When you see Elephants...

When driving in Britain, it is a convention to give way to traffic approaching from the right. In Africa when driving, it is a convention to give way to elephants, no matter from which direction they appear!

I was musing on this fact when it occurred to me that most of my hair-raising moments on safari have involved elephants.

Family of 5 elephants walking to the left
Family of elephants. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

It’s not that I dislike elephants. In fact, I find their behaviour fascinating. It’s just that we tend not to get along too well when in close proximity.

I first saw wild elephant in a marsh in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. As they exited the water, I noted that the smaller elephants were dark, having been totally submerged in water during their foraging, whilst the larger elephants each had a tide line, reflecting how big they were and how deeply into the swamp they had gone. Each elephant had its attendant egrets, which would hop down to eat insects disturbed by the elephants’ feet, and then fly back on board for a rest. I soon learnt that any viewing of a herd of eli would result in interesting behaviour being displayed, and that all one had to do was to find a herd, stay at a safe distance, be prepared to sit quietly, and see what developed.

At times however, the problem can be to know what is a safe distance for a particular elephant or situation. That can only be determined by your experienced guide, who can hopefully read the visual signs the elephants are giving.


In South Luangwa one day, we came across a bull elephant with a heavy discharge running down the sides of his face. It was in a state of musth, a sexual state of arousal when searching for females on heat. At about 6000 kg he was not to be trifled with and the driver stopped at what he considered a safe distance. Luckily he left the engine running, for in an instant, with ears tight back, the elephant charged. Fortunately, the driver was very experienced and, slipping the gears into reverse, we hurtled backwards in excess of thirty miles an hour. Avoiding trees, we had travelled nearly two hundred yards before the bull pulled up. With an aggressive shake of his head and a trumpet, he swaggered back towards the deeper bush. Had he caught us, he could easily have flipped the jeep with dire consequences for us all.



Young elephant striding through the long grass
Young elephant in the grass. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

Sometimes, a situation develops more slowly, but with the same potential for disaster. An example occurred in the Mara one evening when we were coming slowly up a dirt road from a watering hole. There were banks either side of us and upon turning a bend, we were faced by a herd of about twenty elis, making their way down the road towards the water. We couldn’t easily reverse, nor get out over the high banks so the driver cut the engine and told us to keep quiet and not make any sudden movement. Slowly the herd moved towards us, with the matriarch in the lead, followed by young bulls, cows and calves. The senior bulls brought up the rear. As they passed on either side of us they scented us with trunks raised and flared. Small, intelligent eyes weighed us up, ears flapped and heads were shaken, but they kept walking. Eventually the entire herd had negotiated us and continued on down the road. It was a wonderful, if daunting experience to be so close to such huge creatures, and due to the good judgement of our driver and guide, one from which we emerged safely.



Drawing of a young elephant walking to the left
Baby elephant. Original drawing by David Dancey-Wood. Copyright Hawksbill Fine Art 2021

Image Courtesy of Jon Isaacs


However, not all close encounters with elephant are frightening. Some can even be funny and such was the meeting with Big Mike. We were staying in a temporary camp in the Luangwa valley and had a large trestle table, set up for our evening meal, on top of a small bank. A dozen of us sat down to the meal which was presided over by the camp manager Little Mike. As we consumed the early courses we noted that the area’s resident bull, Big Mike, was in a patch of bush below us. The elephant had been known in the area for over forty years, long before the seasonal camps had been erected, and he definitely felt superior to the humans who regularly invaded his patch. As we moved towards the final course of fruit, Big Mike moved ever closer. Little Mike assured us we were quite safe so we continued eating. Scenting the fruit, Big Mike decided the opportunity was too good to miss and so he slowly started to scale the bank. As his trunk appeared sliding up the table leg from below, Little Mike calmly and quietly murmured that it was a bit close for comfort. With that, our collective nerve broke and we departed at speed in all directions away from the table. The trunk hoovered up the fruit from a dozen plates and the sound of pleased rumbles arose from below. Having stolen our dessert, he wandered off in search of more delicacies, whilst we sheepishly returned from our hiding places to rescue the remains of the scattered chairs and plates.



 A standing elephant throwing mud over its back
Elephant throwing mud over its back. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

Invariably it is the bull elephants that seem to cause the problems, whatever their age. A two-year-old once repeatedly mock charged us in our stationary jeep. Getting ever more excited and brave, he eventually ended up stopping a couple of metres short of the jeep, at which we all laughed at him. This completely unnerved him and he fled to the middle of a bushy area from which he had to be rescued by his older and much calmer sister. On another occasion, a mature bull decided to go to sleep resting against the entrance to our rondaval. With us trapped inside, it was our turn to have to be rescued, this time by a guide, who helped us escape by climbing through an open window on the other side of the building.


Close encounters with elephants are therefore always educational and exciting. Each encounter has left me with vivid memories of an animal for which I have the utmost respect. I also instinctively know who will give way at the next dusty roadside crossing.




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