I write about elephants. I write about other things, too.
Author: Cheryl Merrill
Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008.
She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.
For long periods of time not one of us with the elephants speaks a single word. Plump, babbling, feather-brained guinea fowl run ahead of us in clumps. Their noggins perch atop impossibly skinny blue necks and look professionally shrunk by headhunters. The spooky laugh of a single hyena crawls in from the distance.
Sweat trickles from under my hat. No matter how many times I gaze ahead, the path remains the same two dusty ruts in the tall, lion-colored grass. Seed heads from dry stalks pop like tiny finger snaps in the heat. Sand fine as cake flower powders my boots, and I gasp as though I have gills.
As we trudge along, I catch a glimpse of a “go-away” bird, a Gray lourie, springing along the branches over my head. He leans down and reproaches us for being foolish enough to be out in the mid-day sun. Go-wheyyyyyyy, go-wan. Go-wheyyyyyyy. The lourie nods his pronounced head crest at us. Go-wheyyy. Wheyyyyy. Go-wan. Go-wheyyyyyy.
Bleached by the sun, the sky is no longer blue. As we pass near a marshy waterhole, two blacksmith plovers bounce up and down, their call mimicking smithies tapping on metal: Klink!Klink-Klink!
In this season, the soundscape around me is filled with dry cracklings. With crickets who rasp their legs together and listen to each other with ears on their tibias. With the scrape of our footsteps. With the buzz of small flies seeking moisture at the corners of my eyes.
What would it be like to think without words and recognize shapes without names? But I hear these words in my head as I think them.
Later, in the afternoon, we flush a warthog family. One of the piglets stops and looks over his shoulder at me.
Off in the distance zebras nod as they plod past a line of trees. Yes, this is the right way; Yes, this is the right way. Several stop to look our way.
They are nature’s bar codes, no two alike. Quintessential Africa.
In his book, Origin of Species, Darwin speculated on whether a zebra was a white horse with black stripes or a black horse with white stripes. He compiled examples of the occasional striping on all horses, arguing that a trait from a distant common ancestor, white on black, is brought to full fruition in the zebra. His examples noted that some zebras are born with white dots and blotches, incomplete stripes on a black background, Morse code instead of bar code, natural proof that a zebra is a black horse with white stripes. The white is lack of pigmentation.
I think I’ve taken at least 300 photographs of zebras, of their herds, their stripes, their tails. Tails of Africa: I have a whole album of animals turning their backs just as I press the shutter. Portraits of elephant butts, giraffe butts, baboon butts (not a pretty sight for those who don’t get an immediate visual image), impala butts, even bird butts. None of lions, however. They tend to circle, keep you in sight. The most butts in that album belong to zebras, notorious for twirling away just when I have a great shot lined up.
The zebra family of striped horses (Equidae) has four members: Plains zebra (Equus burchelli), Mountain zebra (Equus zebra), Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) and Wild ass (Equus africanus). I’ve never seen a Mountain zebra or a Wild ass (no jokes, please), but I’ve been fortunate enough to add plenty of photographs of the Plains zebra and Grevy’s zebra to Tails of Africa.
The Grevy’s zebra is the largest of the family members and looks a lot like a mule, with large rounded ears and a short, thick neck. Their brush-cut manes are stiffly erect, broom-like, and sometimes extend all the way to the tail. Stripes on a Grevy’s are narrow, close-set, brownish, and extend to the hooves. Their bellies and the area around the base of their tail do not have stripes: Grevy’s zebras have white butts. Foals are born with brown stripes that darken as they grow. Found in Kenya and Ethiopia, there are only 2,000 Grevy’s left in the wild due to habitat loss.
Like all zebras, the stripes on a Grevy’s extend up through their manes. Their muzzles are brown, and so is the whisk at the end of their tails. Their lips and nostrils are gray.
In contrast, Plains zebras are nearly everywhere, from Ethiopia to East Africa, to Southern Africa, but usually no more than nineteen miles from the nearest water source. Smallest of the zebras, it has horse-like ears and is thick-bodied with short legs. Their stripes are vertical on their bellies, but swing more to the horizontal on their hindquarters and make neat collars around their necks. Adults have black muzzles; foals are born brown and white. Southern populations also have “shadow stripes,” a brown stripe in between black ones. Their stripes extend nearly to their hooves.
