Why you should care
Cycling across Africa wasn’t supposed to be easy, but it also wasn’t supposed to involve angry elephants.
In 2011, I left my job as CEO of a media development company to race across Africa on a bicycle. Sixty-three of us lined up at the foot of the pyramids in Cairo at dawn on Jan. 6 for the 8,000-mile ride to Cape Town in the world’s longest bike race, the Tour d’Afrique.
As we headed toward the Zambia-Botswana border, we were taking it easy, strung out in a long, loose line of riders. I was pedaling away when I heard the shout from ahead.
“There’s an elephant in the trees!”
The most dangerous animal in the African bush is arguably the Cape buffalo. And getting between a hippo and water? Unwise. But the stories I remember best from my childhood in Africa are about elephants. My mum and dad would talk about people in our neighborhood who’d been killed by elephants. “Never get out of the car, ever, unless I tell you to,” Mum would say, and it was the one instruction that my brother and I always obeyed. If we had to stop for a wee, it was a hurried and harried affair.
While ahead of us there was malaria, typhoid, 125-degree temperatures and armed bandits, the reality was, and remains, that elephants frightened me most. All those childhood tales rushed back, and I decided that caution was the better part of valor.
I hope he crushes my head first so I don’t feel too much.
I stopped biking to wait until the elephant had passed. I was bent over my bag, rummaging around for sunscreen, when I heard it: the trumpet call of an African elephant. An angry African elephant.
Almost on cue a large bull elephant exploded out of the bush to my left, roughly 100 feet ahead of me. His ears were extended and flapping, his trunk raised. He was trumpeting his rage. And charging straight at me.
My only thought was, I am going to die.
Instinct took over. I dropped my bag, wrenched my bike round in the opposite direction and slammed down on the pedals. Time ticked in slow motion. It may have only been seconds, but I had time to see and hear and feel everything. Adrenaline flooded my body. My legs pumped up and down, up and down, faster than they ever had before. My heart beat at double or triple its normal rate, forcing oxygen into my muscles even though I could barely breathe.
Then there was this: I knew there was absolutely no way I could outride a charging elephant. It can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour, and this one was just 100 feet away and gaining.
My brain was working as furiously as my legs: Should I get off the bike and make a run for it into the bush? Maybe I could climb a tree and hide.
The trees were thorn trees with 5-inch thorns that would rip me to pieces — I’d never get up one. I was no speed monster even on a bike; on foot I was a snail. I kept on pedaling.
The elephant was so close, I could feel the ground moving as he pounded toward me. I could hear his enormous feet smacking against the tarmac. I saw the other riders up ahead, all also frantically pedaling away from the elephant.
I was going to die, I was going to be crushed on a tarmac road in Africa. I wondered what it would feel like.
Pretty damn sore, my inner voice told me.
I kept pushing the pedals. I thought about my family. Should I get off the bike and run? He was so, so close now. I couldn’t go any faster. I did not want to die; I loved life. Would he gore me with his tusks or would he just trample me? How long would it take?
I hope he crushes my head first so I don’t feel too much, I thought.
I kept pedaling as fast and as hard as I could. I was still searching for alternatives, but there weren’t any. Mentally, I started to curl into myself, like you do in the moments before a crash.
Then, the elephant stopped. He just stopped.
The noise of his feet against the tarmac came to an end. He had scared us off his territory, so his job was done. Relief overwhelmed me. I was OK. I was alive and in one piece, with an unsquashed head and still pedaling like a demon toward my friends.
When I reached my friend Sam and the other cyclists, I stopped. I was shaking from fear, adrenaline and effort. I couldn’t believe it was over.
“Oh my God, are you OK? Look, there it is. Shall we go on? Where’s your bag? I can’t believe that just happened,” said Sam. I got off my bike and sat on the roadside for a bit. Time accordioned back to normal. The elephant had crossed to the other side of the road and gone into the thick bush. One of the riders in front cycled back with my bag and sunglasses and told me that another cyclist had gotten some great photos of me in full flight.
How quickly we change gear back to having a future. Ten minutes before, I honestly thought I was going to die. Now I was pleased that photos had been taken and couldn’t wait to see them. My heart rate had returned to normal; I had stopped shaking and was excited about my mini-adventure, already converting it into a story to impress my niece and nephew.
In the Tour d’Afrique, the only thing you have to do is keep going. I got back on my bike. It was time to cross the border into Botswana.