Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, 1996
Parked at the lip of the waterhole, seven humans sit in a roof-less, side-less vehicle, eggs in a carton without a lid. Earlier, at dusk, giraffes reflected the setting sun, but now icy stars stare down at us with chilled, blue eyes. Somewhere, out there beyond this waterhole, hyenas will make short work of bones.
An elephant appears. And then another. Gray wave after gray wave surges out of the bush in small herds of twenty or less, flooding the huge hollow in front of us. Dust rises in the air, a potent blend of manure, dried grass and sand. The backwash swells in our direction. Soon a sea of elephants surrounds us.
Snorts, grumbles, trumpets, growling bellies, and gargantuan belches resound. Some of the vibrations are too low to hear, but I feel them as they pass through my body, reverberate in my chest cavity, squeeze my heart. Eye after eye inspects us as eddies of elephants swirl past.
An old world laps at the foot of our memories, extinguishes centuries of communal fires. The ropes that tether us loosen. We slip away from the familiar shore and set off. We look around with wild hearts. We have become part of the herd.
Behind us, close enough to touch with an outstretched arm, a huge female chuffs and huffs at regular intervals, locomotive-style. Hunched and folded, I turn my head slowly to look into her left eye. Her trunk periscopes into an s-shape, swivels, and tests the air in my direction. Her massive body blocks our only way out. She rocks back and forth, side to side, grows quiet. Small and cold, I drop my head, totally at her mercy, if she knows such a thing.
Suddenly, from a crush of rumbling bodies, a baby elephant squirts out and heads straight in our direction. Right behind is her mother. Even our guide quits breathing.
The baby elephant stops less than a foot from our left front wheel. Her mother looms over us, illuminated by our parking lights. With just one step she could snatch any of us right out of our seats.
A small, short elephant trunk reaches out, touches the tire and a collective inhale is heard, as if the vehicle itself is trying to shrink away. Behind us, the huge matriarch chuffs rapidly, building up steam.
Then the tiny trunk jerks back, blasts a bubbly snort of air, and the baby’s face contorts into an expression that can only be translated as Yuuuuck! The mother shifts into an I-told-you-so attitude. Her trunk relaxes, blows small puffs in the sand.
Carefully, I turn to look the matriarch in the eye. She blinks once, twice, emits a large exhalation Whooooff, and turns her back on us.
The baby charges our vehicle, flaps her ears, and trumpets like a bicycle horn, causing a gust of giggles in return. Her mother rumbles, pivots from us peons and makes a regal exit, strolling off in a stately manner no human monarch could ever attain. The baby twirls several times, then follows her mom in a quick side-to-side rocking gait reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin.
Singly, and by twos and threes and tens, massive silhouettes disappear into the darkness. A young female strolls by, scans us as if we’re department store mannequins. And then, they are all gone.