Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Darting an elephant at night - on foot. Stupid.


 The Dumbest Move Ever.

In the fervency of youth, one sometimes does things of which one would later say “it
seemed a good idea at the time.”  This was one of those.  Big-time.

 Hoepel, Cobus’ veterinary technician (you’ve met both of them in previous postings – scroll down), was about to get married.  As is the custom in South Africa, a bachelors party was laid on for Hoepel.  The venue for this would be the dry riverbed of the Watinsaka spruit, some five kilometres from Skukuza, the main rest camp in the Kruger National Park.

 At the time Tom Yssel was the chief game ranger of the Pretoriuskop division in the
Park.  He was still recovering from major surgery following a crocodile attack which
nearly cost him his leg and his life (see earlier posting). With the long steel shafts of a Hoffman apparatus protruding on either side of his thigh and lower leg he resembled an ancient TV antenna, and could obviously not drive himself.  He couldn’t wear trousers either, and shuffled around on his crutches dressed in an old grey dust coat.  The attire, however, would be suitable for a bachelors party.

 I picked him up early on the Saturday morning, en route to Skukuza.  On the backseat
of my Gelandewagen was my customary giant coolbox, filled with beer and crushed

 In his condition Tom couldn’t get out to patrol his division of some 1000 square
Kilometres, so we used the opportunity to travel to Skukuza via the numerous fire
breaks in his division, checking up on the more remote watering points, windmills etc.

 We arrived at Cobus’ house in the staff village by about mid-afternoon.  A sense of
excited anticipation prevailed – the upcoming event was the talk of the ‘town’.  Living in the staff village at Skukuza could at times be a little dreary and boring.  A party was always a big event, even more so a bachelors party.

 In retrospect I sometimes wonder if the fact that everybody was pumped-up and
excited played a role in making us do what we did.  The excitement was contagious.

 Late afternoon Cobus got a call from Reception in Skukuza – a tourist had just
reported an elephant with a wire snare on the Lower Sabi road, some ten kilometres
from the rest camp.

 “I’ve been looking for that elephant since Tuesday,” Cobus said.  “Let’s go.”
“Forget it,” Tom said, “it’s too late in the day – you’ll never get the chopper in the air
in time.”
“Then we do it on foot.”
“Are you crazy?  You can’t do that.”
“’Course I can,” said Cobus, grabbing his lab keys and heading for the vehicle.  “You
“I’m in,” I said and joined him.  Tom was having a hard time keeping up, and was
protesting all the way.
“Are you out of your mind?” Tom was pretty hot under the collar by now.  “Besides, it’ll be dark in an hour.”
“Exactly.  By morning that elephant will be twenty clicks away – he was near
Crocodile bridge on Tuesday.  The snare hasn’t slowed him down much.”

 At the veterinary lab Cobus hastily checked his muti box and grabbed a dart gun.
“You’re going to get yourselves killed,” Tom said.
Cobus handed him a .458 elephant gun from the safe.  “You’re the ranger – cover our
Tom was furious, sputtering indignantly.  “I’m a bloody cripple on crutches!  How do
you expect me to handle the bloody rifle?  Get someone else who can shoot.”
“You’ll manage.  We’re running out of time,” Cobus said and headed out.

 The argument was still raging by the time we came across two tourist vehicles parked
on the road, hazard lights flashing.  They pointed out the direction in which the
elephant had disappeared.  By now the rest camp gates had closed, and tourist were
confined to the camps for the night.  Cobus suggested our tourists get to Skukuza
immediately – they should tell the guard at the gate what had transpired – he would
sort things out in the morning.

 It was dusk by the time Cobus had prepared a dart, and the two of us trotted off into
the bush, armed with the dart gun and a torch.  Tom’s Hoffman apparatus and
crutches got tangled up in a thicket within the first ten yards.  In the distance we could
still hear him ranting.

 The Lower Sabi road runs parallel to the Sabi river, at this point, about half a kilometre distant.  That was the direction in which the elephant had last been seen to be heading.  We knew he couldn’t be far, so we proceeded with caution.

 Then, in the fast fading light we could barely make out the animal, about forty yards ahead of us.  The wind was strongly in our favour, and we started stalking the animal.  By now it was getting too dark to be sure of our footing, and he must have become aware of us when we were fifteen yards away.  He turned and stared in our direction myopically.

 It was getting so dark that we had to crouch down to see his silhouette clearly.  An
elephant cannot be darted with a frontal shot, so we crept off to our left.  We crouched
down again, only to find that the elephant had turned with us, and Cobus was still
stuck with a frontal shot.  I motioned to him that I would veer further to the left, and if
the elephant turned with me, he could get his shot in.

