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I lower the camera and the elephant continues to stare, then he moves in to examine our tiny car. (Ellen Keith)
I lower the camera and the elephant continues to stare, then he moves in to examine our tiny car. (Ellen Keith)

DIY safari in South Africa – and our too close encounter Add to ...

Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

The first stop on our African road trip is Pilanesberg National Park, a two hour drive north of Johannesburg. On the advice of a tour-guide cousin, we opt for a DIY-safari. Pilanesberg claims to be two-wheel-drive friendly, but our rental car turns out to be a glorified Smart car. Still, we take our chances. Once we leave the main paved road, we bounce in our seats as the tiny vehicle hits ruts and we swerve to avoid jagged rocks. For this subcompact, 30 kilometres an hour seems suicidal.

As the sun rises above the surrounding ring of hills, a menagerie of wildlife greets us: giraffes, zebras, white rhinos, impala and countless wildebeest. Alone in the bushveld, we embrace a silence broken only by the distinctive call of the grey lourie bird: go-away, go-away. It doesn’t occur to us this could be an omen.

While we rattle along a side road, I notice a massive lump in the distance. Pilanesberg is tucked in the crater of an extinct volcano, and I’ve already been tricked by enough hefty boulders to know not to get my hopes up. But as we approach, I glimpse a flash of ivory, and the lump begins to move.

We park the car and turn off the engine as the elephant comes nearer. He’s a huge, old bull, well-endowed with a drooping belly and a trunk that dangles along the dusty road. The bull is the largest that we’ll see on our entire trip. When he’s 20 metres away, he stops to chew on the acacia trees. I snap photos. When I lower my lens, he turns to stare.

The moment our eyes connect he takes another step. He heads to the road behind us. I spin to look out the rear window. As he steps onto the gravel, he turns to face our car.

“What do we do?” I ask my brother. “Turn on the car – drive!”

“It’s too late; we’ll startle him.”

Four tons of weight, but barely a sound as he trudges forward. His eyes don’t leave mine until he towers over us. He stops. Rubs against the passenger side – we’ve just become his scratching post. His bulk makes the car groan. Machete tusks graze the passenger window.

I lock my door.

“How’s that going to stop him?”

The elephant lifts his trunk and feather-dusts my window, leaving smudges of red dirt. My heartbeat takes on the grey lourie shriek. Go-away, go-away. He leans sideways. I hear the scrape of rough skin on metal. My mind flashes to the article my mother so kindly sent me before I left: “Two Tourists Gravely Injured after Elephant Attacks Car.” I glance down at my camera but my hands are paralyzed. Besides, I wouldn’t want to witness my end through a lens.

Go-away, go-away.

When the bull’s curiosity is finally sated, he obeys my silent plea. He continues on to another tree, blocking our path so we dare not proceed. We sit and wait until he retreats to the bush.

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