Hayley Simleit, 28 and Dylan Taylor, 27, were walking in the bush near the safari lodge they help run in Chirundu, western Zimbabwe, when they were suddenly attacked by a young bull elephant.
As the elephant straddled the already injured Ms Simleit, bending its head down ready to gore her, her fiance leapt on its head in an amazing act of bravery. But then the animal turned on him.Gored in the neck, with six fractured ribs and convinced he was about to die, Mr Taylor shouted over and over again: “Sorry.”
“I don’t know why I said that word,” said the former Southampton resident. “But there was definitely a break, a change at that point.”
The couple had taken their dogs for a walk on 20 July near Tiger Safaris Fishing Camp on the Zambezi when they saw a young male elephant on the roadside and quickened their pace.
Young bulls are the most dangerous elephants in Africa, liable to charge without warning. This is what the animal did, making straight for Ms Simleit. As she ran she fell, spraining her ankle. Seconds later, the bull was on top of her. “He was kneeling on my arm,” Ms Simleit told The Scotsman. “In fact afterwards I had this huge mark there, it looked like an elephant’s footprint.”
Mr Taylor threw a stick. Then, thinking Ms Simleit’s back was broken, he did the unthinkable: flung himself at the elephant.
“I was thinking: ‘No, she’s mine. You can’t take her,’” he said. As the elephant turned on Mr Taylor, Ms Simleit managed to run. “I looked back and I saw Dyl was not with me,” she said. “The elephant that had trampled me trampled him.”
By now the whole herd of up to 12 elephants had gathered.
Ms Simleit’s screams attracted the attention of locals. They congregated, whistling to distract the elephants. It was the “blood-curdling” trumpeting noise the animals were making that terrified her the most, she says.
Mr Taylor remembers the elephants rolling him over and “tusking” him. Doctors found puncture woods in his neck, his shoulderblade and his back. “At one point,” he said, “I was sitting up and thinking: ‘this is tickets’. When one elephant was pushing my head, I was waiting for a pop.”
Without knowing why, Mr Taylor started to speak to the elephants. Just one word – sorry – repeated again and again. That was when the tempo of the attack changed.
“People have said to us afterwards that if an elephant wants to kill you, it will,” he said. The elephants tossed him on to an anthill. A waiting bush taxi was able to pick him up.
Ms Simleit used towels to staunch Mr Taylor’s bleeding. The driver raced them across the Zambian border to the nearest clinic.
Two Italian nuns patched him up – without painkillers. He was transferred to Lusaka and then by air to Harare, where doctors confirmed the tusks had missed his jugular “by millimetres.”
Still bandaged, the pair are about to return to Chirundu. Undeterred, they will marry in six weeks at the lodge, metres from where the attack happened. “We were going to put molasses down to get the elephants for photos. I think we’ll give that a miss,” said Mr Taylor.
The couple will probably never know why the young bull charged – whether the animals had been unnerved by hunting in a nearby concession, or perhaps by local poachers who hunt with dogs.
A few days ago, Zimbabwe’s state national parks authority phoned the pair to ask if they wanted the animals killed.
“We said no. It’s Mother Nature,” Mr Taylor said. “But we are lucky.”