One evening, at a barbecue in the African bush, dangerous game animals—and our foolhardy encounters with them—arose as a campfire conversation. Good red wine was flowing, each story was funnier than the last, and one chap was describing a rhino that had been ridden rodeo-style. Eventually, it was my turn.
“Well, I once head-butted an enormous bull elephant’s backside. Needless to say, he took offense at my attempt to stick my head up his arse.”
Of course, I had to explain that one.
My wife, Catherine, and I used to spend a lot of time at Chitake, a remote spring in Zimbabwe’s renowned Mana Pools National Park. There’s nothing there, except a single shady Natal mahogany tree. It grows close to where the water flows a few inches deep before it disappears back into the sand. During the dry season, it’s the only water source for a vast area, and it transforms into a wildlife paradise. To the local lions, Chitake is McDonald’s.
One day we arrived at our campsite to find a buffalo lying in the shallow water, only a hundred paces away. She wasn’t going anywhere—her back was clearly broken.
I was sorely tempted to put her out of her misery with the .505 Gibbs I always carry. Interfering with nature in this spot is frowned upon, however, so I resisted. The lion pride would find her when dark fell.
Sure enough, the buffalo’s bellowing soon faded to the usual dinner sounds of family squabbles as the big cats tucked into the carcass.
Curiosity got the better of me. Despite the pitch black outside my tent, I had to see what was happening. Catherine heard an elephant and cautioned me.
I’m sorry to say I ignored her. A lifetime of shooting has taken its toll on my hearing. I decided she was being paranoid, and grabbed a spotlight in one hand and my big-bore rifle in the other. My plan was to switch on the light and catch a glimpse of the feeding lions.
The riverbank was steep, yet I strode purposefully forward in complete darkness. Quite suddenly, my forehead encountered what felt like a rough and very solid brick wall. My wife had indeed been correct: A massive and—to me—invisible bull elephant stood directly in my path. He’d been enjoying a quiet nighttime drink when I head-butted him at the base of his tail. The impact was enough to make me drop both battery and spotlight.
The elephant whirled like a polo pony, trumpeting abuse. Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt could not have kept up with me as I legged toward the illusory safety of our pathetic tent.
Yet somehow, miraculously, the feeble light of a single, strategically placed kerosene lantern in front of our tent stopped the bull. He towered there for several years-long seconds—ears outspread, head held high, staring at me as I crouched behind the tent—before mercifully turning that monstrous behind on me.
My foolishness was rewarded with a tongue-lashing from Catherine, a saucer-sized, mud- embedded roasty on my forehead, blood dripping from my chin, and a campfire tale for the ages.