You might think such a boldly patterned animal is easy to spot. For humans, yes – we are used to bar codes and are able to string together space between vertical black slashes as part of the whole. For lions, not so much, because cats can’t see color. If they did, we would have cats with butts like baboons during mating season, a lovely (to baboons) come-hither red, or cats with blue balls, like those of Vervet monkeys. (My blue balls are bigger than your blue balls.)Then again, maybe blue balls might work for lions, because they see mostly in blues and greens.
Stripes work to interrupt the outline of a zebra’s body – a lion sees only blobs of a lighter color of blue-green as an unrecognizable pattern – since no two zebras are striped the same it would be impossible to memorize a pattern as zebra! Black stripes are seen by lions as blank spaces. Add in a screen of bush and a hungry lion might walk right by an immobile zebra. And when lions flush a herd of zebra, all those flashing stripes together give the herd a psychedelic pulse that make it difficult for lions to visualize individuals in the herd.
Zebras have thick, tough hides. Healed scars from attempted lion take-downs often result in misaligned stripes.
But for photographers, even the butt end of a zebra is fun to capture – because, for the most part, their tails are striped, too. And sometimes the light is just too perfect to resist.
Every second of every day unheard worlds tremble past my dim senses. Occasionally, when I’m in Africa, the air around me begins to thicken as an elephant’s vocalizations lift from infrasound into a register my ears can hear. Airquakes. Fractures and heaves of oscillating air. Another language, one without words, without speech.
I almost know infrasound. No more than two miles from my home freighters push through the deep waters of Puget Sound. On flat black nights the thump-thump of their propellers travels through water, through air, churns into my bed, my bones and into the lowest threshold of my hearing. It’s a mechanical throb, born in the bellies and boilers of machines, carried along rotating shafts which turn the metal blades of propellers, which slice through water like a dull knife hacking flesh. . . . . Whummp . . . whummp . . . whummp . . . . . . . . .
Out in the bay that fronts the town where I live, aggregates of barnacles coat docks and pilings and rocks. Their shells open and close, open and close, as feeding appendages catch food on the tides. Barnacle larvae hone in on the vibrations of feeding and settle in with their relatives so that they may easily exchange sperm and eggs with their kin. The sound of a large bed of barnacles can be heard for up to ten miles underwater.
Sound moves in waves similar to light waves. Light can be carried in a vacuum such as outer space but sound cannot. It needs a conducting medium. There’s a terribly silent universe beyond the top layer of earth’s atmosphere. It’s cold, breathless, without wind, without water, without life. On the moon our alien footfalls fell without sound into its dead dust. No one hears anything, unless you are in a spacesuit, listening to your own breathing.
At birth, elephants have only two or three small cheek teeth. By the age of ten, big tectonic molars began to erupt in the back of their jaws, becoming part of a conveyer belt of teeth. As molars wear down near the front of an elephant’s mouth fragments of them break off in pieces and either fall out or are swallowed. Throughout its lifetime, an elephant will grow twenty-four molars in six sets – but only two tusks.
Each molar looks like a set of dishes drying edgewise on a rack, bonded together by enamel. The vertical ridges function like giant vegetable graters as an elephant’s lower jaw moves forward and back, rather than side-to-side like a cow. Each molar grows up to a foot long, has a maximum of ten ridges, and weighs eleven pounds apiece – perfect for grinding up tree branches.
Like human teeth, elephant teeth consist of cementum, dentine and enamel. Cementum holds the roots of a tooth in place, dentine surrounds the pulp and enamel crowns each tooth with a hard protective layer. Packed with nerves and blood vessels, the pulp cavities of elephant tusks extend two-thirds of the length of each tusk. Their teeth are as sensitive as mine are.
Doug asks Jabu to “Open up.” He curls his trunk back over his head and Doug stretches to his tiptoes, pulls his lower gums wide with his hands.
In his lifetime Jabu will have six sets of molars. His sixth set will wear down by the time he is sixty. Only ten percent of aging elephants grow a seventh set of molars.
