There’s nothing quite like having an elephant charge at you. Its grey, tree-stump legs slamming against the hot concrete; its lumpy, hairy head bobbing up and down, trunk swaying from side to side as it runs. It seems to move in slow motion—a lumbering charge that feels more like a truck reversing than a speeding freight train—although its size means that it is, in fact, covering a fair distance with each stride.
I had just parked my scooter on a patch of grass by the side of the road and hanging my helmet off of the wing mirror (which is how helmets are stored in Thailand) when I heard the commotion. Looking down the road, I saw three shirtless Thai men, one of them holding a goad, shouting and circling this escaped elephant making its way down the the thin island street.
It was a quiet street, located at the far end of the island, away from the major tourist locations. There were a couple of large resorts fronting a small bay nearby which had seen the sides of this street fill up with shops and restaurants to cater to the guests. This had left the elephant nowhere to go but straight forward, down the road, towards me.
The men had clearly given up trying to stop the elephant and were now working on making sure that all of the people on the street were out of the way. There was one man running along either side of the animal and one out front, all frantically waving their arms at people and shouting at them in Thai.
The difference was telling: the locals were getting out of the way quickly—running into shops and restaurants or hiding behind their small bamboo stalls—while the tourists stood around pointing and laughing and trying to take photos.
I had parked outside one of the restaurants and was now standing at the end of my bike at the edge of the tarmac, watching the spectacle. The elephant was still a good forty meters or so away and I, too, laughed with glee, reaching down for my camera.
How exotic this place is! I thought. How wild! They have elephants on the street!
Describing a realisation as dawning is a cliché but it very succinctly captures the process I went through. The threat wasn’t imminent, so there was no flood of adrenaline or automatic action like the recoil of a hand touching a hot plate. Instead, the part of my brain that assesses danger lit up slowly like an ancient computer starting, and all I felt initially was a mild feeling of discomfort. It was not pressing enough to act on, however, and the desire to capture the moment was still foremost in my mind.
Meanwhile, the elephant grew nearer and larger.
Then there was this pause. I remember it clearly: I stopped reaching for my camera and just watched for a moment. Internally, the light continued to dawn, and I became aware of more and more of the telling details: the look of fear on the Thai men’s faces; just how awe-inspiring the size of this great grey beast that loomed over the men was; the powerful momentum of its massive bulk which was pointed towards me.
By this time it had closed the gap between us. Then there was clarity: this wasn’t just some interesting local experience, but a very real danger. Now the adrenaline fired. Now I acted.
The desperate look in the men’s eyes was pure fear. This situation was beyond their control. Something very bad was not only possible, but likely—something that they would be responsible for—and this multi-ton beast charging down a busy road was not something to be taken lightly.
Moving quickly I scrambled into the safety of the restaurant and watched with everyone else as the elephant charged by, it’s back covered in dry mud, tail swinging in rhythm.
I didn’t get a picture in the end, which is a pity given the uniqueness of the event. I imagine the elephant was not interested in me and I would have probably been OK had I stayed out there to get the picture but I’ll never forget the look of horror in the Thai men’s faces or the wildness of this scared animal. It’s all too easy to imagine what might have happened had it perceived me as a threat or an obstacle to its escape and I think I made the right call.
Still, it was an amazing sight.