The Lonely Bull

By Steven Crouse

The conditions we have seen in markets over the past few weeks have unnerved even the most-steely of souls, and left a wave of panic in its wake. And while every advisor, commentator, economist, and strategist says the same thing, “Don’t panic”, times like these test the mettle of everyone.

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s long-time partner at Berkshire Hathaway and a 96-year old veteran of investing, said this when interviewed on the market correction: “If you’re not willing to react with equanimity to a market price decline of -50% two or three times a century, you’re not fit to be investing, and you deserve the mediocre result you’re going to get.”

But not everyone has the fortitude for markets like this, and it is in this vain that I want to share one of the most surreal and frightening experiences I ever had the privilege of being a part of:

Every year, I undertake a multi-day, self-supported hike somewhere in Southern Africa. In 2016 our group undertook to hike the banks of the Olifants River in the Kruger National Park. The Olifants River backpack trail is one of three such trails in the Kruger, where participants can experience an on-foot wildlife excursion unlike anything else on the continent, surviving in the bush for 4-days with nothing but what you can carry on your back – no camps, no fences, no vehicles – just two qualified rangers, armed with rifles and years of experience to help us survive.

On day 3 of the trail, after covering most of the distance we needed to, we pitched our tents, left our bags and went for a walk before the sun dipped below the horizon and we lost light. Around 2 kilometres from our tents we encountered nature’s most feared creature – not a lion or leopard like most assume – but a lonely bull elephant. An 8,000 kilogram mass of muscle, trunk, tusks, and a grumpy old-man attitude to boot. We have had a number of on-foot elephant encounters, but none as close as this one. Through the thick Mopani bush all we could see was a great, grey hunk moving closer, every now and then the shoulders of this behemoth over the tops of the Mopani-veld, until there he was – some 25 metres from us at the other end of a clearing.

At the start of every trail, the lead ranger gives you the basic rules of walking in the bush – obvious ones like keeping noise and chatter to a minimum, leaving no trace besides footprints,  that we are merely guests in the animals’ territory etc. But the one about what to do if we have a ‘close encounter’ is what keeps you awake while you’re lying in your tent alone at night, with nothing but a sheet of nylon between you and Kruger’s most dangerous beasts. In truth, there is only one rule when encountering big game on foot: “Don’t Run!”

So here we stand, 10 of us, with nothing but the length of a school swimming pool between us and the real king of the beasts. He starts advancing on us. Slowly at first, and then faster, with ears held out parallel to his head to make him look bigger in a full-blown charge. And our guide does nothing. Nothing at all. He stands put, telling us to do the same. “Don’t move, Gents”, he says in a voice so calm, it could only come from someone as seasoned as him. And while this scene is evolving in front of our eyes in slow-motion, our collective lives literally flashing before our eyes, every bone in your body is telling you, pleading with you, screaming at you to turn and get out of this hellishly dangerous situation. But your brain reminds you, “If you run, you’re dead! The elephant is bigger than you, angrier than you, and faster than you. If you turn and run, you don’t stand a chance!”

And so we stood.

And watched as 8 metric tonnes of pachyderm advanced on us.

And then, as suddenly as it all started, he stops. He kicks his front foot in the sand in one last act of demonstration and defiance, and like a frustrated toddler mid-tantrum, he pivots and retreats. As the adrenalin fades, the nervous laughter of what we had all just experienced fills the group, along with a bit of fun-poking about how “I wasn’t scared, but you were!”, as one expects from a group of men (boys).

Precisely what one feels in a moment like that is indescribable. It isn’t relatable to anything that a modern human would ever encounter in their daily life. But the only things ensuring a safe outcome at the end were our guide’s experience, and our own compliance to the rules. Our ranger, Wayne, has lead over 5,000 trails in his career as a guide, and has countless stories to tell of close encounters with every animal from lion, to leopard, to elephant, and rhino. And to this day he has never had to raise his rifle to ward off an animal – something that sets him apart from many of his peers.

But the trust we have in his knowledge of the wild, his abilities to read an animal’s body language, and his experience gained through nearly two decades of walking through Africa’s wilderness on foot, were what kept us safe too. At the beginning of the trail when he said to us, “Don’t Run”, we didn’t expect an encounter like that. But in the moment, when all the chips were down, we each had a choice to make. And thankfully we made the right choice – none of us panicked, and none of us ran.

Markets these days are the approaching elephants, and we are your guides. We’ve (fortunately or unfortunately) been here before, and we’re likely to see this again in our lifetimes. The only way to survive this is follow the only rule that counts – “Don’t Run!”