“And so you cower and cast your gaze upon the setting sun, it’s scarlet menace melting into the horizon like blood. Slowly your eyes are drawn skyward to the star-scarred heavens and you know, right there in that moment, that no God can save you now. This is Africa.”
I knock gently on the wooden beam beside me. This is not a knock for luck – that ship has sailed – this is a knock to gauge structural integrity. What had once seemed so strong and stable, now strikes me as particularly weak and flimsy. We appear to be trapped in a prison of matchsticks.
Outside, six wild African elephants lumber about noisily, snapping twigs and occasionally emitting a low grumble. For the most part, they appear not to notice us, but the ever-encroaching darkness provides only false hope. Our guides have informed us, in no uncertain terms, that they can smell us. They know we are here.
Much earlier, before the sun began to set, we watched in awe as two of these giant pachyderms drank from the waterhole, occasionally stopping to fight playfully. From the safety of the bird-hide, we felt no danger – our safari vehicle a mere thirty-metres or so behind us. We drank and chatted jovially, unaware of a larger group of elephants approaching from behind.
Shortly before dark, the guides stepped inside the bird-hide to join the rest of us, their calm composure waning slightly. Two more elephants had appeared from our left and begun their slow stroll down to the water directly in front of us. Their lazy, laborious movements should not be misconstrued – these animals can reach a pace of 45 km per hour in an exceptionally short space of time.
However, we still felt relatively safe in our wooden cage, and good-spirited chatter continued while we appreciated the spectacle of their bathing routine, amazed at how they managed to disappear completely under water. But soon all voices would be hushed.
As the guides quietly conversed among themselves in their local tongue, we began to realise it was time to leave. The mood grew tense. We were informed that two more elephants had settled within metres of our vehicle. In normal daylight, a single elephant is not usually a concern. Unless provoked, they will generally remain calm. After dark, it’s a different story – they can’t see well and are on high alert for predators. A single snapped twig could ignite a stampede.
In such a situation, ego takes a back seat. In the imposing shadow of mother nature, there is no place for pride or bravado. To feel anything less than utter respect and humility would be ignorant. Earth becomes no longer the domain of humans – we are but inconsequential upon its vast surface.
As the reality of our situation became apparent, the bird hide fell deathly silent.
And so here we find ourselves – surrounded, trapped, in our matchstick prison. My knock echoes in the silence. Nobody speaks. Occasionally, someone checks for mobile phone reception, always with the same result. After what seems like hours, our guides reach a decision. We will attempt to approach the vehicle three at a time, emphasis placed on the necessity to remain calm and walk slowly. In these situations, there is no greater danger than the smell of fear. Even a slight change in vibration of a panicked footstep is perceptible to a wild animal.
As I reach the vehicle in the second group of three, my heart lodges itself firmly in my throat and I gaze upon the huge black shape only a few metres behind me. It remains eerily still until the last few of our group climb safely into their seats, and then suddenly begins to amble ponderously off, giving me a mild heart attack in the process.
The old Landrover sputters to life, but even its noisy diesel engine can’t drown out the sighs of relief as we escape quickly into the darkness.
African Elephants are the largest land mammals on Earth and amongst the world’s most intelligent species, having a brain structure similar to that of humans. They are viciously protective of their young, and many people underestimate the danger they pose.
Despite the ivory trade being made illegal in 1989, poaching still remains a significant problem. As a result, the West African Elephant Memorandum of Understanding came into effect on 22 November 2005.