 When the dart gun popped, I froze.  My bravado suddenly deserted me – this had
definitely been a dumb move.  At that stage sanity returned and washed over me like a
gigantic arctic wave.

 I knew the elephant could not smell us, and it could not see us.  As long as we
remained motionless it could not hear us either.  It could, however, take up to seven minutes to go down.

 The animal now had two choices.  It could come looking for the source of the sudden
burning pain in its butt, find us in the process and reduce us to something with the
consistency of fish paste.  Or it could run.

 Fortunately it chose the latter.

 This left us with a further dilemma.  If we were not present when it finally went
down, we had no hope of finding it in the darkness.  We did not have two choices.  At
top speed we raced off into the darkness, following the sound of breaking trees and branches.  I could not switch on the torch, as this would alert him to our presence.

 It was the toughest hundred and fifty yards I have ever run in my life.  A fleeing
elephant moves fast.  We had to do likewise, in the bush in pitch-black darkness.  We
ran holding our hands in front of our faces and trying to protect our eyes, while thorns
and branches whipped at us.  Both Cobus and I went down several times.

 Suddenly all was quiet ahead of us.  With the racket we were making, this fact didn’t
penetrate immediately.  By the time we skidded to a halt, the elephant could be
anywhere.  We would have liked to be silent, but we were panting like police dogs. 
We went down on our haunches to scan for a silhouette.  Before we could spot it, the
elephant went down with a rumble and a crash, not ten yards from us.

 After a moment of silence Cobus let out a wheezy “Jeeeezzzz…!”
“Yeah,” I said, “jeeezzzz.  Now what?”

We inspected the wound.  Fortunately it was a wire snare and not a cable, and the elephant had managed to break the wire before it had done too much damage. It had cut through the skin and was embedded about an inch into the subdermal tissue.  Infection had set in, and the leg was stinking to high heaven.

 We needed the muti box pronto – we still had a party to go to.  Once again, we had only one option.  Cobus would return to the vehicle with the torch to fetch his stuff.  I would wait by the elephant to guide him back – otherwise he would never find it again in the dark.  Cobus headed off to the road, and I watched the light of the torch disappear through the bush.  I climbed on top of the elephant and sat there listening to the deafening silence, alone in the darkness.

 I wasn’t alone for long.  All around me there were suddenly things moving around in the bush.  A hyena giggled questioningly.  It dawned on me that the elephant, laying down a trail of blood and pus, had probably built up a considerable group of followers over the past couple of days.  They had all been waiting for the moment the elephant would go down, so the feast could begin.  But something strange made them hesitate – part of the elephant was very vocal, reciting Afrikaans poetry at the top of its voice.  If I could sing, I would have.  However, I know a lot of poems, so I treated them to these, interspersed with all sorts of other language.

 To this day I still have nightmares about our headlong run in the darkness.  We must
have scattered dozens of hyenas, and possibly a lion or two thrown in.  Why we hadn’t been taken down remains a mystery.

 It was with great relief that I spotted the torch in the distance.  The decibels at which I
was delivering my repertoire could probably be heard all the way to the road, so
Cobus had no problem in finding me.  We were literally surrounded by hyenas, so we
worked with feverish haste.  We cut out the wire and cleaned and treated the wound,
which proved to be fairly superficial.  After a heavy dose of antibiotics Cobus
administered the antidote.  We waited till the elephant was on its feet, and headed for
the road.

 The elephant was now smelling strongly of bismuth impregnated petroleum paste and
iodine, and we were covered in blood and pus up to our elbows.  The hyenas switched
menus, and started following us, giggling excitedly.  We were swinging the torch
every which way, and made it back to the vehicle in one piece, to find Tom still
ranting.  The opening of the coolbox pacified him somewhat.  When we used the first cold beers to wash our hands and arms, he started ranting again – this time about wasteful sacrilege. The next beers, however, went where they were supposed to.

 The irony of this incident is that it happened during the time that elephant culling was
in full swing in the Kruger Park.  Chances are that our beneficiary promptly ended up as hundreds of tins of canned meat on a shelf somewhere.

 That night we didn’t enjoy the party with as much gusto as we should have – I think we were suffering from adrenaline depletion.

 Dumb but very, very lucky.


It did, however, seem like a good idea at the time.
Novels by the same author:
The Sam Jenkins trilogy:
Cheetah in the rain
Fighting AIDS
Psychological thriller:
Show me a Reason
Available on Amazon, Apple, Sony etc.
Poacher is currently in the top 1% of the Amazon.com bestseller rankings.










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