Gabon: Running with elephants

The elephant came careening down the bank, moving parallel as we ran along the animal track. It was less than 10m away now, crashing through the forest like a juggernaut as we sprinted ahead, camera equipment in hand.

It was our third day tracking gorillas in Moukalaba-Doudou National Park in Gabon, Central Africa, on a trip organized through an NGO called PROGRAM (Protectrice des Grands singes de la Moukalaba). The organization is working to protect the park and its wildlife for future generations, while providing tourist and research trips into the forest to view the Gorillas and other wildlife.

That morning we were on a six hour gorilla hike through the forest, hacking our way along the animal paths, crossing streams and climbing scrub covered hills. Verena even swung on a vine.  We were tired, out of water and soaked in sweat by the time we got back to the lodge to rest from the midday heat.

As the afternoon clouds started to gather and rumbles of thunder grew louder Verena and I headed back into the forest.  It was meant to be an easy two hour wander, but that didn’t last long. It never does with us.

In the distance the short, sharp cry of a chimp could be heard as the rain began to fall. We changed course to find it, guided by the excellent Joli.  Before we got to the source we heard another noise – gorillas – and close by! Our walking slowed to a crawl as Jolie checked the wind direction while leading us silently towards the noise in the treetops ahead. Suddenly he stopped; several elephants appeared on our path, 20m in front.

Jolie guiding us through the forest

Their noise scared off the Gorillas, but more awkwardly, the elephants were now standing between us and our route home. It was near the end of the day and the light was beginning to fade, the thunder was getting nearer and the rain progressively heavier, pitter pattering on the canopy above.

Ears gently flapping and trunks working the leaves off the branches as they ate, the elephants were oblivious to our foursome metres away. Eventually they wandered away into the brush and we slowly edged forward, along the track back to the lodge.

Suddenly to our left there was a crash, an unseen elephant up on a bank above, not ten metres away. Jolie started walking faster so we followed: first myself, then Verena, with Ghislain our second guide at the rear. It immediately became obvious a fast walk wasn’t enough, the elephant was picking up speed, crashing through the undergrowth and seemingly coming straight at us.

“RUN!” yelled the normally calm Ghislain, from behind.

We sprinted through the forest, backpacks bouncing and cameras in hand, avoiding the roots trying to trip us with each stride. Glancing to my left I could see and hear the elephant charging towards us, seemingly keeping pace, ears flapping in anger and trunk up.

We ran several hundred metres before the crashing stopped and Jolie slowed down.

Gathering our thoughts the relief was evident all round, even Ghislain, with over a dozen years of guiding experience had never been that close.

After stopping for yet another elephant in the bush, the way home was uneventful as we raced the sunset, getting back just as the last light was disappearing from the sky.

Our lodge for the week

In later discussions back at the lodge we now believe that rather than chasing us the elephant may have been one we saw earlier, scarpering as soon as it saw us. The question is who was more scared, us trying to get away from the elephant, or the elephant trying to get away from us – all ending up running in the same direction…

This was just one of our exciting and stunning experiences in Gabon. For more stories, photos, itineraries and tips Click Here

About The Author

A Geologist by trade, Andrew loves travelling and photography, especially to wild and natural places. He needs to pay for it by working full time so until he and Verena can travel the world full time he has become a specialist in creating as much travelling time as possible from their annual leave.

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