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The calm eye of an elephant storm

3 tonnes travelling at 40kph, the force generated concentrated into two peaks of ivory no wider than a 50 pence piece in diameter. I inwardly winced as I envisaged the impact of such a force on my own humble frame. Hands gripped resolutely proximate support; heads whipped round, frantically searching for the nearest threat, and the red dust rose to blur the outlines of the massing elephants. As I flung the old Landcruiser into reverse, I wandered what whim of the Gods had led me here to work as a game ranger in Zululand, rural South Africa.

Pongola Game Reserve, KwaZuluNatal lies in the shadow of the scooped sides of the Lebombo Mountains, which run north through Swaziland and on to Kruger National Park. In the mid 1990s, a collection of former cattle farms dropped the fences that had divided the land, elephants were reintroduced (having been previously shot out by the beginning of the 20th century) and tourist lodges established.  In 2004, I arrived and joined the team of field rangers, assuming responsibility for taking lodge guests on guided tours to the elephants and working with the research team from the University of KwaZuluNatal.

Mark Gillies: survivor

Here, at the beginning, cast from your mind the idea of elephants being grey, the elephants of Pongola ranged from shades of red to brown. The soils of the reserve, probably due to a high iron content, are only the dark brown familiar to Europeans in drainage lines and river line thickets, elsewhere they delight in shades of flame red, ochre and terracotta. Constant dust bathing over the past ten years has ensured that the elephants are now stained, to varying degrees, a distinctive red. Even when they emerge from being fully immersed in the waters of the lake, which lies in a blue streak beneath the mountains, it is still possible to see a brown hue, soon overlain by a fresh covering of vibrant dust. The elephants are therefore the Red Elephants of Pongola.

Buga, a massive, large-eyed cow led the main herd. In Zulu, Buga means to look, or to stare. A more appropriate name does not exist and once you have been a subject of that unforgettable, staring, raised head, she is impossible to forget. Buga protects the herd; she breaks vehicles; she spends so much time in a state of vigilance I was always surprised she remembered to feed. Every time we approached the herd we had to ensure we knew, as best we could, where Buga was situated and the state of her mood. It was important to ensure that there was always an escape route, and to remain aware that such a route was always in danger of being blocked. If Buga charged, there would be little warning. Her big sisters and, eventually, the young bulls would reinforce her; that is a lot of speeding meat to face.

If your vision of savannah is open grassland then it is easy to dismiss the threat posed by an angry elephant, for can you not simply drive away at speed?  You can, just avoid the warthog holes hidden in the long grass; a wheel in there and progress comes to a crunching halt. To add complication, elephants only enjoy open grassland at certain times of year and certain times of day. The rest of their time is spent satisfying their dietary requirements in thickets, riverlines and other wooded areas.

Visibility is greatly reduced when one adds trees into the equation. Elephants are capable of silent movement when they want to and in the half-light of shade can effortlessly disappear completely into a relatively sparse treeline. You would laugh if you knew how many times I managed to lose the entire herd with just a few minutes of lapsed concentration.

I write this because I want to try to convey how alert one must be if one is first to find the elephants and then remain in their vicinity without stressing them or facing a dangerous situation. The advice given to beginners is to look through the first line of the bush, into the middleground and to remain alert for movement: the flapping of an ear, the swishing of a tail. As I gained more experience, I realised that it was only through trying to listen to my subconscious that I began to truly see what was going on around me, begin to spot the elephants earlier and so remain more in control of the ensuing contact situation.

Please be assured that I am not indulging in a flight of fancy when I write about the importance of the subconscious. My conscious mind seems to be quite a blunt tool that, when it looks for something, rejects anything which does not conform exactly to the identified target. Therefore, when I first went looking for elephants I rarely saw them. This was because in thick bush it is rare to see whole elephants: you see a tusk, a flapping ear, a splash of backside, or a tree moving against the direction of the prevailing wind. Overtime these things are picked up by your subconscious as your senses filter through the information constantly flooding in. Learning to react to the initial twinge of recognition and ones instinct was like removing filters from my eyes and so revealing a new, clearer, picture. Of course, some days a six-ton bull would just walk down the road towards me. The acknowledgement of a favour granted communicated through the lazy glance of an eye, the side smell from an almost flaccid trunk and the uninterrupted footfall of gigantic cracked pads.

In my time, the main herd numbered thirty-seven animals, drawn from two family groups – ‘A’ and ‘B’ family – comprising individuals from across the age spectrum, females and numerous young bulls. This made it a large herd and so, when observed in a relaxed state, it was possible to enjoy the natural behaviour of elephant society. Believe me when I say that it was not all action, elephants lead the world in the game of statues, but through prolonged, patient, observation we were able to enjoy the minutiae of life. We became familiar with how quickly the young bulls became bored and reverted to challenging the nearest living thing; laughed at the amount of foliage which ends up on the head of an elephant, discarded for clinging too strongly to the mud adorning its roots. It became easy to identify old friends who sought out each other’s company in rest, or strode to one another’s defence in times of stress. And when the top of Antares’ ear began to fold and movement became just a memory, we knew the old girl slept.

