Not so Pygmy Elephants

Bombing down the Kinabatangan River, somewhere in Sabah, Borneo, the sporadic shrieks (that I think may be animal noises, or perhaps he’s just singing) issuing from our guide clearly audible over the thrumming engine. Oh the serenity! Mind you, if he’s good enough for David Attenborough, he’s good enough for us. And he is good enough – I’ve seen pictures.

Our goal today is elephants. Pygmy Elephants. But don’t let the name fool you. Apparently they aren’t actually indigenous to the area – though I’m not sure how much time you have to spend somewhere before indigenuity is of no consequence. In the village where I grew up, it was 20 years – a stalwart pillar of the community telephoned my mother the day after we moved in to inform her that any changes she wished to make would be welcome only after an initial 20 year period of full time residence in Easton Royal. Anyway – rumour has it that the Sultan of Sulu shipped some Javan Pygmy Elephants to Sabah as pets. Not sure what happened next but somehow they got out and managed to establish themselves. And today we are off to try and find some of their descendants. We may not even see any – apparently they’re pretty illusive and tend to stay mainly within thick jungle vegetation. Our guide assures us that should the elephants not be forthcoming, we can wait for dark (and while waiting we can look for orang utans and proboscis monkeys) and see thousands of fireflies. Elephants schmelephants.

So, as I mentioned, we bomb it down the river for an hour or two until we near a little village peeking out of the jungle. The peeking takes the form of a great deal of laundry hung out on the jetty to dry. This is a river village. There are no roads to it, the nearest road is over an hour back the way we came, in Sukau. Half an hour in the other direction and you hit the Sulu Sea.

River village

Past the village, round a bend in the river, we slow down. Passing some coconut palms – noticeable because there aren’t many in these parts. We pull a U-ey, chugging back up a hundred yards or so and wind up nose in to the bank next to a grassy spot. When I say grassy, I mean 10 foot high grassy. Our guide has donned wellington boots. Slightly worrying as we are sporting flip-flops. Nevermind. He encourages us to step out of the boat and points out, fairly unnecessarily (it would be hard to miss) that the area is decimated. 10 foot high grasses lie flattened and broken in great swathes and pathways. This is elephants. And it’s not just grass. Further in, walking down a sort of grass corridor with a few large flattened areas, we hit some real trees, some of which are horizontal on the ground with large chunks gnawed out of them.

Pygmy Elephants eat trees for breakfast…

Disturbingly large footprints in the mud abound. Like, foot prints a foot across. I thought they were Pygmy Elephants… Yes yes, smaller than African, but not much, I am assured… Is this safe, where are they? Huge piles of dung steam gently in leaf filtered light dapple, clouds of tiny flying things swooshing off them every now and again.

Big poo

I hear a swishing and a cracking not too far away. Sssssh! Says our guide. Elephants! WHAT? I think, right here?! That sounded so close! Yes yes. He says. They are close. Should we go back to the boat, I ask? I need a stick he announces. There are no sticks handy. He looks around for a stick. My heart starts beating way more than it’s accustomed to as a sort of deep grumping roar echoes through the dense undergrowth. It sounds a lot like a boat motor. It is LOUD. Actually, scratch boat motor, it sounds like a monster. Suddenly an ear-splitting trumpeting noise shatters the air and I start feeling like I’m in a leading role in Jurassic park. Our guide has found a small tree. He lops off a stick (it’s about a meter long) and sharpens the end. I am dubious, given the noises that now reverberate around us, that this is likely to be at all effective against anything capable of this sort of volume. Relax! He says, it’s ok. I’m really not sure.

We venture further in.

I’m thinking, ok, so if an elephant runs at me, I just get behind a sizeable tree. Right? Then I remember the pushed over trees just to my left. I look around for a bigger tree. There are none. I remember a friend telling me – the best thing to do if an elephant chases you, is take off your clothes and leave them. The elephant will stop and trample them first. And run downhill, their knees can’t take downhill speed. The only down-hill here is the 3 foot immediately into the river. The river has salt water crocodiles in it. Relax! Says our guide. I try to relax. He knows his stuff. He’s taken David Attenborough here. David Attenborough is still alive. Come! Come! Says our guide. I creep forward and suddenly, I can see a lot of mobile grey through the foliage. Elephants! Holy Shit, I’m seeing actual wild elephants through the leaves! And they’re only about 8 meters away.