“Very good, my boy. . . . veerrry good.”
Peering over Doug’s shoulder, I count four molars in his mouth, two on top and two on the bottom.
Doug lets go of Jabu’s lower jaw. “Allllright, Jabu, allllright.”
He drops his trunk but leaves his mouth open. Doug grabs a fistful of treats and slides his arm into Jabu’s mouth, all the way to his elbow. As he lets go of the treats he rubs Jabu’s tongue. He flaps his ears.
“Elephants use their trunks to rub each other’s tongues. It’s kind of like a handshake,” Doug says.
A family is a place made of people who either own you or let you go. A place made of blood and breath, of fierce neglect or smothering love. A place of dreamers, borrowers, failures, legends. Of those who are hungry and those who are content. A place of the barefoot or the impeccable, the lost or the homebound, the wise or the ignorant, the selfish or the altruistic. Of those who would sacrifice for you and those who would not, of those who drop off casseroles and those who hold you in their arms.
A family is a place of infinite stories, once you start listening.
The storm grows throughout the night. Gusts of wind slap and pummel the side of the house with open palms and a horde of fists. It moans around the edges of the front door. The arms of my chair tremble with each blast.
I push the tip of my pen across a piece of paper, try to quiet the storm of voices inside my head. The world is sealed outside, my thoughts sealed within. An ant climbs onto the paper where I’ve written these last few words, bumps into the ink marks, recoils, bumps into them again, recoils again, and gives a wide berth thereafter to ink. I empathize with the ant. None of my words are the right ones. The damp animal scent of fear chases them into the darkness beyond the candle on my desk.
The power is out. The candle is a miniature sun. It creates light the same way the sun creates light, by consuming itself. But a candle burns faster, has a much shorter lifespan. It flickers in the drafts flowing through the house like ghosts.
The rain picks up its tempo and sounds like hundreds of nails thrown against the window behind me. Squalls beat against the glass as if the storm has gone mad. An image forces itself into my imagination – an image of the furious wind taking the house in its hands and shaking it.
I write until the candle gutters and I have just enough of its light to find my bed. I cannot sleep. Words swirl and dive and surface and sink. My useless eyes stare into the dark. My heart beats as if it is marching to its doom. The house shakes and shakes and shakes. Finally, bone-weary sleep overtakes me.
I dream a night-full of quicksilver dreams, of wild-haired crones, potent seers and wisdom that fades with dawn. The absence of wind awakens me. Emerging from the cocoon of sleep, I go outside.
Long fingers of light spread behind the mountains, the palm of the sun still hidden. The few stars left burn out. All that distant, distant past up there – before humans, before dinosaurs, before one-celled lumps of life began wriggling in the sea.
Clouds with gray weighted bottoms float behind the wake of the storm. Their fluffy tops begin to glow. Rooted to one spot like a sunflower, my head turns toward where the sun will rise. And I wait.
When I least expect it, Beauty fells me with a roundhouse right, pummels me with soft fists, dazzles me with her quick feet. Sometimes it’s a glancing blow to the chin; sometimes she doubles me up by a quick swing to the solar plexus. Right, left, right, left – she’s danced me round and round the ring until I’ve lost my breath. She’s left me in my corner, dazed and gasping. She’s held me in a clinch, face to face, with nothing more to say. To some Beauty is just another heavyweight contender, but in bouts with me she’s always the champ, always the champ.
“Today we track lion on foot,” Syd says. It’s our final test, the one that lets us know whether we’ll graduate or not from our game-ranger course.
Our small band climbs from the Rover and starts surveying the ground. There are lion tracks here, all right.
“Which way?” Syd asks. We point variously in the same general direction. “Okay, ready?”
We scuff our feet and look around. Syd hefts the rifle from its rack on the dash and our eyes follow his motions as he loads it. That clenched spot in my chest relaxes a little.
Syd and Bernardo usher our silent group away from the road and into the bush as we follow the tracks. Bernardo takes up the rear.
