journey back to the hotel. We took long to leave the river; too scared to retrace our way back. Our attacker was still somewhere, in the bush, probably still as enraged.

I wanted to spend the night in the middle of the river. It never felt that safe.

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