Ruaha National Park, was the fifth game park of the trip, and was also one of the remotest in Tanzania. Mike had seen it all, experienced the elephants of Tarangire National Park, swatted tseste flies and swallowed his antimalarial medication throughout the journey. He had seen the stark flatness and openness of Serengeti and the ‘the lost world’ of Ngorongoro Crater where he gazed over the rim to the animals below. He had walked and thrown spears with the Masai and travelled via boat close to hippo in Selous. Africa was wild, confronting even for a privileged tourist travelling in luxury, cocooned and protected from the wildness. He’d seen the big five and the little five. He’d seen the cycle of life and the harshness and hopelessness of a suckling wildebeest who lost contact with its mother and wandered nervous, afraid and shaking into the campground. Its future was certain – not the one the guests wanted, as lions prowled, active in the dark. He almost felt nonchalant and relaxed, having seen the animals up close. Mike settled into his final camp, a luxury tent of five-star proportions. The mesh sides allowed viewing to the outside, and he felt protected yet vulnerable to the unknown wilderness.

The walk to lunch changed everything……

Kingo was a rogue male elephant, probably an adolescent with a left tusk that curved downward as opposed to the upward, normal angle of his right tusk. Maybe this was the reason he was ostracised by his family, forced to live alone and entertain himself by frequenting the campground and taunting the park wardens just for fun. He was a frustrated, angry and confused elephant.

Mike began the walk to lunch along a guided track, a gentle relaxed stroll. He was buoyant and relaxed until he encountered Kingo who was intent on stifling the stillness of the day. Kingo grazed on the foliage of bushes 100 metres away from the path so it appeared safe to walk the short distance to lunch along the path. He seemed preoccupied foraging for his lunch next to the swimming pool, so why would he be interested in a two-legged guest? Little did Mike realise how quickly an elephant could run. Kingo spotted Mike and without hesitating, turned and made a bee-line, sprinting toward him, trampling small trees as if they were toothpicks, zoning in on his two-legged target.“

“If you happen to come across an African animal, do not run, do not move, just stay still. This is your safest option.” The words were repeated over and over at each of the game parks by the guides. Kingo, however, must have been absent from the ‘rules of engagement’ briefing for meetings between elephants and humans. His etiquette definitely needed finetuning.

Mike stood still, disbelieving what was happening at first, surprised at the speed of the elephant and its single-mindedness in charging its prey. It was like a movie being viewed at triple speed. As the distance closed, Mike gradually lifted his gaze until he felt like he was being towered over by the enormous creature. Thirty metres, twenty metres, ten metres … then five metres. Mike could feel the power and anger in the elephant. He realised that Kingo was not going to stop, and standing still would make him an easy target. Mike turned and ran in the opposite direction, thankful for rugby speed and quick reflexes – a close encounter, far closer than he had expected.

Kingo stopped, pleased with his efforts in terrifying and taunting another guest and trumpeted, a high pitched signal to indicate his presence, but also to make the point that he didn’t play by anyone’s rules. Mike’s heart was beating fast, his breathing was rapid and sweat trickled down his forehead …

The park wardens joked about Kingo over lunch “You need to always remember to get on Kingo’s left side, his downturned tusk is less harmful than his right one.” Mike chuckled, more amused at the comment than anything else and sarcastically retorted, “I’ll remember that the next time …”

The image of the colossus elephant remained, imprinted on his minds eye, as he replayed the close encounter over several nights of dreams. Never again would he see an elephant the same way…

A real-life story while travelling in Tanzania.