“I am here to stop you from running,” he says with a small smile. Eight people marching in a line and stepping on each other’s heels are not easily identifiable as prey to a lion. But any single one of us dashing way from the group would trigger a hunting response: “Look! Breakfast! And it’s fat and slow!”
We step literally in the lions’ tracks. They are about three-fourths the length of my boots. They are so fresh we can see where the claws have sunk into the sand and made deep slash marks at the front of their pads.
Slowly we make our way through mixed scrub and across pockets of dry, withered grass, stopping frequently to listen for the calls of francolins and baboons, the early-warning radar for lions.
Syd picks up a handful of sand and lets it fall through his fingers, testing. A fluttering wind blows from the right direction, into our faces. If warned by our smell, the lions might decide to swing around behind and follow us. Bernardo keeps glancing backwards, as do I, the last one but for him in our column. Even though it’s fall and many of the scrub thorns have lost their leaves, we can’t see very far ahead. Syd and Bernardo occasionally confer back and forth in low voices, speaking in Shangaan. We probably don’t really need to know what they are saying.
Just past several gullies gouged into the sand by rain, the tracks disappear into a thicket. Syd stops and listens intently, then sweeps his arm to the right. We bypass the thicket, perfect for ambush, and see if lions have emerged on the other side.
In the open, grassy area beyond, our line bumps to a halt. “See them?” Syd asks.
As if on cue, two heads pop up.
Luckily, even though my heart leaps, my legs do not.
The lionesses are under trees on the far side of the field. They are lying down, but our invasion has made them curious. They stare at us, open-mouthed, little question marks nearly visible above their heads. The whir of a camera reminds me that mine is dangling around my neck. Through its telephoto the lions look less dangerous, more relaxed, squinting at us.
Then, off to the right, another lion roars and Syd’s eyes widen in surprise. A low “Tsssssss,” escapes between his teeth. There are more lions here than we have seen tracks for. Everyone’s head, including those of the lionesses, swivel in the direction of the roar.
Almost simultaneously a white bakkie, a mini-pickup, bounces into view near the lionesses and stops there. The woman driver surveys the two lions with binoculars and writes something in a notebook. Bored with it all, they lie back down.
Momentarily distracted from the fact that there are lions to the left and lions to the right, we ask Syd, “Who’s that?” Against all training, we have condensed into a tight ball behind him. Even Bernardo has moved up.
Syd still stares in the direction of the roar. “The ecologist,” he says, “she works in the reserve.”
The bakkie leaves the lions and rattles over the rough ground to where we are.
“Morning,” the ecologist nods to each one of us in slow motion. I wonder to myself if the lion that roared is moving in our direction.
She looks at Syd. “There’s a male about a quarter mile up the road. Be careful where you walk.”
“Is it?” he says, “thanks.” Their exchange is so matter-of-fact that it sounds as if they’re discussing potholes.
“Right then,” she says and the bakkie joggles off. Not even an offer of a lift.
Bernardo and Syd have a short conversation in Shangaan. Then Syd says, “We go back the same as we came. Bernardo goes to get the Rover.”
Bernardo leads and Syd provides the rearguard. As soon as we move, the lionesses’ heads pop up again and follow our exit. We move as one, marching in step, our spines expectant of fang and claw. Once we’re out of view behind clusters of brush, Bernardo trots off, and I am now in the lead, careful to back track our own footprints.
Soon we’re in the Rover headed again to the clearing. The male has not roared again. One of the lionesses opens her eye as we drive up, then shuts it again and flattens her ears. We are an annoyance to her afternoon nap but nothing to get excited about; not like whatever that strange beast was that just left.
Syd tells us that these sisters are the only survivors of a pride that once ruled this territory. Another pride recently moved in and killed their relatives. That was the reason they did not answer the male lion. We were lucky one more time: if they had answered, he would have come running.
One of the sisters has recently been in a fight. She has a wound on her shoulder and has not eaten while healing. Her ribs are showing.
“They do not bring food to each other,” Syd says. “She has to be well enough to hunt.”
We watch the sisters as they nap. We have evolved from being possible prey to compassionate observers, all because we’re sitting in our trusty Rover.
“Will they make it?” one of us asks.
“Do you feel sorry for them?” someone else adds.
