During one of our game drives we came across a couple of cars parked in the woods and we noticed two elephants nearby, a large bull and a younger companion, also known as an “askari”. From close quarters we immediately recognized the large one as “Big V”, a well known and placid bull that a game ranger first pointed it out to us on another visit to the park. His name derives from a large notch shaped as an inverted “V” on the lower edge of its left ear.
We approached the animals, parked the car and got out to join the elephant-watching crowd (two people in one car!). Big V was busy chewing through an acacia branch the size of my forearm! “This is ridiculous”, I thought while I watched it in amazement as it crunched it loudly and started to swallow the splinters. While this was taking place, a game-viewing car with only one passenger came and Big V got somehow separated from the askari while we kept watching, trying to make the best of this photo opportunity.
The sole occupant of the newly arrived vehicle clearly thought that this was a good sight and proceeded to offload a humongous filming camera on a tripod. “This is not fair”, I thought as I tried to make do with my comparatively modest Nikon Coolpix! After spending quite a while assembling the equipment, he filmed for about one minute and they were off!
While we continued watching the elephants in awe, another two cars with South African plates arrived, full of people with spectacularly long lenses. They took hundreds of pictures at the elephants and, as soon as they arrived, they also left. I speculated for a while on a better game viewing opportunity and failed to understand where were they rushing! I still need to learn a lot about my fellow humans…
Finally we were alone. We waited as we knew that at this time of the year elephants in Mana Pools feed on the pods of the Apple ring acacia (Acacia albida) and we estimated that this was the intention of Big V as we were in acacia woodland. After a while, with calm restored, he obliged and started stretching to get at the pods, offering us some photo opportunities that are the heart of this post.
I have some difficulties taking pictures looking at the camera screen so I use its viewfinder, a hang up from my SLR’s days! On this occasion I was so engrossed taking pictures of Big V at full stretch nearby that when I heard “the other one is coming” from my wife, the askari was almost stepping on my toes!
I was caught “between a car and an elephant” and, although I made myself as thin as possible by contracting my stomach, I could feel its body heat while busy watching his feet to avoid being maimed for life! Luckily the elephant was so focused on feeding that did not even look at me!
Before my pulse went back to normal I saw Big V coming the same way. I am not good at mathematics (in fact that is one of the reasons I became a vet!) but it was not too difficult to calculate that I have just had a near miss with a smallish bull in that spot and there was a much larger animal coming… I jumped in the car, relieved to be a coward!
My wife meantime had cleverly placed herself on the other side of the car and was watching and taking pictures of my predicament while chuckling seeing me being squeezed…! Once inside the car I felt more secure and continued to shoot as the situation was amazing to miss even in fear!
Big V passed a metre from me and, once by my side its head moved towards me and I could see that he had dry skin as well as every detail of its tusks ivory quality.
“This is ridiculous” I thought, “what is it doing?” I thought in a kind of resigned panic as I was totally at its mercy! Before I could find an answer his head disappeared from my sight as it stretched over the car to get at a particularly attractive pod!
I prepared for the bang (and how to explain the damage to the insurance company) thinking on the branch or branches that it was going to break and bring over the car! Luckily, it only got small twigs and I only had a “leaf-rain”.
I am afraid that my fingers did not respond to my mental commands for a while so perhaps my pictures do not reflect proximity too well! It was fortunate that my wife managed to capture the moment, even if between chuckles.
(A brief video taken by my wife showing the situation)
The elephant munched the result of its effort fast and moved on leaving me with the incredible feeling of having been under its shadow and survived, showing how tolerant of people the elephants in Mana Pools are!
Gwaya camp, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, September 2015.
 One or more younger males often accompany older bull elephants staying away from herds and these are referred to as “askari” a word from Arabic meaning “soldier”.