Durban – A Mtunzini father said he prayed earnestly for the well-being of his two young children and wife while they were trapped in the car that an elephant bull toppled over a few times in the iSimangaliso Game Park last Sunday.
Mathias Wessels feared he, his wife Amanda, a medical doctor and their children, 7-year-old Michaela and Samuel, 9, would be crushed to death by the might of the animal on the Cape Vidal Road.
It started as an easy Sunday morning drive for the family, looking forward to a dip at their favourite beach at Cape Vidal on KwaZulu-Natal’s north coast, until the elephant abruptly ended their outing at about 10am.
Wessels said they were “extremely afraid” at the time of the incident, and the children were still coming to terms with the near-death elephant encounter.
After showing “who’s the boss” the animal, lumbered away from the scene.
“To come out of that with minor cuts and bruises was a miracle.
“I was praying while the car was flipping.
“I believe that’s how we got out relatively unscathed,” said Wessels.
Nearly 20 seconds of the family’s ordeal was captured on camera by occupants of another vehicle.
That video has since been circulated widely.
While the elephant toyed with Wessels’ Ford Everest SUV, the woman onlooker was heard saying to a man over the sound of their car’s blaring hooter “… put it in reverse and be ready to move”.
The man asked her to phone someone.
When the woman noticed the animal had turned the car onto its roof, she let out an exasperated gasp and instructed the man to “go” before telling him she didn’t know who to phone.
As the elephant tossed the SUV with its tusks, Wessels said he never heard the hooting.
“His concern was the well-being of his children.
Wessels, a businessman, said they visited Cape Vidal beach often.
“Our main objective was to swim and do some snorkelling there.
“The elephant was the first animal we saw along the way and it was alone in a big open grassland area. We had travelled about two-thirds of the distance at that stage,” he said.
He noticed the animal had come from the grassland towards the road and the other car was ahead of them.
Both vehicles halted and slowly reversed.
It is believed that the occupants of the other vehicle filmed the video.
The animal kept coming directly towards them.
By then Wessels decide to reverse on the opposite side of the road and he eventually stopped when the elephant was about 50m away.
The other car continued in reverse mode.
Just when it seemed like the animal would pass Wessels’ vehicle without any fuss, it had a sudden change of heart.
Before they knew it, the elephant appeared at the passenger side and shoved its tusks through the window, and toppled the car onto its side.
“There was no chance to drive off,” he said.
Wessels said what was not seen in the video was how the elephant turned the vehicle once again onto its side, before walking away.
“By then I managed to unbuckle myself, but I noticed he was coming back towards the car.
“I was worried he would now crush the vehicle.
“That was the most scary part of the whole ordeal,” he said.
But the animal turned and moved away.
“That’s when I managed to put my head out of the car and saw a Land Rover.
“I called out to them to come closer so I could get the kids out,” he said.
Wessels managed to transfer his children into the Land Rover before helping his wife out.
“Our ordeal couldn’t have lasted a long time, but it didn’t feel that way.
“The elephant trumpeted once as it turned the vehicle over, but it didn’t look like it was in a state of rage when it initially walked past us, and it didn’t charge either,“ he said.
To Wessels, the animal seemed like “a big boy toying around”.
“It probably wanted to show who’s boss. When it rocked the vehicle, you could see it wasn’t battling to topple the car,” he said.
Going back to Cape Vidal is something the family will definitely do.
“I will have to wait until my kids say they are ready. If we see elephants again, we will keep a safe distance.
“I wonder what would have happened if we were travelling in a smaller car,” he said.
The driver of the Land Rover, Neil Abbott and his wife Charmaine, noticed the other vehicle travelling in reverse.
“Once I saw their reverse flights, I knew immediately there were elephants about,” said Abbott, who lives nearby in St Lucia.
“They warned me not to proceed further because of the elephant, but we had to help,” he said.
Abbott said he didn’t see the elephant pushing Wessels’ car over, but to the animal it was probably like playing with a football on a Sunday morning.
“The elephant looked bored. I think he was in musth because he had a bit of drizzle down the side of his face.
“I have been on this road many times… I understand them.
“Sometimes young bulls like to show off when they have a bit of hair on their chest,” he said.
Greg Martindale, a director at Conservation Outcomes, an organisation supporting biodiversity conservation outside traditional protected areas, said there could have been a few reasons why the incident occurred.
Martindale explained that elephants periodically came into musth and that could lead to behavioural changes. They could become more aggressive than normal because it was a hormonal change.
The other times elephants could become aggressive was when someone was in their space or they had some sort of injury and were in pain.
He believed that it was more likely the elephant was in musth, and it would have had visible seepage from temporal glands on the side of its head.
“In that stage, they are usually aggressive and you have to take extra precaution to avoid them,” he said.
Martindale said he viewed the video and was relieved the passengers were not injured. He didn’t think the family did anything reckless.
“They were very fortunate,” he said.
In a statement released by iSimangaliso’s spokesperson, Bheki Manzini said their officials responded to the incident and rescued the family, and they appreciated that the family sustained no severe injuries.
“Although such incidents are not a common occurrence in iSimangaliso, we wish to caution our visitors to always remain vigilant and keep to a distance of at least 50 metres from wildlife, particularly the big five. Human-wildlife conflicts can, and do happen, since these animals are wild and roaming freely in the park,” he said.
Manzini confirmed, following their management’s investigation of the incident, no action be taken against the elephant.