“Yes,” Sid says, “yes. But that is just my feeling. If they move to another territory, they will be okay.”
The lionesses nap side-by-side. Without opening her eyes the healthy one raises a front leg and drapes it over her sister’s neck.
Driving back to camp at dusk, we find a male lion awakening from an afternoon nap. According to Syd this lion is very young, trying to move into a new territory, and challenge the two males who recently took over. He has a black punkish stripe in his still-growing mane and no scratches on his nose. He’s not far from where we found the sisters and might be the lion who roared. He blinks at us sleepily, then looks off into the distance, his yellow eyes still not completely open.
As it gets darker we find the eyes of bushbabies reflecting our spotlight like bright Christmas ornaments in the trees. They are distant cousins of ours, using their quick hands and enormous eyes to forage for fruit, insects and bird eggs at night. Long shaggy tails provide balance as they leap from branch to branch, dodging the quick flicks of light we direct at them. We catch glimpses without blinding them.
Syd stops the Rover by a bush. “See him?” Our heads swivel in all directions. I don’t see anything but bush.
Illuminated by the headlamps on the Rover, Syd climbs out and walks over to a round-leafed teak. He reaches up and suddenly a Flap-necked chameleon comes into focus right by his hand. It is a perfect mimic of the leaves on the teak.
We shake our heads and smile at each other.
Back at camp we’re presented with our certificates of completion for our short three-day course.
“Don’t worry about your job, Syd,” we tell him, “none of us will ever be as good as you are.”
He smiles quickly behind his hand, then kicks at the wood in the fire. “Did I tell you about the leopard that jumped into the Rover last year……….”
The morning air is as smooth and cold as marble. The last birds of the night are the first birds of the morning. They gab and jabber as if they had just newly discovered daylight. Six would-be-trackers and two rangers circle the fire, sticking our toes close to its embers.
I dunk my rusk into a cup of rooibus, red bush tea. Rusks are dry biscuits, resembling biscotti. Softened bits crumble and sink to the bottom of my tin cup. My last gulp of tea is mush.
After breakfast we walk out to the dirt road that leads away from camp and immediately find elephant prints where one sauntered down the road last night. It’s not surprising we didn’t hear him. The thick pads on elephants’ feet support their massive weight and distribute their tonnage. An elephant is a remarkably quiet animal for one so large.
Elephant tracks are easy to recognize – no other animal has a print like the impression of a large pizza-pan. Since their front feet are oval and back feet round, it’s easy to tell in which direction this one went. But when we find him, the bull is immediately agitated, even though we’re upwind.
“He hears us,” Syd says, “but he doesn’t know what we are.”
The bull’s trunk periscopes as he samples the air, trying to smell us. Then he sends a bluff our way, charging several feet, ears extended, a short blat indicating his displeasure. He’s a good hundred yards from us, but we take the hint and back away. An elephant could cover that distance in no time at all. After all, we’re here to study tracks, not get flattened.
The road is full of elephant overlapped elephant tracks. One track has a swipe through it where the elephant dragged his trunk. An impala’s tracks step across the road to the left, the prints of a Kori bustard head right.
Syd stops further on and sits on his heels near the side of the sandy road. “What are these?” he points at some small prints.
“Genet,” someone guesses, since the tracks are small and clawed, and the genet, a spotted cat with an elongated body, is nocturnal.
“Porcupine,” I announce, pointing at the long marks alongside the tracks where quills scored the sand.
Syd stands up and grins at me. “Very good,” he says, and I feel like I’ve momentarily gone to the head of the class.
“Then what are these?” He points to a set of padded prints left smack in the middle of the road, deeply imprinted into the floury sand.
“Too big for hyena,” one of my fellow trainees says, and we all look at each other, thinking as one: lion.
We reluctantly follow Syd as he walks and points out the direction the lion is headed. Same way we are. It’s a quiet class – we’ve all heard the recent stories about the lions of Kruger, the ones right next door, neighbors with no fence between us.
Illegal immigrants from Mozambique try to enter South Africa through Kruger. Lions have learned to hunt them. Several days earlier I had talked to a park ranger at Kruger and he cautioned that twenty “or so” evidence sites had been found. “But that’s just when there’s something left,” he said. “I’ve been stalked. Now I always carry a rifle.”
