A harrowing encounter with a very large bull elephant left me shaken and very stirred; astonished, once again at the multiple mysteries and processes that can unfold in wilderness.
Last week I had the rare luxury of spending four days in the Kruger National Park with my family. Ordinarily I go for day trips or spend one night, and had thought that three nights and four days might be a bit excessive. On the contrary, this immersion turned out to be a euphoric and phenomenal experience. I left feeling that I had been completely worked over, my cells re-formatted, all sorts of energetic and egoic crud scraped off by being with a force that has no time for human folly, that is purely in the business of restoring balance.
That force is nature, and that is the activity of a natural system: to move to restoring balance, to address and fill voids, as essentially, there are no voids. Life keeps moving, and growing, and generating.
The Olifants River
Every day in the Kruger Park was a blend of long drives where we had occasional glorious sightings between lengthily stretches where we saw few animals – that’s my way of putting it, but the more common utterance of less frequent visitors to Kruger is, “we saw nothing!”. I have been to Kruger so many times that I know to be patient, to relax into the field and just be. To not hunt with my vision and person, but to wait and see who shows up to meet us. And meet us they did – leopard, elephant, antelope, giant eagle owls, raptors – an incredible diversity of wildlife.
On our third day we were driving through a very remote area north east of Letaba. People speak of it as “elephant country”, but we had been on the road since 6am and, four hours later, had seen “nothing”. Suddenly, up ahead were four large male elephants, bachelors ambling down the road, slowly wombling, as my brother put it. We turned off the car engine and waited, hoping they would leave the road for the bush so that we could pass. But no. They stayed their course, directly in our path.
My brother, next to me in the passenger seat, tapped the rear view mirror, making me aware of a huge bull elephant bringing up the rear. We were in his path, between him and the other bachelors. Usually in such a situation I would simply wait, sit quietly and send greetings and peace, messages of “please pass by”. But these bulls were in musth, their testosterone up around 6 times the usual level, and we could feel we were in a situation that was less than favourable.
I waited until it was clear that none of the elephants were going to veer off the road. My brother quietly recommended I reverse into the long grass to the side of the road, between two small trees, which I did, to clear the path for the advancing giant. He came closer and closer. We were willing him to pass us, but he had to stop and check us out. So now we had a scrawny little tree and 2-3m between us and a mountainous, huffing, ear flapping, cranky elephant, liquid seeping down the sides of his face, clearly feisty. His trunk wove, waved and sought us from behind the tree, no doubt smelling the hot metal of the car, acrid engine oil and our human fear. I instructed everyone to drop their energy, to be calm. My fearless brother, always my hero, had moved a branch blocking our rear path, so quickly that his exit from the car was barely visible.
I switched the car into four-wheel drive and, as the elephant started to come round the left side of the tree to touch our vehicle, and after short sharp strong words from my brother, I accelerated to the right of the tree. Thankfully there were no deep holes in the earth, boulders or other obstructions and we got onto the dirt road behind the colossus, accelerating to our freedom.
We were all shaken to the core, filled with adrenaline and quaking.
The three South Africans in our party, my mother, brother and I, typically raised on adrenaline juice and hair-raising incidents, were shaken but resolute. We stopped the vehicle in a safe place and shook out the trembling, the cortisol and left over adrenaline, and congratulated ourselves for getting out of a nightmare.
The fourth in our party, my British sister-in-law, was visibly shaking and I had to take her hands, hold her, look her in the eye letting her know we were safe, that we were out of danger. The blood had drained from her upper body and she looked like marble. Way too much wilderness for someone from manicured Europe, where all wild was subdued hundreds of years ago, nearly all predators and threats eradicated, yes, far to much wild for one pale person.
Each of the four of us in that vehicle had a profound and potent experience. We all faced our mortality as we knew he could have stomped us, rolled our car, speared it with his sizeable tusks, but he didn’t, and we got away.
The exhilaration of the event sent me into wild, curious, creative thinking.
I realized we had two options: we could either dine out on this harrowing African story for pure entertainment purposes, repeating the narrow escape and reinforcing a need to do battle with wilderness (just like Bear Grylls).
Or we could drop in deep and find the medicine.
What I mean by this is to contemplate the event and be present to any shifts in our being that may have occurred: in our sense of self, our perceptions, how we frame the world, how we interact with it, how we regard and respond to it, the sense of ourselves in the world, our comprehension of our personality, defense structures and behaviours – in essence, survey our human experience in relation to the encounter with a potent force of nature and what that might mean for our evolution, be that psychically, personally, as a group or collective, or in terms of the deepest personal and collective, the soul.
This thinking comes automatically to me as I am unable to remain on the surface of life, and find it logical and rational that we live in a larger context with greater forces operative in our system. I love the inquiry into how we inhale and exhale in a system, how we affect and are affected by it. The contemplation around who were are, who we long to be, who we grow to be, and how we navigate and plot our course.
So here is my experience of the medicine, which was revealed to me in the days after I came home.
I was with my family for this trip. It is rare for us to be together as a unit as we are separated by vast land and sea: my brother and his family live in England, my mother in Gauteng and I in Limpopo. We are close and kind with each other, we try hard to cut through our reactions and be at peace.
I am very close to my brother who is four years older than me. We relish each other’s company and are able to converse deeply, widely. Our time together is precious and never enough.
It was he and I in the front of the car that had to make the decisions about how to deal with the bull elephant, and we did well. We were quiet, tight, on high alert, utterly present and not panicked. We’ve worked together as a team in very difficult conditions before. When we got out of danger with this elephant, we looked at each other, exploded exhalations and burst out laughing; it was wild and a close call – right out there. We were shaken but exhilarated.
