This is at least the third time I’ve tried to write this story… I’ve tried to write it as nonfiction, but struggle with how to tell the true story of the elephant when I didn’t experience it firsthand. Am I on the right track by using Stefan as the narrator? Suggestions for a title?
I found the key under the passenger seat, slid it into the ignition, and started the Land Rover. Nobody worries about it getting stolen in the middle of a game reserve in Eastern South Africa. The baboons are clever, but not quite to that degree. My latest group has arrived this afternoon for their safari adventure near the banks of the Black Umfolozi River. There are half a dozen students from some forgettable small college in the United States. I see so many of these privileged Western kids come through that I don’t bother to remember the details. The only thing that matters is that they listen to and learn from me, because I am Stefan and I am the man in charge.
I’ve gotten the group settled in their sturdy canvas tents on platforms. All dwellings are off the ground by at least a foot to deter the dirt-dwelling insects and reptiles. I’ve instilled in the group the need to use hurricane lamps and flashlights to guide their way after dark over the well-worn paths to the bathrooms. They are all armed with 100% DEET to protect from mosquitoes and the possibility of malaria. There is little protection from any other wild animal: No fences to keep out the rhinoceroses and lions; nothing but a zipper between them and the snakes. The hurricane lamp stays lit all night long, a sentinel in front of each residence.
Now we are off on our first evening safari. The Land Rover is open on the sides and has a canvas roof to shield from the sun and rain. When a young lady spots her first rhinoceros on the side of the road she gasps, alerting the others to the rhino’s presence. The rhino’s eyesight is poor, but compensated by excellent hearing and sense of smell. A charging rhino may feel threatened by what she cannot clearly see. I correctly tell the wide-eyed youngsters that she won’t charge, and in fact she turns and ambles away. In spite of her bulk, she is surprisingly agile. I feel I’m making headway in getting the group to trust my superior skills as a ranger. I am highly trained to read the body language of wild animals. And if I ever miss a cue, there is always a gun within reach. But I don’t tell them this.
Animals are least active when the temperatures are hottest, so we spend one long afternoon in seminar. I teach the youngsters that the savannah habitat is favored by the Big Five: buffalo, leopard, elephant, lion, rhinoceros. The Big Five are so named not because they are the largest, or the hardest to find: these are the most dangerous animals to hunt because they attack when injured. The lifespan of an African elephant is 60 to 70 years. They are herbivores and form extended families led by a matriarch. An elephant favors his left or right tusk, as evidenced by the wear on one side.
One young lady in our group is having trouble absorbing this new information. Her desire is to get up close to an elephant, perhaps to offer it a peanut or a pat on the trunk. I tell her it would be a good way to get killed. Elephants can be ferocious. Destructive. Even vindictive. I see doubtful smirks pass among some in the group.
On the last night in camp we sit around the campfire. There is a commotion not far off: large branches snap like twigs as a large male elephant paces back and forth just outside camp, furiously snorting and huffing. The elephant wants to come through, and we are in his way. I quickly explain this to the group, and this time I don’t see any eye-rolling. The elephant is agitated and we don’t want to piss him off any more than he already is. They scurry to their tents like little mice as I warn them not to poke their heads out, no matter how tempting, if they don’t want to experience the wrath of a young tusker.
Within a few minutes quiet settles over the camp. From inside our dwellings we are all listening for whatever will happen next. Soon we hear it: the angry elephant comes lumbering out of the brush and plows through the middle of the camp, disregarding whatever is in his way. Large jugs used for porting water are kicked to the side and the logs we were just sitting on are pushed like tinker toys into the smoldering fire. The earth shakes as three tons of elephant crashes past the outhouses nearest the tents. The footfalls lessen as the elephant continues out the other side of camp and back into the quiet night. I unzip my tent flap to go survey the damage. I am not surprised when no one in the group ventures outside again.
At breakfast there is much false bravado, and cameras come out to capture the remains of the dusty footprints and crushed jugs. I hear the young men lie to the pretty young ladies that they came out last night in time to see the tail of the elephant as it left camp. Too dark to get a photo, they lie. I hold my tongue. We have to pack up and get to the game reserve gates where the group will be picked up and taken to the airport for their flight home. There is no time to waste on teaching them more lessons of the savannah: we are out of time and the adventure is over. They have learned all I can teach them in a few short days.
But we find as we try to drive out of camp that the elephant has delivered a final lesson. He has pushed a large tree down across the road. It blocks our way out so effectively that we can’t get around it. The youngsters miss their flight, and I tip my hat to the elephant.