Photo credit: Chad Cocking | A Male Bull Elephant in Musth at Tanda Tula in the Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa.
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When Trees Fly

Chad Cocking | Conservation

Returning from my evening drive, I was as nervous as a teenager on his first date. How was I going to break the news to Godfrey, my head guide, that his baby, Mfutsu, was not in quite as pristine a condition as she was when he let me look after her?  Now before you start worrying that I hurt someone’s baby and that I’m going to be a terrible father, let me assure you of two things. Firstly, at the rate I’m going, fatherhood is still a few decades away for me, and secondly, Mfutsu is a Land Rover, and not a real baby!

At the time of this story, I was the new kid on block, and this fact annoyed some of the longer-serving guides when Godfrey – who didn’t usually let anyone else drive his Land Rover – allowed me to use it for a few days when he wasn’t on game drive.  To say that his vehicle was spotless would have been an understatement. It came as no surprise, as Godfrey was a meticulous driver, and even his vehicle’s name, Mfutsu (which is Xitsonga for ‘tortoise’), was indicative of how slowly and carefully he drove around the reserve.  Now she was in my hands, and not wanting to upset the boss, I endeavored to be as careful as I possibly could, fully planning on returning Mfutsu to Godfrey in the same immaculate condition I received it in.

Then we met six tonnes of testosterone.

Photo credit: Chad Cocking | A Male Bull Elephant in Musth at Tanda Tula in the Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa.

It had been a hot summer’s afternoon and we had spent some lovely time in the company of a large, relaxed breeding herd of elephants. We were moving away from the area when a large elephant bull appeared out of the bushes about 100m to my left.  It took me all of one second to realize that he was in musth due to the confidence in his swagger.  That swagger made first-team school rugby players look like geeky teenagers on a first date.

As this monstrous bull was still some distance away, I stopped the Land Rover and turned off the engine even though he kept making a beeline straight for me.

Prior to becoming a guide, I would never have even considered cutting my ignition at an elephant sighting, especially not near an elephant bull in musth; but after only a short few months in the bush, I thought that I was now an expert in elephant behavior, that “knew” that this elephant would soon stop.  When he got to about 15m from us and was still coming, I decided that it was time to make him stop, so I calmly started the Landy and revved gently which had the desired effect; Mr. Broken-Tusk came to a standstill.

Pleased with myself and my “understanding” of elephants, we continued to watch as the pachyderm now pretended to feed while his attention was clearly still focused on us (this was another clear indication that he was indeed a male – he was unable to multitask).  I then joked with my guests that he was probably going to throw the dead tree in front of him at us.  Sometimes I really hate it when I am right!

Before I could do anything, the elephant’s enormous trunk had wrapped around the tree and with no perceivable exertion, he effortlessly tossed the tree in our direction.  It was as if time stood still, but it wasn’t still enough for me to react, and I could do nothing but watch as the 5m tree came hurtling straight towards us (and by ‘us’, I mean my guests)!  By a stroke of luck, the base of the tree hit the ground some 10ft away, and this caused the other end of the tree to dip sharply downward, straight into the side of Mfutsu, no more than 30cm from where one of my guests was poised and ready to “catch” the tree.

There was a second of silence before the noise of my vehicle speeding off shattered it as I decided to make like a tree and leave.  I just laughed (and not because of that lame pun) but because I didn’t know what else to say; I had made a mistake and it had almost cost me dearly and suddenly a favourite saying of mine rang very true: ‘there are a lot of dead elephant experts out there’.

With my guests blissfully unaware of how close they had come to getting seriously injured, my focus now turned to just how on earth I was going to break the news to Godfrey that his precious Mfutsu wasn’t so pristine anymore!

But then, I guess any sentence that starts off with “the good news is that all of the guests are still alive…” can only help the situation when followed by “but the bad news is…”.




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