Encounter in Manyara, Tanzania

Posted: November 2022

Just metres from me the old elephant bull moved gracefully - like a huge grey cathedral -without giving me a second glance. His enormous ears, frayed at the edges, flapped languidly back and forth, raising puffs of dust from its colossal grey withers. The great animal was at such a short distance from my vehicle that it would have been impossible to take a photograph of his form with my heavy telephoto lens mounted on my camera.

All of a sudden the bull turned to face me. As he raised his head I could see (from awfully close range) the dark wet tear trail that ran from his tiny eye across his dry, wrinkled cheek. In fact, I was completely exposed at the rear of an open-top Land Rover. And apart from my driver - who gestured that he couldn’t start the engine without startling the animal and ducked uncomfortably into his cabin - I was the only person standing in the open vehicle.

The bull raised his trunk. The rubbery fleshy fingers at the tip flexed to sniff, searching for my scent. In doing so, he moved his body a metre forward. The giant was so close that I could have touched his forehead. 

I felt my heart pound at my throat. Gracefully, like a dancing cobra, the trunk snaked towards me and rested on the heavy telephoto lens attached to the camera lying idly before me.

Insane scenarios raced through my mind. I stood as if nailed to the spot, barely daring to breathe. For the slightest sound could be enough to spook that powerful trunk and send me reeling - or worse!

After what seemed like an eternity, he turned around and ambled off in the other direction.

I trembled all over my body, like a zebra that had just escaped a lion attack.

When I had recovered from this unexpected encounter, I realised that I had not taken a single shot of this majestic animal. 

The bull was now a few metres away from me but still too close to use my 600mm lens.
I reached for my second camera body with macro lens and from a short distance was able to capture its dried-mud-like wrinkled skin.


I will never forget that human inquisitive look in his eye when we stood “face to face”.

That miraculous encounter years ago changed my outlook on how I wanted to portray African wildlife. 

I used to make images with an emphasis on their informative and educational value.
Since that special encounter I have come to see African animals as mysterious beings whose magic, mysticism, grace - also danger - I wanted to capture. 

No more images. Portraits, instead. I no longer looked at my subjects observationally. My gaze went much deeper.

I know what I want to see in a portrait and what is important to me. I look to capture beauty, strength and magic. 

Every photograph presents a challenge for me again and again. This has been my approach to African wildlife photography, ever since that captivating moment with the bull elephant.