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  • Writer's pictureJulian Brookstein

Memories of training

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

When I was first starting out in my guiding career, I went to Sabi Sands in South Africa to do a 6 week practical guide training course. There was about twenty of us and it was truly a fantastic time. We were finally able to put all the theory we had been slogging through in lectures into practice. The class was split into two - I 'somehow' ended up in the (should we say) more adventurous group.

We would split up, with one group walking and the other driving, The drivers would go with Paddy, a fantastic guide/lecturer and the walkers would go with Kimbian, who was not only an incredible tracker but also knew as much as any guide. I have lots of great memories from that practical but two in particular stand out and both involve elephants.

The first was when we were on a walk with Kimbian. Often he would stop at a plant or tree and then students would all have to line up and come forward one at a time, to whisper in his ear what you thought it was. If you got it right you would be allowed to pass and stand behind him. If you got it wrong you would be sent to the back of the line to try again. It was during one of these little impromptu tests that we happened to be standing close to a reasonable sized waterhole.

A bull elephant wandered up to the opposite side of the water. We had been pretty still and the wind had been in our favour, so he had not picked up that we were there. We watched him for a bit then Kimbian said we would walk forward, keeping the water between us and we were all to take note of the way the elephant reacted when he became aware of us. This he did pretty quickly, with the signs that I have now become used to played out. Tail held at angle, head up high, ears out. From across the waterhole this display was impressive but we all felt pretty safe as the waterhole was between us. Then he took off along the side of the waterhole and disappeared into a thicket that bordered the waterhole. We all thought he had gone and I think breathed a sigh of relief. Kimbian told us ‘’He hasn’t gone, keep alert’’ and with that he reappeared about fifty metres away from us on ‘’our’’ side of the waterhole.

Now the deep side of the waterhole was on one side of him, an embankment on the other and a decent sized tree in front of him, through which he was peering. We stood like this for a few seconds then Kimbian said "Right, let's walk forward and you must all take note of how he acts". Reluctantly we edge forward, everyone thinking "I don’t have to be the fastest if this goes pear shaped but just not the slowest." With this in mind some people are hanging back a bit to get a head start!

All throughout this Kimbian, who is armed, is telling us how bull elephant most often ‘mock charge’ and it is lots of noise, dust and bravado and that we should stand our ground. With that, this bull lunges forward as only a bull elephant can and smashes the tree in front of him to the ground, then proceeds to run over the tree towards us. I think that I and most of my class mates were thinking that he would have to go around the tree to begin his ‘mock charge’. We all bolted along with Kimbian and the bull stopped after a few strides with a huge trumpet and a kick of dust, walking off head held high. I will always remember my first ‘mock charge’ on foot-it all looked pretty real to me!

The second thing that will always stick in my mind is when we were out on a drive in a Land Rover that had a broken starter motor. This meant that every day it would have to be push started, again when you turned off at any point or in our case stalled! We had Paddy with us in the vehicle and one of my class mates was driving. We had been out for a couple of hours and were pretty far from camp. We approached a dry river bed that we had to cross. This particular crossing had steep sides to the entry and exit and thick sand in the river bed. We rolled into the river bed and made it about half way across when the vehicle stalled. We all knew immediately that there was no way we could push start the vehicle in the thick sand and that we would be walking back to camp. With much good natured teasing and 'thanking' of the driver for the predicament we were in, we all piled out and began to slowly walk up the opposite side of the river bed.

As we came up the other side, we saw an Elephant bull walking on the road not to far from us, coming towards us. Paddy instructed us to all walk back to the vehicle and climb in, which we did. In a minute or two, after we were all seated, the bull appeared over the crest of the river bank. He stopped as he saw us and stood and watched us for a bit, then continued to walk down the river bank towards us. Paddy then said words that I have never forgotten and, in truth, I now use on occasion when I am guiding:

“Sit still and enjoy what is about to happen."

The bull stopped about three metres from the bonnet of the car and just stood there watching us. He was not aggressive in any way, so we all sat silently - if I am completely honest, I don’t think we as students were enjoying it all that much at this stage. For those of you that have never been on Safari, let me paint the picture for you -

You are sitting in an open Land Rover that has three tiers of seats going up in a grand stand effect behind the driver and passenger. The elephants in the Kruger, South Africa area along with those from the Hwange, Zimbabwe area are renowned for being the biggest in the world. This particular bull was definitely one of these giant animals. He probably weighed in at around six thousand kilograms, maybe a bit more. The vehicle we were in weighed around three thousand kilograms and with the addition of us on, maybe add another seven hundred or so to that. When you are on the back row of the vehicle, which is the highest, you will probably be at about chest height to the elephant.

The bull then put his trunk onto the bonnet of the car and sniffed. Again Paddy quietly said “Stay still and enjoy the moment”.  All of us are as still as we have ever been and I think are trying to melt into the seats. The bull then stepped forward and was now about a metre away from the bonnet. He then stood there for the next half an hour and just looking at us. Every now and then, he would rock forward on his front feet until he was almost touching the front bumper and open his ears whilst lifting his head, the effect of which was to make him look even bigger.

You must picture in your mind having an animal that is so much bigger and heavier in all dimensions, nearly double in size to the ten of you and the vehicle you are in, that close to you. After he had been there for while, I think all of us in the vehicle relaxed and did enjoy this moment that to me is still, twelve years later, one of my favourite experiences in the bush with these amazing animals.

Then he just decided that he would continue on his way and went around the vehicle so closely that we could have touched him if we wanted and walked on down the road. We all sat in silence for a couple of minutes after he had gone until Paddy broke it by saying that he had been guiding for over thirty years and that that was one of the most special things that he had ever experienced with an elephant. We all climbed off the vehicle and made our way up the river bed and down the road on the walk back to camp - floating on air almost, all on an exhilarated high!

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