Have Pen, Will Travel: Adventures of a Writer

"You can see that I'm scared. That bugger nearly broke loose of my grip," says adventure journalist Paul Raffaele, with an anaconda in Venezuela. (By Jesus Rivas)
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 3, 2007

"Suddenly, in the pitch darkness, comes this bloody big bull elephant!" says Paul Raffaele. "He puts his ears back and you could see murder in his eyes. I knew he was going to charge. It's a strange, eerie feeling."

Raffaele, 63, just might be the last of the great old-fashioned adventure writers. A veteran Australian reporter, he travels the world hunting true tales of wild animals and primitive tribes, preferably those that eat humans. He's in Washington to powwow with his editors at Smithsonian magazine, which has published his stories on Indonesian cannibals, killer jellyfish and, in the August issue, on modern pirates. He's sitting in the courtyard of a Holiday Inn, trying to tell the story of the elephant that nearly killed him last week in Kenya. But he keeps interrupting himself.

"We're used to Asian elephants, those dainty little dumbos, but this bugger was huge!" he says. "He came straight at us and I thought, 'How are we going to get out of this one?' "

He interrupts his story to talk about his other near-death experiences, like the time he was captured by Khmer Rouge soldiers in Cambodia or the time he was caught in the middle of a riot in Bangkok and a drunken rioter put a gun to his head.

"The thing about being in danger is the mind protects itself," he says. "It's only afterward that it really hits you. So I was calm. I looked at the elephant and I'm thinking, 'This is really interesting,' and the driver put [the car] into reverse and then he tried to go forward and the wheels started to spin and the bloody elephant's coming at us."

He interrupts the story to explain why he wasn't driving the car. "I can't drive," he says. "I decided at 16 that I like danger so much that I would kill myself if I drove a car. So I took a pledge at 16 that I will not drive a car, ever." He smiles. "Maybe that's why I'm still alive."

Okay, fine, but what about the elephant?

He apologizes for the digressions. "I'm jet-lagged out of my mind, mate," he says. "I flew from Kenya two days ago. The plane was packed. It was like a flying refugee camp. I've flown 500 of them over the years. Every time, I say, 'Never again! I hate it! I'm finished! I'm never going on the road again!' And then you get home and you finish the story and you say, 'I can't wait to go out again!' "

Right, right. But what about the charging elephant and the spinning wheels?

"Finally, the wheels gripped," he says, "and we turned and drove away."

Now, something has caught his attention. He's staring at a group of young black women who are striding down a hallway in the Holiday Inn.

"Black girls here, they walk differently than African girls," he says. "I've been watching them. They walk confidently. The African girls walk like, 'We are.' The American girls walk like, 'I am.' It's very confident, very American."

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