Living with Elephants
When people visit the bush for the first time their behaviour is one of two ways with regards to the environment and the animals that reside in it.
One – they will be so blasé toward some of the most dangerous creatures on the planet and have no fear at all to the point they can put themselves and others in a lot of danger. I have even had one group of tourist ask me if it was OK to go and pet the Lions. Luckily I dampened their spirits a little and they happily returned home with all limbs still intact
Two – the total opposite and the generally irrational fear of everything not human, this is from the miniscule to the very large. This can be a little bit of a challenge while residing or holidaying in the bush as we are basically being allowed to share space with a multitude of animals 24 hours a day and as you can imagine its very stressful to be petrified 24 hours of the day!
I found out I was a combination of the two, I had no particular issues with the 6 and 8 legged creatures and as long as I remembered to shake out my shoes in the morning, shake my sheets and pillow before bed and keep my mouth closed while I was asleep I was fine. Four legged and if it had fur, I was in awe and in respect of these magnificent creatures but not really a lot of fear.
If it was four legged and just had skin, grey skin to be exact and was called an Elephant then I can fully admit to being terrified to the point of hysteria. I have no idea why and previous to being in Zambia no experiences that would have caused my fear. I do fully appreciate that elephants are one of the most dangerous animals in the world and should be treated with great care, respect and understanding however the reaction that seeing an elephant caused me could have earnt me money just for the pure entertainment of it!
I am an animal lover and lived with animals all of my life. I understand animal behaviour and have learnt not to provoke or upset them. I was therefore very surprised at the emotions I felt when I was near these beautiful, intelligent and much of the time peaceful creatures. This included profuse sweating, uncontrollable shaking and worst of all the torrent of abusive language that came from my mouth! I am known (most of the time) to be polite, mild mannered and very British therefore it came to much surprise and hilarity to people when they experienced my adverse reaction to being in the company of elephants.
I did not know I knew so many swear words and had the ability to put so many into one sentence. I had developed a little know condition called Ele Tourette’s. Well I named it myself as it allowed me to get away with my foul mouth if I blamed it on something.
When flying back to Zambia for my initial year it dawned on me that I was going to have to deal with every day as I literally lived in the National Park. It also dawned on me I was going to be driving on my own and every day I was going to be presented with an elephants crossing the road in front of me or may be not one, maybe a HERD OF ELEPHANTS – Good God, bloody hell, Jesus Christ bloody hell (that is a toned down version) I nearly got the plane to turn back but I was not that sensible.
So it had to happen, I had to drive, sometimes by myself, sometime with others and God Forbid, sometimes I had to drive tourists...
Driving in Mfuwe is pretty easy as it’s just one single road through the village and just mind the goats, dogs, children, chicken in the road and your fine. Driving in the National Park which I did every day is easy as well. Well it was if the elephants stayed out of sight in the bushes. If not, it was total turmoil.
I fully admit to my limitations of my driving skills and cant park, parallel or otherwise.
Reversing? Bloody superb! Why? The elephants of course. I have been known to reverse further back to where I originally started my journey if I was going out for a meeting or to meet friends and an elephant was going about his business of eating the bushes on the side of the road. Reversing in the bush is a cardinal sin and very much frowned upon by ‘those in the know’ However try and tell my brain that when those old grey ears emerge from the bush and into my line of sight. Reversing in front of an elephant is a good way of encouraging him to charge at you so why I do it goodness only knows. All I know is battle position and ‘retreat, retreat’
‘Disco foot’ into action on the clutch (this is a known term in the bush for when you are so scared your shaking so much your leg is going an involuntary spasm and give a great impression of Grease Lightning Dance on the clutch pedal) sweaty palms, actually sweaty everything! Breathing like an asthmatic and the Ele Tourette’s swings into action. I reverse at the speed of light taking no prisoners and just hope there are no elephants behind me. Taking this into consideration I always needed to set off an hour early than necessary to get where I was going to. Sometimes it was just not worth going out!
For a few years I had the pleasure of doing relief management at some bush camps which are located about 3 hour’s drive from the main lodge and accommodate 8 guests in luxurious conditions in the depths of the bush meaning less people, generally more elephants. Oh Dear God…!