Antares holds a firm place in my heart, for it was she who saved me from Buga’s malicious attentions that day in the sickle bushes. When the herd decided to cover a relatively great distance they would move quickly, in an extended line, following paths established since their introduction to the reserve. If we could catch them crossing a road set at ninety degrees to the utilised path, then we would have a good opportunity to count the herd and ensure there had been no additions or losses. So when, on a winter’s day in August, we spotted the swirling dust of a rapidly moving herd, the chase was on.

The old railway line proved an appropriate approach road, which allowed us to gain on, and then overtake, the herd. Their brown backs could occasionally be seen advancing through well-established sickle bush thickets to our left. But, this was no problem, for we knew that there was also a road heading off to our left, which we would reach before the herd and that they must cross if they were to continue on the journey north.

By this time I was nervously alert; the track was rutted, strewn with boulders, over-endowed with kinked turns and heading uphill – not a fast road. At this point I must also mention that Buga had a year previously been the architect of an unprovoked attack on two of my friends, during which she had rolled their vehicle, doing her best to turn it into a crushed tin can. We halted on the road and quietly waited; we could see nothing.

The sickle bushes that populated the overgrazed land, fighting each other to be first to the light, caused our lack of visibility. In this area of the farm the species was doing distressingly well and their spiny forms reached well over two metres to scratch the sapphire sky. Positioned as we were twenty metres in front of what we supposed to be the relevant path, my colleague Graeme climbed on the roof to warn of imminent arrival. My foot on the clutch pedal and left hand on the ignition key, I faced the fact that I probably had a sinking feeling in my stomach for a good reason.

The call came down. “’B’ Family in sight, pretty close. Should be ok.” 

In the act of getting off the roof I heard Graeme’s voice again. “Shit. ‘A’ family behind us.”

The herd had split.

We were now in a horrible position, like the part in the movies where the pursued victim turns down a deserted, high walled alley, only to find undesirables in front of him and his pursuers closing the gap behind. I was not about to chance being blocked and charged by Buga and so I began to reverse back towards the A group, hoping to clear them without causing too much in the way of aggravation.

Looking over my left shoulder, I saw Antares, the matriarch of the A Family, emerge from the bush, head raised with ears fully extended. The biggest cow in the herd, I remember hoping she would still be able to access her affable side and forgive me this little indiscretion. Swinging my head back towards the right, the corner of my eye calmly informed my brain that the bushes had begun to part. I floored the engine in reverse and concentrated on trying not to crash.

An elephant has varying means of displaying displeasure and threat. The penultimate level is the mock charge, in which the individual uses size, noise, movement and speed to intimidate whatever has aroused its ire. The mock charge is a fearsome spectacle, but it does not come close to the full charge. In a full charge, the head is lowered, ears are folded and the trunk is gathered into a tight coil, seemingly throbbing with potential, lethal, energy.  The full charge is also utterly silent and will always result in impact. On that day in August, the bushes were parted not by some winter wind or curious antelope, but by the malevolent Buga in full charge.

Alerted by Antares’ initial alarm, Buga, so authorities inform us, was approaching a speed of 40 kph, with the potential to cover 11 metres every second. Keeping an ear on Graeme’s commentary, I was looking over my right shoulder for the nearest opportunity to swing round, for there was no way I could reach 40kph in reverse on that road. In the back of my mind I heard Graeme berating Antares, warning her not to charge. This changed to “Shit she’s coming!” as Antares also began to move. The prognosis was not good.

When charged by an elephant you often find yourself shouting at it, and so I could measure Antares’ progression by the timbre of Graeme’s voice. Still unhappily in reverse and waiting for the inevitable impact, I heard his voice change as the bulk of Antares closed on  – and then passed the vehicle. Red dust momentarily obscured my vision. Paused now in the first available gap, we watched, incredulous, as Antares only stopped to place herself squarely between the charging Buga and us. The herd entered a slight pandemonium at this act of insubordination, milling in excited confusion, but Antares stood her ground; we were not to be harmed.

I drove away, face calm, knuckles white, trying to suppress the desire to grin inanely. What made her decide to obstruct Buga and so save us? But for her action, I was definitely losing the race to main road. Had Buga caught us, the vehicle would have been rolled, making mine and Graeme’s future uncertain; he had only been saved in the previous incident because Buga had trapped one tusk in the vehicle and so concentrated her fury on the hapless steel, giving Graeme time to run to cover. Many times since that incident I spent time with Antares, just looking at her, wondering what she was thinking.

Now, when I think of the elephants, I see an eye, a tusk, and the constant quest of the trunk; I feel them rumble and hear the scrape of thorn on leather. In the awe of their company I felt both powerful and powerless.  Powerful because I was confident and experienced enough to be there, powerless because my safety – and the safety and pleasure of the guests in my care – was completely dependent upon the goodwill of those massive beasts. I sometimes think that only by accepting a state of powerlessness can you begin to achieve true calm.  Though the elephants of the Pongola Game Reserve had the power to topple the trees and make dust rise in billowing clouds, I have never felt more at peace than when I sat amongst them and all was quiet. Calm for me is found in the eye of an elephant.

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