I swallow hard as we follow the tracks on the road, glad that Syd is also carrying a rifle. “How long ago?” I ask, meaning how long ago did the lion pass.
Syd smiles. “Yesterday.” He shows us where the tracks have degenerated, crumbles of sand filling the depression. “You can’t see the claw marks.” Maybe after a couple of years of following lion paw prints I’d be able to spot that. Or maybe my heart will always leap into my throat when I first see one.
Back at camp, Bernardo has heard that I have pictures of snow. He pores over them, trying to understand how the world could turn so white. I attempt to explain, using my hands as the sun and earth, tilting the earth first one way, then the other, moving it closer and further away from the sun. Bernardo is doubtful; his head has a permanent sideways tilt during my explanations.
Just before dark Syd gives a short class in how to hold and shoot the 45-caliber rifle that is our safety net in case one of us does something really stupid. We pay very close attention.
“How often have you had to use it?” I ask.
“In the last five years, maybe twice.” Ever the instructor, he uses the opportunity to ask, “Which way do you shoot?” We point to the ground, exactly where a warning shot should go. I am surprised we all have so much familiarity with guns.
“Good,” Syd says, “a bullet that goes up . . .” He leaves the sentence dangling, then adds, “It is too much paperwork to kill something.”
In a game reserve such as this one, careful monitoring is done of every nonhuman resident, since each animal is a huge investment. Most reserves are privately run, sometimes by huge corporations. The ability to advertise “Come see the Big Five! Lion! Elephant! Leopard! Buffalo! Rhino!” is an incomparable tourist draw. But wild animals do not behave quite like pets. When you swap lions with another reserve so that they do not inbreed, there’s no guarantee that those lions might not wander back, or off into Kruger, since there is no fence between the park and surrounding reserves.
As the light fades we sit near the fire and trade our full names: Bernardo Mkansi, Sydonea Hlatshwayo, Cheryl Merrill. Syd writes his name down on a piece of paper and shows it to me. “Can you say it?”
“Sure: Huh-lasch-WHY-o.” Syd and Bernardo gape. “Yes! How can you know?”
“I guessed, sort of like Bulawayo, that town in Zimbabwe.”
They both pronounce my name and make it sound like butterflies, each letter bouncy and full. “That’s it! Now teach me how to say it that way,” and they laugh, covering their mouths like schoolchildren. I practice saying my name several times, but I never quite get the hang of it.
The last thing I expected for Game Ranger Training was driver’s training, but right now I’m learning how to parallel park next to a bull elephant.
“A little right,” says Syd, and we flatten yet another bush with a loud crunch. Our noise doesn’t seem to bother the elephant. He’s placidly stripping the bark from a small acacia while I wrestle the wheel.
“Okay,” Syd says, “shut off the motor, but leave it in first gear.” As soon as I do, cameras click and whir as five other trainees happily snap pictures. My fingers tremble on the keys and my left foot goes numb on the clutch while I watch the elephant’s mood. He’s no more than ten feet away, browsing out of a patch of sunlight and into shady thornbush. The cameras cease clicking.
“Move over there,” Syd points to the other side of the elephant. “Light’s better.
Good positioning for photo ops is probably an important skill to acquire to guide tourists through the wilds of Africa. But getting to where Syd points will not be easy. There’s a log to crawl over and a hole to avoid that’s big enough to swallow a rhino. But the real trick to driving a 12-passenger Land Rover is not to bounce anyone out of the last tier of seats. It’s a good five feet off the ground. Already I’ve navigated a 30-degree slope out of a sandy riverbed without losing anyone over the side, even though the backend of the vehicle fishtailed as if on ice and all I saw was the sky until all four wheels were on level ground again. I figure if I get close to the elephant again, I’ll pass this informal driver’s test for sure.
Down, up, squeezed between two large tree trunks, the Rover crunches dry branches under its tires, making more noise than the bull, who’s busy dismantling a large rainbush. Without any directions from Syd I park at an angle that gives everyone a clear shot. I turn off the motor. Engine vibrations cause blurry photographs.