For me this incident brought my competence in the world into sharp focus and left me with the fact that I can trust myself and rely on myself in a crisis. Over the last seven years I have been in a process where my sense of self and place in the world was dramatically eroded. I was felled by an autoimmune disease that corroded every aspect of my being, that leveled me out a few years ago to zero: no dreams. No ambition. No sense of agency. No hope. No ground to stand on, and nothing of myself to draw on. This, I now recognize, was a necessary emptying out, an evacuation of all that I knew and held to, a clearing to make way for the new.
In addition, I had lost my sense of belonging when I left South Africa in 1999. I lived in Australia for twelve years as a dislocated South African, and when I returned to South Africa in 2012, it was a country I delighted in and feared, but did not know. I had lost my co-ordinates, network and place.
Being with my big brother in an encounter with a pure African force, facing possible death and coming out alive, at once electrified my cells with pure presence, and then exhilarated me with the victory of surviving. A contributing factor to trauma and PTSD is when you feel helpless, unable to assist or do anything to alleviate suffering. So my sense of victory in being the driver and working with the masculine, my brother, as a team to move us all to safety, was a tremendous propulsion to feeling powerful as a woman. In addition, this occurred in collaboration with the masculine, which is of deep value to me in these times of distress around matters of gender, vulnerability and empowerment of the feminine.
Further, I recognize that the bull elephant that had us cornered was doing his job in the system. Sure he was just an elephant in musth walking down a road, curious about a vehicle behind a tree. But he ignited the most primal fear in all of us in the vehicle, with such force, such power, that I had to inquire what the purpose of such a tremendous alchemical event was.
We have all harboured some kind of fear that we avoid coming into contact with. One that I have wrestled with is a fear of failure, that I will do the wrong thing, that I am somehow not quite competent in this world.
However the mechanism of this process with the elephant bull worked, I believe that that elephant gave us all a significant gift: he surfaced my covert fear, which had been shielded and protected. Fear is a tactic of the ego to keep us safe: sometimes a distortion of reality based on old belief and experience : always have something to fear, something that keeps you small and unsure, dependent. The giant brought the fear right up into the light of day, “in your face”, as they say.
The next day, as we drove through landscapes, we had scene after magnificent African scene of huge herds of elephants with their babies and adolescents in the riverbed, bathed in golden light and radiating peace, belonging, love, family, goodness, joy, stability. By the end of the day, we in the vehicle were all blissed out and in an altered state after being drenched in the field of elephant love.
I saw immediately that we were being presented with a polarity: our fears, for some the terror of dying, on one hand, and the intensely moving scenes of beauty and love on the other. We were mightily dismantled one day, and elegantly, graciously pulled together and elevated the next. This is the magic of the polarity that forms a figure of 8, the healing ways of nature that work at lightning speed.
I believe that all sorts of cellular debris were shifted and dislodged by this experience of intense fear, and that nature brought in a healing so profound and deep that our lives could be changed forever.
On our last day in the Park as we drove through intoxicating elephant and bush scenes, I relished the feeling of being utterly present, completely disarmed, entirely in love with life. I was home. In Africa, with my family, in the place of my birth, the place I understand and whose coding is in my bones. I felt tremendously grateful for nature and the possibility to be in wilderness. I had been roused from the deep and perpetual sleep of my day to day activities, that trance-like state where discontent, cynicism, criticism make themselves at home and flow with dull frequency into experiences, slowly killing the pleasure of being alive.
But here I was with my beloved family: humans, elephants, a martial eagle and the kings and queens of the bird kingdom, and all of nature, completely, utterly in love with life. I felt it in my body – my heart swelling, vibrating low and loud, my cells tingling, the receptivity that comes with feeling your belonging and validity in the world. Delight – pure delight at the innocence and purity of life, broadcast by nature. My place assured and me welcomed, me home, me connected and alive to the multiplicity of life forms and their effect on my and the greater system.
A few days later after I had come home and resumed my work, I found myself frustrated with a government department situation, stymied, knowing there was no resolution even if we applied law and policy. The irritation and dark cloud of indignation and infuriation rose up around me, the position of complaint just about to manifest. I suddenly remembered how very recently I had been saturated with love of life, how the creatures and the bush had embraced me as a fellow living creature and how I had accepted and fallen into the euphoria of simply being alive, the wonderful, pure, complexity of the privilege of being a living creature on planet earth.
And I made a choice in that moment to drop my bitching about all the things in the world that are not working, and to revitalize and anchor all the co-ordinates that I had been given by nature to open to my love of life, and to the very best of my ability, to have that be my state as much and as often as possible.
And that, my friends, was my Elephant Medicine, that I knew I had to share with you.
This is the type of experience a deep immersion into nature can offer. Each animal, each plant, each bird, each being within the natural system holds a frequency, and when that frequency meets with us, it alters us.
You might consider who you are in nature, who you become. What sort of state you enter that is not your usual condition. Nature moves through us in magnificent, mysterious and logical ways, logical in that systems are complex and move to resolution. Not always a simple fix, these impacts can take days, months or years to unfold, they ripple through our days and lodge themselves in our memory, our being. I believe this thinking is only scratching the surface; the ancients and indigenous people have long known this and worked with it and the power of our personal and group will, but I believe it to be a great gift for my Western mind to open to, and crucial for how humans interact with nature so that she can not only survive but flourish.