Whilst managing these camps it means I am in charge of guest’s satisfaction, happiness and most importantly safety and whilst briefing my guests as they arrived at their ‘little piece of paradise’ I needed to communicate the dangers of staying in the bush, awareness of the environment the animals and never to walk to their chalet without being escorted by myself who would ensure their safety at all times. Little did they know that if en route to their chalet only armed with a torch as a weapon and we saw an elephant it would be everyman for themselves and believe me I would be the first up that tree thank you very much. Luckily I always managed to remain outwardly calm and generally could contain my abhorrent language to just in my head during the chalet transfers.
‘Madam just drive, please drive or we will be late for the guest’s surprise bush breakfast’ This was something I heard most days from my long suffering bush camp team who were amazingly patient about my phobia of elephants but inwardly were wondering how on earth they got saddled with me! Part of my job was to host a breakfast in the bush where guests would go off with their guide at sunrise and then instead of returning back to camp at 11am for brunch they would be greeted in the depths of the bush with a fully set up breakfast including chairs, tables, full cooked breakfast all pre prepared and set up by myself and the team. Looking at the word pre means it needs to be set up previous to when they arrive otherwise it would not be a surprise would it? That was my challenge as when setting off from camp in the Land Rover full of chairs, tables, cutlery, bacon, sausages and eggs (yes, I had to drive in the bush without breaking eggs, an impossibility all of its own)
My main issue was not would the guests have an amazing experience but how was I going to get there without experiencing my phobia? I did not know how many elephants or where I would encounter them in order for me to be able to calculate my journey time. i.e. – one elephant = 20-minute delay – 2 elephants – 40-minute delay – A herd – dont even bother to go! It really is a shame there was not an Elephant Forecast similar to weather so I could plan my day more effectively.
So we set off, me and my long suffering team. I generally had my most patient team member sit at the front with me and ‘Elephant Watch’ I lived on the edge during these drives and praying to God that we would not encounter any. Wildlife literally just come out of nowhere and appear at the side of the vehicle. It is not a closed vehicle so you are totally exposed to the joys that emerge from the bush, a giraffe, ‘lovely’, puku, warthog, ‘cute’, lion ‘wow’ elephant ‘bloody hell where the f did that come from?’. If I don’t see them until they are at the side of me then I have a chance and generally have passed without me realising. If I see them in the distance then we have no change and grind to a halt and my foot will start doing ‘Saturday Night Fever’ on the clutch, I will lose all feeling in my body, heart pounding in my ears and the effing and jeffing will rev up to full throttle.
‘Madam, just drive, it will be fine, no, no, no don’t go backwards, no don’t reverse into the bush and no please do not get out of the vehicle and run. Madam come back please!’ ‘Madam, it’s very rude to swear’
Over 40 mins later, (I calculated over three of the big beasts) of reversing and inching forward and doing this motion repeatedly I have decided to weigh up the options of my dilemma. Guests are paying a huge amount of money to stay here and receive superior service and a plethora of surprises like the one I am currently trying to deliver. If I turn up after they have arrived with a truck full of guys who have not yet got their uniform on, laden with chairs, table, uncooked breakfast and broken eggs it will not look good, in addition to the fact the manager is puce in the face, swearing bloody murder would only enough the guests to log into their Smart Phone there and then and rate their experience as a One on Trip Advisor for shocking service and an automatic ticket back to the UK for me. (Trip Advisor scares the hell out of me, less than a 4.5 and there is an explanation to be had back at base)
Solution to my problem? Not probably textbook but it worked every time. Deep breath, sit tight, clutch up, accelerator down hard and just look the other way. ‘Madam, what are you doing? Please look at the road, let me just hold the steering wheel for you so we can all live another day’ Method to my madness, if you can’t see the elephants it’s OK so last resort or when you are very late either shut your eyes or look in the other direction and all is fine and the eggs get cooked.
‘Madam, you are a very wonderful manager but please do you think that you can practise you’re driving a little bit more
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