Local Zambians are scared of elephants. Quite rightly, too. They regularly kill people. Get between a calf and its mother and you are asking for trouble. The locals think that elephants hate bicycles and will attack cyclists. I know a local man who came across an elephant while riding his bike on a bush track. He threw down the bike and lay beside it, pretending to be dead. The elephant examined his motionless body with her trunk, sniffing and nudging him. As it moved off, the elephant kicked out at him with its back foot as if to say, “I don’t believe you’re dead.” This glancing blow fractured his pelvis.
I feel very safe in my car if I meet an elephant on a track, but my predecessor as Valley Doc was terrified when he came across a bull elephant blocking the road. He reclined the car seat to horizontal, lying out of sight and stayed as still as he could while dialling for someone to rescue him.
I think I can read the signs when an elephant is irritated and wants me to get lost. If it is safe, I reverse and keep out of its way. If it is calm, I stop the vehicle and wait for it to move off the track. They can come very close, within a metre, and often look at me, sizing me up, not a threat, as they plod past.
Very rarely elephants will attack vehicles. I have heard of one young bull breaking off a tusk in the radiator as he tried to flip a game-viewing Land Cruiser. I reckon I can detect testosterone-fuelled bluster, when young bulls make a mock charge. You just have to read their body language and stay calm. And keep the engine running.
I enjoy just watching them quietly, learning more about their behaviour. I saw a female bring her calf to a water hole, but the edge was so steep and deep, the calf’s trunk couldn’t reach the water. The mother drank her fill then turned to her calf, manoeuvred its head under her trunk and regurgitated water into the calf’s mouth. She did this several times until the calf was sated.
A few weeks ago, as soon as it turned dark, I heard the sound of elephants wrecking the bushes and small trees beside my house. I had been invited to dinner and was hoping to walk over to my neighbour’s house, across 50 metres of rough ground. She telephoned me to say that a family group (about six) of elephants were grazing around our houses and not to come. I waited for half an hour, checked that the coast was clear and walked to her house, flashing my torch into the bushes to make sure the elephants had gone.
We were just sipping a pre-dinner drink on the verandah when my neighbour said, “They’re back. The elephants are round the front.” As no one had answered the front door, one bull elephant decided to come around the back, where the verandah overlooks the lagoon. We watched as he lumbered past the side of the house, pausing to pull off some weeds from the thatched roof for a quick snack. He then padded over to a dead tree and scratched an itch.
Rather recklessly, I was sending images of the elephant back to the UK using WhatsApp. The notification noise of a reply on my smartphone is particularly jarring. The bull stopped demolishing a tree branch, turned to the noise and walked over to the verandah. He peered under the thatch where we were externally motionless, but internally trembling. After a few seconds, he decided that leaves were more interesting and he moved off. Eventually all the elephants walked down to the lagoon and we breathed sighs of relief and excitement.
Sunday lunch, a barbecue by the river, what could be more pleasant? We drove an hour south on a well-graded road and pulled over under the shade of a huge tree and started a fire. As the mopani flies (tiny midge-like creatures that get in your eyes and up your nose) were troublesome, we lit some dry elephant dung to create smoke which repels the flies. We arranged our portable chairs around the fire, trying to be near the smoke but not choked by it. It worked very well.
George cooked the pork chops and boerewors sausage to perfection. The chicken thighs in spicy sauce were delicious. The baboons are afraid of people in this remote area so they didn’t pester us trying to steal food. Elephants are vegetarians, they didn’t want our food, but we had to keep our eyes open in case they lumbered into our party area. The breeze shifted after lunch (and a couple of gin and tonics), so I moved my chair, paying attention to where the smoke was drifting.
No sooner than I’d sat down when I asked, “Folks, I can smell elephants, can anyone see them?” Elephants do have a distinct, strong odour. Everyone scanned the horizon until Vicki pointed out that I had moved my chair over a flattened mound of fresh elephant dung. Normally, it looks very distinctive, like bowling balls, but this had been picked over by baboons, looking for choice bits of undigested food, and they had scattered it about. So much for my bush craft!