Some time back, I wrote an article on how to respond to an encounter with an animal while in the bush. Of course, not all encounters are on foot, and a good number of accidents are caused by hitting an animal while you are driving – particularly at night.
That’s one of the reasons that we fit a bull bar, and fender-protectors over the wheel arches. Even at relatively slow speeds, an impact with an animal can prove costly, or even potentially life-threatening for the vehicle occupants.
It is often thought that most accidents are caused either by running head-on into an animal, or by its charging you − like a bull charging a red flag. I am not sure what the statistics are; but, from my experience, an animal is more than likely to come flying out of the bush and hit you broadside. Unless, of course, it’s standing in the middle of the road during the hours of darkness, which many animals choose to do.
In two scary instances (one in a 4×4 and another on a motorbike), I was almost broadsided by a charging rhino which came thundering out of the bush just as I passed. Fortunately, on both occasions, I was missed by a gnat’s whisker. So, side impacts, or hitting an animal with the front end as it bolts across the road, are more likely to occur than a direct head-on impact.
As anyone will tell you, an animal’s response to the presence of a vehicle will vary not only from species to species, but from individual to individual. Bearing this in mind, let’s look at some of the more common animal encounters.
DonkeysIf I could nominate the animal which I’ll have to avoid because it is standing in the middle of the road, I’d like it to be a donkey. Having lived in Maun for a couple of years, and even where I’m living now, I’ve learnt that they are predictable animals. Donkeys and roads seem to go hand-in-hand. They just love being in the middle of them… standing, sleeping, or trying to mind their own business.
Fortunately they don’t spook easily, and when passed, irrespective of which way they are facing, they just stand there without flinching. That’s very reassuring. Just as a warning, give a toot on the horn, particularly if approaching from the animal’s rear. And, of course, slow down as you pass.
These are worst of the bunch, to my mind, as they are the most unpredictable of all animals you can encounter. They scatter in all directions, and even when on the side of the road, can go anywhere. When it’s goats in the way, I’ve found it safer to drive past at snail’s pace in the middle of the road, and be ready for the unexpected. They can head off in one direction, only to turn tail and start back across your path.
I was heading out of Gaborone some months back, at about 18:30, with my headlights on. Up front, on the right-hand side of the road, there were about 20 goats grazing. I was doing about 50km/h, but the car two-in-front of me was doing considerably more than that. Just as he got to the goats, they bolted across the road in front of him. At the speed he was doing, there were goats suddenly flying in all directions. He killed at least half of them − not a pretty sight − and wrote off his car. Moral of the story: SLOW DOWN.
These, like donkeys, are generally predictable. If you give them a wide enough berth, they won’t be a problem. They tend not to scatter, and if they are crossing the road, the trick is simply to give them time. Take extra care with calves, as they don’t seem to be as road-savvy as the adults.
They can be a problem at night, as the darker-coloured cattle blend into the night sky and/or the road surface. On numerous occasions, I’ve rounded a corner at night to be suddenly confronted by a black cow lying sleeping in the middle of the road. I once hit one when I was on a motorbike. Fortunately, I wasn’t going very fast; but I did a front flip worthy of an Olympic gold medal.
If you encounter any elephant in the middle of the road, give it as wide as berth as possible. Once, when on the way to Maun, I had to negotiate four elephants ambling along the A3 which bisects the Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve and Nxai National Park. I must say it was impressive to see such majestic creatures on the road, but passing them was nerve-racking.
If their rear end is facing you as you approach, pass with extreme caution, as you don’t want to appear suddenly from nowhere and spook them. Pass slowly, so that the elephant is aware of your presence. And continue slowly for a while before accelerating away, or you will scare the elephant and put anyone following you in great danger.
If it’s facing you and heading your way, move to the side. Don’t place your vehicle in a position where it might block the elephant’s path, or make it feel threatened. If it wants to walk where you are parked, let it. Their size means that they aren’t intimidated by anything. Just let the vehicle tick over, and remain stationary.
It’s surprising how close an elephant will get, and do nothing, if it doesn’t feel threatened. However, if you anger the animal, you are in trouble. If it looks as if it might charge, try to get out of the way. However, although trying to ‘out-run’ an elephant may seem the logical thing to do, this may cause them to carry on chasing you. This puts you in a very precarious position, because, in the bush, obstacles appear from nowhere at alarming speed at such times.
Having been in such a situation, I would advise you to put something such as a tree, or even a big termite mound, between you and the elephant as quickly and safely as possible. Elephants are not stupid, so once you ‘disappear’ behind something, they aren’t going to continue and crash into it. Or you might try driving in an exaggerated zig-zag fashion; or, if it is safe, do a sudden U-turn so that you backtrack on him. He will continue forwards, which you can count as a blessing.
Treat an encounter with a rhino in the same way.
Be cautious when approaching what appears to be a game trail bordering the road, as this is likely to be where something can leap out in front of you. Most often, it will be a kudu or impala.
Kudus are notorious for leaping out of the bush, either in front of you, or directly into the side of the vehicle. Early mornings and early evenings appear to be the worst times for accidents. If you spot kudus in the distance, slow down to a crawl. Beeping your horn may also alert them to your presence, and frighten them so that they run off into the bush. A strange aspect of kudu behaviour is that vehicle lights have a hypnotic effect on them, and they are drawn to them like a piece of metal is to a magnet. So, if it is safe to do so, turn off your headlights and spotlights as you pass by.
In the presence of wild cats, my advice is to keep your windows closed. I vividly remember seeing a YouTube video in which a cheetah jumped through a car window directly onto the lap of one of the occupants. That must have been one hell of a scary incident for all involved.
Big cats such as lions may linger in the road and let you pass uninterrupted. Honking at them doesn’t work. I’ve been in situations on a motorbike where I’ve encountered a lion in the road, and have passed without trouble. Or was I just lucky? With a leopard, that might have been a different story. If you are in a car, though, once you get close, they will move off.
Hares are nocturnal, and your vehicle lights will confuse them. (A bit like when we look into a torch: when we look up, we can’t see anything other than a white light for minute or so.) In consequence, they run haphazardly about the road, often in a zig-zag fashion. If it is safe to do so, stop and turn your lights off; the hare should then regain its night vision and disappear into the bush. If it’s not safe to stop, follow slowly until it veers out of your path.
Some people like to use their car horn at every animal encounter. This may alert the animal to your presence, but won’t shift it out of your way any more quickly. Animals are not conditioned to respond to noises like that. Rather dial back on the frustration, and just wait for the animal to amble by in its own good time.
Use your lights
Vehicle lights can work to our advantage when we encounter an animal in the way at night. Nocturnal animals are light-sensitive, so your headlights will temporarily blind them. When in this state, they may just stand still. If that’s the case, you should be able to pass them slowly with no problem.
If your vehicle is fitted with the side lights on the roof rack which are used for camping, turn these on. They illuminate the side of the bush and can alert a nocturnal animal to your presence, making it less liable to bolt out in front of you.
They like being in front
Sometimes animals will run down a track in front of you for quite a distance, and just won’t shift. I have found that the best way of dealing with this situation is to follow slowly at a safe distance, and wait for it to head off into the bush. Trying to ‘chase’ it off the road is dangerous for the animal, as it could charge off to the side and injure itself.
No matter what animal you encounter, respect it, and understand that it doesn’t know it is in your way. In many situations, we are encroaching on the animal’s space. That’s why we have a 4×4: to explore our surroundings and the wildlife which comes with it. So, just chill out a bit − and take what comes, when it comes. Even if that means dealing with cows and goats as we make our way to our bush destination.
By Paul Donovan