An Extreme Experience

An Extreme Experience

In order to give time for Animals Asia founder Jill Robinson & vet nurse extraordinaire Animals Asia Wendy Leadbeater to tell their respective partner/husband I have waited before writing about an extreme animal behaviour that could have resulted in a very unpleasant situation for Jill, Wendy, myself and two game scouts.

On Friday 28th October, their second day at Turgwe Hippo Trust, they joined me feeding all the other wildlife at the feeding stations. Then it came the turn of Tembia hippo and his family of 8 hippos. It is a drive where one has to engage low range to cross a dry riverbed and climb a very steep bank to follow a route for five kilometres that is real tough on a vehicle. The average speed can be no more than 20km per hour due to the narrowness of the route, and we are the only people ever driving up there. Jill & Wendy were in the front of the Land Cruiser with me. Chengetai and Peter, the two game scouts, in the back sitting on bales of hay. We were carrying 160kg of hay, 100kg of meal and 30kg of game cubes.

Chengetai (who is very nervous of elephants) suddenly tapped the roof and points down in the dry river bed; perhaps 20 meters away from us are a small family of elephants and with them looks like a new born, totally wobbly on his feet. I slowly keep driving past as I was level with them and thought it foolish to try and reverse. Then, from above the riverbed and on the opposite bank, from a distance of at least 150 meters comes a charging elephant. Sex unknown, for as she charged I put my foot down, taking off along the twisting route trying to avoid mopane trees which are close against the track. Jill was looking behind and telling me: “Karen, the elephant is getting closer!” Wendy was concentrating on the drive as we belted along for at over 100 meters with the elephant directly behind and catching up. As we reached the bend to turn down into the Chichindwi River, I had no option but to stop the vehicle, as you have to engage low range to get up the steep bank on the other side; a four wheel drive in high range won’t make it. As I ground to a halt the guys jumped from the back of the vehicle and ran around to the front, and Jill told me: “Karen the elephant is right at the back of the vehicle”. She had chased us for over 300 meters at full charge, the head had come down I was told later with trunk between her legs for a short moment. I fully expected at that second, as I struggled to get the gear engaged, for us to be hit by a four ton elephant.




I didn’t know how badly we would be hurt, as she could either tusk the vehicle or turn it over, but either way I expected the impact as I desperately fought to get the low range engaged. Fortunately at home I had changed the hubs on the wheels to 4 x 4 and did not, as I normally have to do, have to get out of the vehicle and turn the hubs before putting her into low range. Somebody was really looking after all of us because my foot slipped on the accelerator as this was all happening, and the vehicle made a loud revving sound.

According to the scouts, who were at the front hanging on to the bumper, they said this made the elephant stop in its tracks and turn to one side. As she did, I got into gear and shouted at the guys to hang on or jump in, and we tore down into the riverbed then up the other side and drove for at least five minutes before I stopped to take her out of low range.   All of us were totally shaken up, hands shaking like mad in my case, adrenalin at peak performance, throat so dry one could hardly swallow, and basically in shock.

My biggest problem though was that I knew we had to return through the same route as there is no other way of driving back home. I had to get Jill and Wendy home safely, but how? I knew the elephants would probably remain in that area. We carried on up to Tembia’s hippo, put out his food and Wendy and Jill even managed to take photos of the hippos even though we were all still very shaken up. I was though absolutely impressed by the way both of them handled the whole experience. Not one of us had given anything but total respect to the elephants. No loud noise, sudden movement, nothing to attract a full blown charge. All I could think was that the new born was the reason for the other elephant to charge, thinking we were a threat. Perhaps she was the mother’s eldest daughter; we will never know.

Or worst case scenario that elephant has been hurt by man and hence has a dislike of vehicles. This is a possibility as well, as within the area the elephants move in, people do sport hunt elephants!!! Or even poachers could have caused a problem. In my thirty odd years of living with African wildlife I have had serious full blown elephant charges twice in my life, this was the second time. I now needed to get Jill and Wendy home.

We started the return trip, leaving food at 2 of the 4 feeding stations for the other animals, but I was concerned that if we had to walk we had to make it before dark. There was one other route we could drive, which had not been driven upon for 16 years, but it would not take us all the way home, so I would use it as a last resort. Half a kilometre from the elephant charge we again see an elephant to our left, this time running away but I believe part of that small family group. I immediately reversed up the very steep part of the route we were on, turned the vehicle and returned to the old road. We drove along until a tree blocked us in a small river crossing, and then we got out to walk.

I found out the next day that that specific spot was where the head of a woman from the illegal settlers was found last year, believed killed by elephants!!! I was hoping that no elephant would come along in the night and trash my vehicle as it’s the only one that is capable of feeding the hippos and other animals in that area. We then began the two kilometre walk home, arriving just at dusk. We walked through an area where we have a pride of 8 lions, but it was light enough not to worry on their behalf.

