The story of a mad cow.
It is a bright, sunny day and we are game driving and filming some behind the scenes footage. Twenty minutes into our trip the car is stuttering and misfiring badly, and eventually stops completely. We all bail out, Brad fossicks around under the bonnet and comes up with a diagnosis that the fuel tank has some rust and debris in it and all the bits are clogging the fuel filter. He sets about changing the fuel filter while the kids happily entertain themselves near the vehicle by rolling in the sand pretending to be warthogs. Soon we are ready to go again and decide to head directly home as the fix is only a temporary one and the vehicle is still stuttering, barely managing to propel itself forward. As we round a corner onto a large floodplain we hear a piercing trumpet from a very angry elephant and see a large cow charging towards us.
This elephant has been around our area since we arrived. We know her because she has a total intolerance for vehicles and will chase them with serious intent until they are well out of her sight. We encountered her on our first drive up from Maun. We had seen the herd ahead and I had stopped the car within an acceptable distance of them. Most of the herd had already crossed the road and we waited for the stragglers to pass. When it was all clear we proceeded, only to hear the shriek of an angry elephant and see a female storming out of the bushes after us. This was utterly unprovoked and very unusual as none of the elephants we had seen cross the road showed any sign of stress. When we arrived at camp I remarked on the incident to Brad.
About two weeks later Brad and the crew were out filming when a similar situation happened. They stopped to film a breeding herd browsing close to the road. After a while the matriarch got scent of the vehicle, which was quietly parked with the engine off, and without hesitation charged. Female elephants will often mock charge, and as long as one sits still and is quiet and presents no threat they will flap their ears, shake their heads in warning and move off with the familiar ‘nose in the air’ posture. This female had her head down, her ears pinned back and was showing no sign of slowing down as she charged towards the vehicle. Realising that if they didn’t do something she would surely hit the car, Brad started the engine briefly and switched off again. This strange beast growling at her stopped her in her tracks and she skidded to a halt a few metres in front of the car, showing the crew with sand. She shook her head and moved off very slowly, watching them all the time, the crew still as statues in the vehicle. When she was about 100 metres away Brad started the car to drive off. The minute she heard the sound and saw the vehicle moving she was after them again, and chased them at full speed for about 1 km, through a pan and over floodplains, with the whole herd in tow.
When Brad was telling us this story later in camp he said he had never in all his years of being in the bush seen this behaviour before. It is common knowledge that elephants will back off once you are far enough away from them and are presenting no threat. Very few, apart from bulls in musth occasionally, will persevere with a charge for that distance.
So here we are with a vehicle that is stuttering and misfiring and we are being charged by a psychotic cow elephant. We are headed as fast as we can go across the floodplain with the entire herd in a cloud of dust hot on our heels. We get about 200 metres ahead of them when the car grinds to a halt. At this point I think even Brad panics. He immediately leaps out of the car to make a run at the herd and try and get them to turn back (a very brave and admiral - but probably slightly foolish - instinctual reaction considering the herd probably would have gone straight over him). The herd, thankfully, stops. It was only later that we realised it is the sound and sight of a moving motor vehicle that sets her off. As soon as the engine is off and the car is not moving she is relatively ok, that is, on high alert and in attack mode but not actually charging.
At that moment we don’t know that, and assume that at any moment she is going to make another run at the immibilised vehicle, with the entire family sitting ducks inside. Within seconds Brad instructes us all to get out of the car and run for the treeline, a good 200 metres away. This is not my first choice of action, however in an emergency situation, which this clearly is developing into, there can only be one chief and there is no time for debate. Without a second’s hesitation, Pricka (who was with us on a sightseeing tour) grabs Rio and heads for the trees. I grab Keita and follow, as much to stay close to Rio as to get to safety. Frannette for some reason grabs the Z7 camera and follows suit. We still aren’t sure why, perhaps because it was just lying there and, being Frannette, she felt the need to look after something. It was not as though she intended to shoot any footage.
The five of us (and camera) make for the treeline as fast as we can, which isn’t very fast considering we are barefoot and carrying the kids. Nobody looks back to see whether the herd had resumed the charge on the vehicle, or to see what Brad is doing. We are all scanning ahead for a tree that is big enough to protect us from a demented elephant and yet easy enough for us to climb. Needless to say there isn’t one. The treeline consisted of shrubs and would offer no protection at all should we need it. We continue onwards and westwards. Unable to run anymore we are now at a fast walk heading in the direction of home. We can see the elephant herd standing alert in the floodplain, watching the vehicle and not us. We had skirted around the edges of the floodplain, and if the elephants had caught sight or wind of us, it would have taken them no time at all to make a bee line across the middle and get to us. They were still only about 300 metres from us as the crow flies.
At this stage my mind turns to lions. This often happens when one is wandering through the delta on foot and unarmed with a nearly 5 year old and a nearly 2 year old. It is late afternoon and very hot and any lion in the vicinity would be lying up in the shade of the trees. By my calculations, the treeline offered us more potential danger than protection. The elephants haven’t moved, they are still intently focused on Brad who we can’t see but no doubt is under the bonnet of his car, frantically trying to get it started. We find the road and decide there is nothing to be done but head in the direction of camp and hope that either Brad gets the car going or that he has the sense to radio Nick or Graham in camp to come and fetch us before the lions do.
It is probably only twenty minutes (although feels longer) before we hear the sound of Brad’s vehicle behind us. Turning around I see Brad driving fast towards us, mouthing something inaudible, with the entire herd of elephants storming up behind him. He told us afterwards that as soon as he got the car started the cow resumed the charge, and again it was no mock charge. There was nothing to do but outrun them.
As he gets within earshot I realize he is telling us to “get !#**^!@ in !#$!::~^*#/ fast” ‘cos he isn’t planning on stopping”. Thankfully he slows down a bit and as he draws up alongside we fling the kids in the vehicle and grab onto the side, rodeo style. Neatly done. We drive off into the late afternoon sun in a small cloud of dust, with a much larger cloud of dust kicked up by the feet of 20 elephants following not far behind.