First glimpse of elephants through the undergrowth

I crouch and squint to try and make them out. It seems as though there are quite a lot of them, one is very small, less than a meter tall. I can’t quite make it out through the green, but it looks like a baby. More trumpeting. Come, come! Says our guide. I creep forward. When I say run, you know the way back to the boat? Says our guide. When? WHEN? Shit. Do I? Sort of. I know it’s That Way. But we’re a good few hundred yards off now and I also know there were lots of beaten down grass paths intersecting ours. I think so, I breathe. Do you know which way? I ask The Boyfriend. He points back the way we came. The noises get louder, the underlying grumbling roar becomes constant, the trumpeting less intermittent. Our guide sallies forth, machete in one hand, little pointy stick in the other. Come! Come! He says. I am reluctant, I sort of move forward a little, but we both hang back. Suddenly, through the undergrowth comes a huge grey shape. Ears wide, trunk out, an elephant blunders into the path ahead. And it is not pygmy. It’s bloody huge!

Here she comes!

It’s also not an it. She’s very definitely a she and she is not amused. She trumpets. And it’s deafening and then she starts to move. And boy can she move. She runs at our guide. He’s shouting – run! Run!! Back to the boat! RUN!! I don’t need telling twice. My heart going ten to the dozen, literally hammering against my chest, I leg it into the long grass. Soon I can’t hear anything but my own laboured breathing. I stop and wonder where the hell I am. Where is The Boyfriend? Where is our guide? I look around. It’s a bit grassy, but I think I recognise that crippled, chewed tree over there. I turn to my right and yes, I’m back on our original path. No sign of elephants. Or anyone else. I wait a little. Can’t hear anything. No screams of trampled humans, nothing. I double back up our original path and find the others, panting, a wee bit further up. Our guide says, Relax! I try, but my heart is still going. We creep back towards the elephants. I’m in a sort of fight or flight, weird place right now – everything in me feels magnified, I feel very alive. It’s like acid, but with shakier knees. Our guide mentions that usually the elephants don’t seem so aggressive. He frequently goes right up to them. He’s never felt the need to use the small stick before, but today, he is not so sure. Maybe it is good that he has it. It is very small.

More low roaring and the odd trumpet. Coming closer. The Boyfriend mentions that I have turned white. I tend to react to things fairly physically, turns out disgruntled elephants are no different, I feel shaky, but poised. This is, I suspect, actual fight or flight mode. My body is gearing itself up for exactly what eons of evolution designed it for. Something it very rarely ever comes across usually. I hear the snapping of sticks and the swish of vegetation being flattened before I see anything. And when I do, she’s coming straight for us. And she is still not amused. She wants us gone. We are definitely NOT welcome. And she’s taking no maybes for an answer. She rushes towards us at speed, trunk swinging, ears wide out. And she’s fast. I am out of there. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life – certainly not through that sort of terrain.


I hurtle back to the boat. The boyfriend is behind me – run, RUN! Faster, Lizz, faster!! Go GO! I wonder if I’m even going the right way. Behind me all I can hear is crashing in the undergrowth. Big crashing, not Boyfriend or guide crashing, though I can hear that too. And trumpeting. I can’t quite describe how loud that is close up. Ear splitting. Literally. I see the boat and throw myself into it. Closely followed by The Boyfriend. Who is somehow bleeding and covered in mud. His t-shirt, his shorts, his hair, his face, arms, everywhere. What the hell happened to you? I ask. He looks down at his bleeding feet and mud caked torso. Erm, I was chased by elephants, he explains. I lost my hat. Crestfallen look. Shall we go back for it, I ask? Stupid question. Where’s [our guide]? We look back through the grass. Nothing. Silence. I just have time to think. Oh shit. When he appears around the corner, jauntily swinging his machete. Holy Shit he says, I have never ever seen the elephants this aggressive! I really thought that big one might kill me! I thought I might die today! I had to use my stick!! He bundles into the boat and we float downstream and catch our breath. Then head to the village.

A huge saltie croc skull sits under a banda next to the jetty. Next to this a very tiny old lady is weaving handbags out of strips of ex-plastic bags. We drink cans of 2 ringgit coke as rather fat children race around screaming with laughter. I wonder how I got here.


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