I never thought this is how I would die. Frozen in fear and rendered indecisive by a complete lack of viable solutions. In the end, it wasn’t bravery or even dumb luck that got me out of that mess but instead, a total overestimation of the danger I was actually in… and a man with a flashlight.
In the summer of 2014, Sarah and I were fortunate enough to take a 15-day trip to Africa. We spent a few days in Uganda visiting family and the rest of our vacation on Safari in Tanzania.
During our final three days, we stayed at the gorgeous Kimondo Lamai camp, located in the Mara sector of the Serengeti in Northern Tanzania. This area had only recently been opened to tourism so we had most of this part of the Serengeti to ourselves.
The remoteness of the site and the lack of human influence in the surrounding space became clear each night when animal activity would reach its peak. Hyenas and zebras calling out their distress or pleasure almost constantly, punctuated by the occasional growl from a big cat.
Our tent was located on the edge of the camp with nothing on the far side of the canvas but a sprawling field of waist-high grasses and clumps of trees. From our front flap, we had an unobstructed view each evening of the sun setting slowly towards the savannah, filling the sky with a brilliant array of oranges, reds, and violets.
On our second day, we woke up early to head out to a river nearby where our guide was hoping to show us a wildebeest crossing. His intuition paid off and we watched for 45 minutes as around 7,000 of these animals propelled themselves down sandy slopes and across a slippery, rocky riverbed to get to the other side.
Wildebeest follow the rains to greener pastures by migrating from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya each year. It is an incredible event with two million wildebeest making the journey, so while the 7,000 we saw on this crossing seemed like an enormous number to us, we didn’t view even one-half of one percent of the total.
Riding high from our successful morning, we drove back to camp for a quick lunch and afternoon siesta. After eating, we left the dining hall for our tent. As I bent down to zip open the front, Sarah looked out into the grassland and spotted a small herd of elephants grazing not 50 yards away. We snapped a few photos and made our way inside, basking in the amazing day we’d experienced even before noon.
The afternoon game drive passed similarly by watching wildebeest crossings, elephants playing at a watering hole, and giraffes making their ungainly way towards tall trees and ripe leaves. As the sun started its descent, we began our return to camp, arriving just as the sun dropped below the horizon.
We were walked back to our tent by a camp attendant with a flashlight as it was too dark to see the pathway without it. We wanted to wash up and relax before dinner so, as Sarah hopped in the shower, I sunk into a comfortable chair and planned to enjoy the next few minutes of solitude deeply absorbed in my book. That is, until I first felt a vibration rise from my feet, up my spine, and all throughout my torso, rattling everything inside my rib cage like I was being shaken by an overly enthusiastic maracas player.
I jumped up out of the chair tossing my book onto the floor and immediately assumed a karate stance to defend myself while the rumble continued on for what seemed like minutes. While the rational part of my brain had bolted for the exit at the first sign of trouble, the irrational part was trying to decide if the sound was more like that of a T-Rex a la Jurassic Park or if the rumble was simply a negative response from my body to an African delicacy I’d eaten for lunch. Either way, I had the shit scared out of me (putting the food poisoning theory slightly ahead of the T-Rex).
The rumble stopped and all was still. Inside the tent, I remained standing (I think in a crane stance but I can’t be sure) but didn’t dare breath. Outside, there wasn’t even a breath of wind on the tent.
All of a sudden, a yell from the other room shattered the calm. “BEN! WHAT WAS THAT?” shouted Sarah from the shower as though trying to reach me two football fields away. The rumble started again though this time was mixed with higher-pitched contributions as I sprinted towards the shower, attempting to balance a loud response to my wife so she could hear me with whispering in the hopes the animals outside our tent wouldn’t.
“Sarah shush! There are things out there!” I wheezed back.
Obviously, my intended target remained oblivious of the danger she was putting us in as she responded in her dulcet tones, “WHAT? BEN I CAN’T HEAR WHAT YOU’RE SAYING!”
I made it to the shower and barked, “Sarah, there’s something outside basically inches from the tent so stop shouting!”
With the message relayed, I prepared to defend our tent from a most certain death. I rounded the corner at a run and dove across the bed, arching beautifully like an ‘80s action hero. I reached out towards my nightstand, straining for the two items provided by the camp only in case of an emergency… An air horn and a walkie talkie.
With my adrenaline pumping and thoughts blowing through my brain at hyper-speed, I “rationally” assessed the merits of each item. The air horn would alert the rest of the camp, maybe allowing them to get to safety while also most certainly freaking out my wife and the bloodthirsty creatures separated from our throats by mere centimeters of canvas. The walkie talkie would allow me to whisper my final pleas to whoever was on the other end, but what if nobody was listening?
Fearing the consequences of the airhorn, I lifted the walkie talkie to my lips and whispered like I was auditioning for the Blair Witch Project, “Hello? Is there anybody out there? There’s some animal almost in our tent and I think we might be in trouble…”
The walkie talkie crackled to life and a cavalier voice on the other line assured me they’d be over shortly. I’d assumed to pick up the mess that was left.
Not one minute later, the zipper of our tent was open and one of the cheerful hosts ducked in with a huge smile on his face. After making sure we were okay (Sarah was out by this point and didn’t seem to think it was quite the ordeal I did), he persuaded us to come outside and have a peek.
He brought his flashlight up slowly from where it was pointed, the light shining first on the ground in front of us to just past the clearing in front of our tent and finally ending on a small herd of elephants. The same elephants, in fact, that we’d shared a leisurely afternoon with just a few hours earlier. They were slowly striding away from the light towards the stream, seemingly unbothered by both the light, and by the events that recently transpired.
We recognized this elephant as one that was outside of our tent, due to the deformed tusk.
Had I done more thorough research prior to our trip, I might have learned a few interesting tidbits about our new friends. For instance, I may have come across that elephants can communicate seismically by creating vibrations acoustically through a very low frequency rumble (1-20 Hz). This vibration then permeates the earth and travels upwards of two miles before being detected and interpreted by the intended audience. Long story short, this elephant had most likely noticed me and alerted my presence to the herd before I even had a clue he was there.
As usual, I’d made a total ass of myself. An (overactive) imagination does have its drawbacks.