Another day we search through thick mopane forests, traversing shady, grass groves, in search of elephants. We find them in the most surprising of places: an isolated bull elephant in a grove of mokolwane palm trees, enjoying a snack of the tree’s shiny brown tennis ball-sized fruit. Further along is a mother and calf washing and drinking in a hippo pool, the hippo’s own bulbous eyes and nostrils surfacing mid-pool to betray his whereabouts.
None of them could care less about our presence, except a bull we find on the edge of a field. We approach slowly to about 20 yards, where we let our horses drop their heads to graze, a universal sign in animal-dom that all is well. This does nothing to assuage the bad temper of our bull. He’s unhappy, perhaps with life in general, perhaps just with us in particular. He spreads his ears wide and fans them, sign number one that he’s displeased.
I notice that he has dark stains below his ears, as if water were pouring out of them. We let the horses graze and they placidly chew and move slowly forward. Ears still wide, the elephant now paws the ground, just like an angry bull facing a matador, but many times bigger, stirring up buckets more dust. We let the horses graze.
I gaze up at the immense elephant before us and around at my fellow riders. I’m not the only one making sure my boots are solidly in the stirrups, and taking an extra-firm grip on the reins. Now the bull begins an aggressive feint and dodge, a little soft-shoe if you will, taking quick steps toward us and away. It’s clear what this means: “This is to give you an indication of how nimble I am and how fast I can move. I’m willing to back off for now if you will, but if you don’t, I’m going to forget about the reverse maneuver and charge.” At this point, our leader says something pertinent, but I have a high whining in my ears from anxiety and am not sure what it is. “Can you repeat that please?” I whisper shout.
“This elephant’s in musth (which he pronounces “must”).”
“He must what?” I ask, with no inkling what he’s talking about. Why I think this is the time for verbal niceties I have no clue. But I always was one for learning new words. That’s why I do so well at Scrabble.
“No. Musth. That dark discharge from near his ears. It comes from a surge in testosterone. They get really aggressive when they’re in musth, hugely so. It’s when an elephant’s most likely to kill people.” To understand what he’s saying I have to stare intently at his mouth, trying to lipread over the thundering sound of my pounding heart.
I am so happy to know about this bit of animal behavior. It’s one of the reasons I love being on horseback in Africa. Now I’m starting to hope that being on horseback will enable me to get out of here without being trampled. I’d much rather explain musth to my friends than have to justify to them why I let myself get killed by a rampaging elephant.
“He’s given us fair warning. We don’t want to be around when he trumpets.” And right then, the elephant raises his trunk, emitting such a mighty shriek it would put Wynton Marsalis to shame. It’s an earsplitting clarion fanned by ever faster ear flapping and an alarming stamping of elephant feet the size of manhole covers. It’s a scream of passionate rage that needs no translation. Time’s up. Gotta go. You have never seen a group of horsemen whirl and run away with such precision. We had the Westernaires drill team at the National Western Stock Show beat. As we galloped off I turned to look back, just to check how much the elephant was gaining on us. His head was down and he was calmly eating. Mission accomplished.
If you’d like to know which organization I used for this ride, or more details about it, or have questions about what skill level would enjoy such an experience, post to me below.