“Oooo, good light,” someone says and the cameras resume their consumption of film.
Syd smiles at me. I’ve passed. He hands over my camera. “A very calm elephant. You can take pictures, too.”
As I focus the bull begins to look a lot like the elephant who hangs around our camp, the one with the chipped left tusk. Like all good teachers, Syd’s built in a little insurance to make the hard stuff easier. We’re here on a crash course with only three days to earn our training certificates. Safari guides study for months and years, both in and out of the field, so we won’t qualify for a change of careers. We only want to learn skills that might come in handy for the next leg of our trip – overland camping thorough Botswana.
Syd’s initial surprise at our wrinkled faces and gray hair was evident when he met us at the Skukuza airport. The surprise quickly turned to puzzlement as we dropped our duffels in the dust.
“Where is your luggage?”
“This is it,” I replied. “We’ve all been to Africa before.” I point to two women in our group. “They’ve been here thirteen times.”
“Is it?” Syd whistled through his teeth, the South African equivalent of really?
The camp Syd works for is located in a private conservation area on the southwest edge of Kruger National Park. It’s between the fork of two rivers, the Sabi Sabi (meaning “Danger! Danger!”) and the Sand River, now a dry and treacherous streambed filled with boulders – the site of my diver’s test.
The bush we drive through was once the home of the Shangaan, whose land was sold to a private concession. Syd takes us to the place where his father had a rondavel and kept cattle. Flattened areas mark the spots an entire village once occupied.
“My father received no payment from the former government,” Syd tells us. However, the new South Africa is talking reparations and Syd is proud of this. “Our government is trying. It is all we can ask.”
Although two luxury bush lodges are close by, we’re definitely roughing it. We pump our own water, take bucket showers and eat meals around a campfire. We live in tents set up on platforms above a concrete pad. In the warm season the elevation keeps snakes and smaller creatures from crawling into sleeping bags, but now, at the height of winter, nothing but cold air creeps under our cots.
Last night I wore my gloves, stocking hat, long underwear, sweatshirt, socks, sweater – nearly everything in my duffel and still woke up shivering.
This morning I burst out of my sleeping bag’s cocoon, jam my feet into boots, then simultaneously dance into my pants and pull on my coat. I scamper to the fire and shove my boot tips into the coals.
A blackened coffeepot simmers inches away.
“It snows where I live,” I say to Syd, “and it’s not this cold.”
“I don’t believe you,” he laughs.
“I’ll show you.” I jog back to my tent and fetch a small album I brought, photos of my house, of family and friends.
Syd stares at the picture of my car, a white lump, identifiable only by its black side mirrors sticking out like ears. He stares at the picture of our road – blanketed fir trees bracket a single set of tire tracks. He points to a fir.
“Christmas,” he says, “your Christmas.” He has never seen these dark conical trees with needles. “They are still green.”
I tell him that I was warmer then than I am now.
“No, no,” he laughs and points to the picture of our house; his finger traces the furrow my legs made through the snow. “No, this is colder.”
I stamp my feet to waken my toes.
A few minutes later Syd takes us out on foot to read spoor and learn the botanical lay of this land. In the soft early morning light the trill of a coucal follows us, sounding like water dripped into an empty metal bucket. Doo-doo-doo-doo. . . doo . . .doo. . . do.
The coucal’s rust-and-black feathers provide perfect camouflage in the dry winter bush. We peer into the scrub, but do not see him.
Most of the rattles and flutters we hear as we walk are birds, but each one makes us scan the bush nervously. We’re on foot with lions, leopards, snakes, and elephants all around, and absolutely dependent on the knowledge of just one man.
Syd shows us how to sort out the difference between the tootsie-roll droppings of wildebeest and giraffe – a wildebeest stands in one spot, thus a pile, while a giraffe walks, spreading droppings along its path. In contrast, hyenas eat enough bone that their scat looks like chalk. Syd picks up a piece and it crumbles in his hand. We step over the dung of an elephant, easily identified by quantity – a five-gallon bucket of compost dumped into a pile.
