Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 36

18 09 2008


The African Darter renowned for always hitting the Bullseye (Matusadona, Zimbabwe)

When fleeing a charging elephant, always watch where you’re going.


Matusadona, Zimbabwe is one of the most beautiful spots in the world. Sitting on Lake Kariba in the Zambezi valley, the park can be explored on foot or from the water.


It was late afternoon and we were paddling along the shoreline, quietly venturing into tranquil bays and small waterways that wound their way into the bush. Before our expedition, the guide had warned us to be particularly aware of hippopotamuses, a creature that kills more people every year than lions or crocodiles. He cautioned us that the first rule when near a hippo is never to get between it and deep water as that’s when they’re at their most aggressive and dangerous. With that we set off.


When the ranger climbed into my canoe, I was initially rather excited. He was not only an experienced canoeist, but unlike me, he also knew what he was doing. It was only when we led the flotilla, ventured closest to the wildlife and ran interference for the rest of the panicked paddlers that I began to regret having him aboard.


From the silence of the water, we closely observed antelope, zebra, jackals and buffalo. Exotic, wildly-coloured birdlife flitted about our heads, while others were close enough to touch.  As the shadows lengthened, all was bliss…until we turned a corner and found a herd of elephant.


I was more than happy to watch them from afar. I have good eyesight and saw no reason to venture closer. They hadn’t invited us over for a chat. We weren’t carrying cakes. What could possibly be the benefit of proceeding forward? I grumbled to myself as my backseat paddler propelled us closer and closer.


We finally stopped just shy of the shoreline and no more than a few dozen metres from the herd. The rest of our party sensibly stopped well back.


The herd was contentedly grazing. Young calves played in the shadow of the adults while their older siblings ran around boisterously. We watched them in excited silence, our paddles idly across our laps, thoroughly enjoying our private audience. One of the young bulls ventured closer to us. I watched him, wondering when my companion would deem it wise to move away, but the elephant seemed uninterested and we remained in our spot.


Finally, the bull noticed us. He trumpeted loudly, threw his ears forward and stomped a few steps forward. I raised the paddle, but the guide whispered to stay still. He said it was just a mock charge and that the youngster was just throwing his weight around. The obstreperous elephant continued his tantrum. Safely in the hands of the guide, I enjoyed the display. The elephant’s ears went back, the trunk dropped, and our friend charged at us with menacing speed. Just as I raised my camera to take a snap, the guide’s paddle plunged into the water beside me.


“Paddle backwards! Paddle backwards!” he shouted.


The canoe shot back like a torpedo. The elephant continued to charge. I thrust my paddle into the shallow water trying to put as much distance between us and the petulant pachyderm as possible. We paddled frantically, finally gaining some momentum. My heart was pounding, the adrenalin was pumping but as the elephant reached the water’s edge and stopped his express train charge, I began to relax a bit.


“Stop paddling! Stop paddling!” the guide shouted, his paddle now countering my backward strokes with a furious frenzy.


Puzzled, I stop.


“Hippos!!!” he shouted, pointing at the little piggy ears, evil eyes and scarred hides that now surrounded us. We were in the midst of a maritime minefield.


The hippos splashed, snorted and hooted their protest of our trespass. Our canoe sat motionless as our guide carefully surveyed the encircling beasts. We carefully headed for deeper water. The hippos quietened down. My heartbeat returned to normal and the white knuckles that gripped the paddle loosened.


“The second rule when near a hippo” he suddenly explained, “is always to watch where you’re going”.


And with that we headed home.




Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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