Toby Young

Dangerous game

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I’m writing this after one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I’m currently staying with my friends John and Louise on their farm in East Africa and on Monday John arranged for the two of us to go out on a ‘rough shoot’ in the bush. There are plenty of good game birds in season here, including sandgrouse, francolin and helmeted guinea fowl, and a ‘rough shoot’ is a great way to see some of the other wildlife, like zebras and giraffes. However, there are animals that are best avoided. One of John’s neighbours warned us about a certain bull buffalo that he didn’t like the look of. And most dangerous of all are the elephants.

As a child brought up on Babar and Tarzan films, I had no idea that elephants could be so lethal. On Sunday night, the day before the shoot, Louise regaled me with horror stories about various friends and acquaintances who’d been maimed or killed by them. Indeed, John’s neighbours were chased all over their ranch by a bull elephant recently — and they only managed to escape by the skin of their teeth. A bull elephant at full tilt could outrun Usain Bolt.

‘People mistakenly think of them as gentle giants because they possess this human-like intelligence,’ said John. ‘But it’s precisely because they are a bit like us that they’re so dangerous. Like human beings, they’re aggressive, territorial and prone to fits of homicidal mania.’

The elephants in this part of East Africa are particularly spooked at the moment because there are poachers in the area. Only last week, John told me, an elephant was killed by ivory poachers. As a consequence, the elephants are very skittish around human beings.

‘But we’ll have a gun, right?’ I said. ‘If an elephant charges us, can’t we just shoot it?’

‘With a shotgun?’ he said. ‘Absolutely not. We’re talking about a ten-ton beast, Toby. If you sprayed it with buckshot you’d just end up annoying it even more.’

Not surprisingly, I didn’t sleep a wink on Sunday night. I became convinced that this was how I was going to meet my maker. It would be poetic justice because I was setting out to kill various innocent creatures myself. If I’m entitled to shoot a few game birds because I’m higher up the food chain than them, doesn’t that mean an elephant is entitled to stomp on me?

The first part of the shoot passed off without incident, unless you count the fact that I missed everything — and I mean everything. John had just one shot to my 20 and immediately downed a yellow-necked spurfowl. ‘We’ll have that for supper,’ he said, throwing it over his shoulder.

We were driving to a nearby dam in John’s Toyota Land-Cruiser when we spotted a herd of about 20 elephants. My heart started palpitating but John told me not to worry because they were about 400 metres away and hadn’t spotted us. We then had to negotiate a particularly bad piece of road and got stuck in some mud. ‘Oh dear,’ said John, craning round to look at the herd. ‘This could get a bit hairy.’

Sure enough, a bull elephant broke off and started trotting towards us. Within seconds, the trot had broken into a canter and, as it grew nearer, he thrust his trunk into the air and began making a blood-curdling trumpeting noise.

At this point, I began panting — literally panting with fear — which was unfortunate, because it meant John burst out laughing. When he should have been figuring out how to get us out of this tight spot, he was doubled up over the steering wheel, convulsed with laughter.

But after a second or two, his head cleared, he engaged the car’s four-wheel drive and slammed his foot down, causing us to leap out of the muddy puddle. He motored along the dirt track as fast as he could, but the elephant was still coming. I dared not turn round, but couldn’t help glancing in the wing mirror — and there he was, hurtling towards us. I thought of that scene in Jurassic Park when Jeff Goldblum is being pursued by the T. rex. Terror — sheer bloody terror.

Luckily, John kept his head, managed to steer the car on to firmer ground and then floored it. Within a few minutes, the elephant gave up the chase and we were safe. ‘That was a bit of an adventure wasn’t it?’ said John. ‘Welcome to Africa.’

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.