Just in case we might need it, Syd also shows us weeping wattle, which can be used for toilet paper or bed stuffing – its leaf clusters soft as any paper product on the market.
As we walk we sample the sweet, fibrous inner lining of acacia bark, a favorite of elephants. We taste a creeping vine called elephant pudding; its succulent leaves have the flavor of salty green beans. Syd gives us a single leaf from a Magic Guarri to chew, but I quickly find out there’s nothing magic about it. Guarri has so much tannin that it tastes like a never-cleaned copper teapot. Even elephants won’t eat it, and elephants eat almost anything. Syd doesn’t tell us that until after we spit out the bitter leaves.
Our hike takes us past a Marula tree, which bleeds a sap red as blood. Dye is made from its bark and sweet liquor from the fruit. The fruit has four times the Vitamin C of an orange. Just next to the Marula is a potato bush, which exudes the scent of fried potatoes, but only at dusk as its sap rises.
Later on, in the evening, Syd proves himself as good a cook as he is a teacher. Tomatoes fry in one cast iron pan, while a chicken stew simmers in the other. He deftly drops dumplings into the stew, covers it, and pulls it to one side of the fire. He passes out tin bowls and spoons. We scoop and set speed records for consumption, wash our bowls with sand and rinse in a tiny amount of water.
Night falls fast in Africa. In the gloom deepening into blackness we climb aboard the Rover and wrap ourselves in felt-lined blankets. The temperature is quickly dropping, just like in high deserts: shirtsleeves at noon, long underwear right after sundown.
Syd drives us to one of the nearby luxury lodges where we pick up Bernardo, a tracker. He is young, with a wide, brilliant grin and an obvious deference to Syd. We have the feeling he is in training also, and Syd confirms this. “I was once a tracker like Bernardo.”
Bernardo wants to know the results of our driving test.
“Who is the best?” He asks Syd.
Syd points to me.
“Is it?” Bernardo glances doubtfully at the only male in our group. I smirk and reply, “He drives too fast.”
How either of them will find anything in the gray twilight is a mystery to me, but Bernardo settles onto a canvas seat perched on the front of the left fender. Although it’s a little like riding a mechanical bull, from there he’s able to see any tracks in the sandy ruts before we drive over them. In ten minutes we are on the trail of a rhino.
Syd and Bernardo are excited. They leave us in the vehicle and walk ahead, trying to read the rhino’s intention. Bernardo waggles a finger at us when they return.
“You are very lucky,” he says, his smile a sunbeam through the gloom, “not many rhinos here.”
Ten minutes more and we find him, right beside the road. It’s doubly lucky that he’s a male; females with calves will charge anything that moves. The rhino ignores us. He’s found some fresh green grass, an unusual treat in the dry winter season, and he’s busy cutting a large swath through it, snorting as he eats.
Fhufff. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp. Fhuffff. Chomp. Chomp. He sounds like the world’s largest steam-driven lawnmower.
We sit in silence, watching a prehistoric creature. I half-expect a dinosaur to emerge from the surrounding bush and join in the grazing. Mist rises from the wet grass and obscures the black outline of trees against a sky that is now dark violet. The rhino moves off, disappearing into a smudge of brush. But we can still hear his progress: Fhufff. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.
On our way back to camp I catch a glimpse of movement in the tall grass. “Leopard!” I whisper and tap Syd on the shoulder. Bernardo turns in his fender chair and quickly spots him too, motioning with an arm. Syd drives in a wide circle, cutting across a clump of brush. Even though we’re making more noise than the rhino did, the leopard is intent on something far more interesting: the nearby snorts of jittery impala.
He crosses the road behind us, then changes his mind and walks down the middle of it, in our wake. We stop and Syd shuts off the engine. The leopard lopes by on the right, too fast for my camera’s shutter speed. He passes under Bernardo’s feet.
Bernardo is frozen. He doesn’t even look down. By remaining motionless, he becomes part of the vehicle and the leopard ignores him.
When the leopard is twenty feet away Bernardo exhales, relaxes. He turns to us with his sunburst grin. “Oooooh you are lucky! A rhino and a leopard!” He shakes his head from side to side. “You are very lucky!”