And then he pulled the trigger

18th June 2014

Elephants on Ambush Alley, Makuleke

Thursday 12th June 2014

I was taxi driver for the day. In the bush this isn’t as straight forward as it may sound, there are one or two curve balls thrown in to keep you on your toes. The day started off with a sedate drive to the bridge. I was doing various drops for the Endangered Wildlife Trust. They’re staying with us for three nights whilst they conduct a census of the Pel’s Fishing Owl in the area.

There was a fair bit of sitting around as we waited for the rangers to turn up. This gave us the opportunity to enjoy the sunrise which revealed a thick mist hugging the Luvuvuh as it snaked in from the west under the bridge. There was plenty going on with the guinea fowl and baboons coming down from their roosts to start their day of foraging.

The highlight from our vantage point were the raptors, firstly the presidential African fish eagle that was stood proudly in a tall jackal-berry. Then there was the long-crested eagle, a real tick for the birders, quite a funky bird rivalling the crested barbet and the African hoopoe for the savannah’s punk rocker title.

I drove one team east including three heavily armed rangers to their starting point, I was now free to head back to camp. During my drive back I listened to a lot of chatter on the radio. There’d been an elephant caracas that the ARH students had found on their way to the range. Luckily not poaching, the likely cause of death was muted to be anthrax.

Once back in camp I went about my chores before hitting the running track. Running first things is so much more enjoyable than running in the heat of the day. Not just because of the temperature but because there are more animals about, the impala, vervets and baboons that live in camp are still hanging around. There were also ele tracks all around the firebreak from last night.

It wasn’t long before I was heading out in my taxi again, I had the survey team to pick up from Mangala. To get there I had to drive down Luvuvuh West, aka Ambush Alley. So nice to be driving down here again, it feels like a long time since I’ve done it. Lots of activity including a Veraux’s eagle and the sweet popcorn smell of a leopard. I did hit some traffic, an ele bull feeding with no intention to move anywhere. I was in no rush so I pulled a can of diet coke out of my ruck sack and enjoyed the show.

After picking the survey team up I started the drive back, I’d gone no more than 50 metres when a six foot long Croton branch came through a hole in the floor of the Landy. This was quite a shock, very much so for Andre who was sat in the passenger seat.

Croton branch sticking up through the floor of the Land Rover

Once we’d removed this obstacle we carried on our way and headed back along Ambush Alley. Here we came across a breeding herd of elephants. I made my way past an adolescent bull who put on a show of bravado but soon became relaxed and resumed feeding.

I chose not to continue forward as the rest of the breeding herd were monopolising the road. I moved the Landy as far as I could to the side so that I didn’t separate the young bull from the rest of the herd. We weren’t in any rush so we sat back, watched and took photographs.

Ten minutes or so had passed, then one of the rangers on my vehicle started to insist that we should withdraw owing to one of the elephants causing a threat. This took me by surprise as the cow in question was feeding very contently behind a Croton and the original adolescent bull that first trumpeted at us was also still feeding with his tail flicking away the flies. This is a sign of an elephant totally at ease, a distressed elephant would have its tail out stretched.

Andre, my passenger who had narrowly avoided being impaled translated the rangers command to me from Shangaan to English. The ranger then repeated his request moments later. I felt that I should yield to his experience, despite the request going against my better judgment. I knew that starting the engine would actually antagonise the elephants and turn a very nice experience into a stressful situation for all concerned.

On starting the engine the cow reacted to the sound and came forward from behind the Croton. I’d barely had time to assess the situation never mind having the time to talk the elephant down before the ranger on the back of the vehicle chambered his semi-automatic rifle.

Then, this is the part I really could not believe, he pulled the trigger. A warning shot from his R-1 screamed over the elephant’s head. This exasperated the situation with the elephant that had been feeding peacefully now coming towards us. Andre who was sat next to me started to shout it down with success. I was still too shocked by the whole chambering and shot to do anything else but to look around in total bewilderment.

I then had to reverse up the road with my ears ringing and the smell of spent gunpowder filling my lungs. We got to a safe distance and waited for the elephants to make their way down to the river which they did after about ten minutes.

Once back at camp I discovered that Jomi and Robert had a more pleasant elephant sighting. They’d been working on one of the vehicles when a big old bull wandered passed them through the car park and into camp.

Late in the afternoon a few of us went down to Sand Pit along with a cool box. Here we sat on the sand bank looking out over the Limpopo. The place is awe-inspiring, this causes one thing to happen when we visit here on every occasion. Nobody ever gives an instruction, people just automatically stop speaking. This moment of enchantment lasted about twenty minutes, the voluntary silence was only broken by the occasional, “Can you pass me another Castle Lite please?”.

As the sun was sinking it set the sky on fire, an image that wouldn’t look out of place on a postcard. Our contribution to this setting was corny to say the least, but worth it. We played Toto’s Africa on the iPhone, within the first round of drum beats, right on cue, five elephants made their way from where they’d been hidden amongst the tall sycamore figs and jackal-berries and waded across the river and once more out of sight, this time into the tribal lands of Zimbabwe.