By Neal Talbot
NGORONGORO CRATER, TANZANIA – The thick underbrush ahead shakes in terror, before violently parting, and revealing the true king of the jungle — the African Bull Elephant. The sheer size of the animal is imposing. Eight feet tall, 15 feet long, tipping the scales at 11,000 pounds, with skin thick as armour and two ivory tusks gleaming threateningly in the last traces of afternoon sun.
Our tour guide, Manual, tells us this elephant is only one of 40,000 animals that call Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater home, but easily it’s largest and most devastating. As everyone turns to question his use of “devastating,” the safari veteran confirms our greatest fears; the elephant could tip the Landcruiser over without breaking a sweat, tear the side off with a single swipe of its tusks or simply crush us with its weight. All things he swears have happened before.
The goosebumps and sense of awe one gets from seeing such an animal for the first time is quickly replaced by an uncomfortable cold sweat and tinge of fear. As someone breaks out their wildlife guide, perhaps to make sure the elephant is indeed an herbivore, Manual lets out a calming laugh and smiles at us.
The elephant seems to act on cue, as it casually walks to the edge of the road and begins tearing leaves off a nearby acacia tree, completely indifferent to our presence. Discounting our guide’s tales of terror, everyone begins snapping photos of the gentle giant, marvelling at its ability to ingest the inch-long acacia thorns that accompany the soft leaves.
But just as someone mentions how the elephant’s skin is in serious need of wrinkle cream, its huge grey ears suddenly snap to attention, as if plucking the words out of the air. The massive monster freezes, before slowly turning to stare at us.
Then it does the unthinkable. The elephant starts walking towards us. Unable to pull the truck into reverse without angering the animal further, our guide whispers, “Don’t move. Don’t make a sound.” His tone is serious and scared. His smile is gone. We become statues.
As the elephant reaches the front of the vehicle its friendly stare now seems menacing, as if picking out who’s to be the first victim. But it bypasses the hood and begins moving alongside the vehicle.
The beast is so close, its skin rubs sharply against the metal of the vehicle, giving off an unnerving screech. I start thinking about the best way to survive a roll-over, if I can outrun an elephant, and what to do if I come across a pack of lions during my escape. Crazy things. My heart nearly stops as I accidentally push the button on my digital camera.