I believe we were looked after that day and since then I have had to return each day to feed the hippos and other animals up there. The following day Jean-Roger had to take Jill and Wendy back to catch a flight from Harare to South Africa, as they had come all the way to Zimbabwe just for 3 nights with us. This was a huge honour and apart from this very frightening event they had seen elephants at close quarters on arrival and many other animals in their short time with us. Also of course, the feeding of the hippos and seeing Kuchek’s family on land at dusk, which is a superb experience. This experience is something that will not only give the three of us memories for a lifetime, but on a positive note that elephant did not hit the car and did not kill us or hurt us, so….

What can I say apart from thank you elephant.

Having Jill and Wendy with us was simply fantastic and a great honour for me to show them the hippos and other wildlife.

Hopefully the next time they come along things will be a little bit less exciting.



Jill and Wendy


Jill and I and the vervet monkeys


Jill and Wendy and the monkeys


Jill about to feed the baboons


Wendy feeding the baboons


We say goodbye until the next time


Sunset on our game drive


468 ad


  1. Wow! So glad no one got hurt! That’s an amazing story though!

    • thanks Alysa for your commment and yep it was amazing but not one I want to experience again for a while 🙂 love to you Karen and the hippos

  2. Inge Skliros

    Oh my goodness! It sounds like quite the adrenaline trip, but believe it or not, I wish I had been there with you to experience it! Having said that, I am glad you are all safe and sound and no harm was done to either humans or elephants. Thank you for sharing you adventures Karen!

    • Thanks Cinda I was very proud of Jill and Wendy as a charging elephant is probably one of the most frightening things to have happen to you. Love and hugs Karen and the hippos x

    • Inge I promise you you would not want to experience that. I try not to watch youtube videos of elephants trashing vehicles as I live here. At the moment we have elephants eating at the one feeding station and have to be very careful when laying out the food. Then this happens in an area where I have 7 feeding stations. So I cannot not go up there. I had to cancel on Tuesday as on my way up with 3 scouts we see the same family in the riverbed and they were shouting their heads off and my instinct said no go home. I hated myself as all night I felt so guilty not giving food to all the animals up there and more importantly Tembia’s family of 8 hippos who have been eating every night since February. I have only not fed twice in May also due to over 100 elephants owning the route when driving up there. If these elephants were like National Park elephants where supposedly hardly any poaching exists or for that matter no sport hunting at all goes on then one would feel a lot more secure. Here the elephants have to face man in all his cruelty at times and so they don’t forget so you never know if they have met the bad side of humans or not. Anyway for that moment it could have been the calf who looked like a newborn we will probably never know. According to the game scouts two other elephants were simultenuously charging down in the dry river bed so we actually had 3 elephants after us. We only saw the one right behind the vehicle which I actually could not see as I was concentrating on tearing along the very twisty narrow route. Anyway as I said on my facebook post thank you elephant for not hurting two very important people Jill and Wendy and not trashing my only 4 x 4 drive vehicle who is 25 years old and needs care. Love K and the hippos x

  3. Cinda Lautenschlegar

    Oh My God! What an experience and I’m so thankful that the charging elephant chose not to hurt you, the scouts, and guests. You all handled it so well! Amazing.

  4. Johanna

    You are truly brave, all five of you! I am impressed. Glad you made it back to the house in one piece. As you say, this is a memory for life. Thanks for sharing! Lovely photos too!

    • Johanna we had not choice and just had to go with it and hope all survived to tell the story. As it happened the elephant was kind to us as she really could have sorted us and the vehicle out! Love to you Karen and the hippos

  5. What a story!

  6. Great story. Great read. Great outcome. Stay safe!

    • thank you Sam, fact is sometime more exciting than fiction and yet on that day fiction would have been better 🙂 Love K and the hippos

  7. Teresa

    Wow! I know first hand Karen you know how to keep your head in a crisis. Still very fortunate everything worked out. What an adventure story for Jill and Wendy to take home. And for you to put in your next book!

    • Teresa it was not fun not at all and such a shock. Freaked me out as Jill and Wendy did not need that and yet in a way it was better that they are “animal people” as in working themselves with an animal that can be very dangerous (without meaning to be) the bears. If this had happened to any of the volunteers that come here perhaps it would have put them off elephants for life, I do hope not though. There is normally a reason why an animal is angry just like us really. Love to you and the cats Karen and the hippos xx

  8. Steve Gordon

    Never a dull moment.

  9. Olivia Nilsson

    Oh my goodness… I held my breath during this exciting episode! So glad everyone (elephants too) got back safely! Many thanks for sharing this as well as the lovely pictures. xox Olivia

    • I am also happy Olivia that the elephant did not hit us as he/she would then continue having a problem with humans. I just hope he/she charged due to the young baby and for no other reasons. I have to continue driving up there every day until the rains come probably mid Dec to feed everyone so I hope she does not get it into her head to do it again. My nerves really need to be calm and it is very stomach churning to drive up there knowing you cannot turn your vehicle quickly and it is the only way to feed Tembia and the others. xx K and the hippos

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *