I rock back and forth, toe to heel, toward the fire and away from it. My boots touch coals while stars crowd close around, peering over my shoulder, whispering ancient stories in my ears. Only moments earlier giraffes reflected the setting sun, but now their silhouettes fade, blur and disappear. Soon, out there beyond this fire, hyenas will make short work of bones.
In the darkness elephants are on the move, and almost without sound, except for the occasional rifle shot of a cracked branch. I wish I could hear condensed air – infrasound – soft rumbling kisses brushing my cheek. The compacted silence is completely full of presence, of huge milling bodies on padded feet. A herd of mountains relocates during the night while my thoughts swirl, embers stirred by wind.
Suddenly to my right, trumpeting, perhaps furious at being left behind, an elephant thunders by, an outraged trombone blowing past. I lift my head to follow the sound, but it’s my ears, not my eyes that see.
In the morning, no more than a half-mile from camp, we encounter a herd of sixty elephants. Nervous mothers guide their newborns away with their trunks, shield them from us with their bodies. Young punk males show off for each other, make small charges to see if our vehicle will bolt. Huge bulls, intent on mating, barge past like runaway cement trucks.
We sit in the middle of a herd. Two males give us a rear view of old men in baggy pants. A jumbo-jet sized matriarch leisurely crosses right past our front bumper. Her ears are perfect replicas of the map of Africa. Like fingerprints, no two elephant ears are the same. As pliable and soft as worn canvas, their leading edge is often caught and torn on branches and scrub. Hers has a neat, perfectly round hole near the bottom of Africa, right about where we are in Zimbabwe.
A young female strolls by, scans us as if we’re department store mannequins. She’s so close all I can do is snap a picture of her eye. She stops, blinks, and regards us with the air of a disinterested shopper. I look down at her feet, round in front, oval behind. The round one is about the size of a medium pizza pan. I glance back up, directly into her eyes. She stares back and shakes her head so hard that her ears flap. A great cloud of dust rises from them. Then she moves on.
As I walk to my tent at the edge of camp, my vision is elemental, full of shapes without fine details. Shifting slabs of moon-glow keep rearranging trees as if they are pieces on a giant pearled chessboard, their trunks whitewashed the color of ash.
I enter my tent, zip it shut, and switch on the lamp. The electricity comes from batteries charged by solar panels on the other side of camp, carried by a line buried several inches below the sand. Not long after, I turn off the light and crawl into bed.
I roll on my back and blindly stare at the black canvas ceiling of my tent, looking back at the bright moments of the day. But then an unexpected memory darkens the darkness.
In 1996, on my first trip to Africa, I was in a carload of tourists rounding a corner on a sandy road in an area of Zimbabwe where elephants were recently massacred for their tusks. We rounded the corner and stopped – face-to-face with a huge matriarch.
Richly repulsive, an unnatural, confined scent rose from us – odors of food on our clothes and in our hair; flowers washed in alcohol dabbed behind our ears; dead skins around our waists and on our feet; grease, oil and exhaust from our vehicle.
With her trunk shaped into a “J,” the elephant sampled the waves of scent emanating from us, and then tossed our smell away with an emphatic flick. Unnerved by our overpowering human stench, a miasma with a deadly history, she turned and fled, while the half-shadow of dust that marked her exit collapsed to the ground.
The air around me tightens. Canvas walls crowd in, closer, and then closer.
What if our days were measured in scents rather than minutes? What if we could tell the difference between a friend and a murderer with just one sniff?
When I was a teenager, I spent summers reading the National Geographics stored in my grandmother’s attic. I disappeared from those dull, never-ending days into a world full of gorillas and man-eating lions, of exotic peoples dressed only in feathers, of crocodiles and snakes and fish that could eat me. From old black-and-white photographs I conjured a fantastical place that mixed the jungles and deserts and continents of the world and labeled it Africa!
In 1996, fresh off a 747, I smelled the air of southern Africa for the first time: soft and warm as clean sheets drying in the sun, mixed with a whiff of smoke and sweet mulch, the mineral scent of sand, hot fur and the dry and dusty trees. I was absolutely convinced I had breathed this scent before, as if my body remembered Africa as the birthplace of my species.
This is the first photo I took of wildlife in Africa: a bushbuck in the small park that surrounds Victoria Falls, on the Zimbabwe side. And in the five trips I’ve taken since then, I’ve never seen another bushbuck. That’s Africa: never the same day twice.
How many are left? With no real protection, with rampant corruption, with a continuous conduit to China, I wonder how many in this scrum are still alive. The thing I love most about this photograph are skin textures: wrinkles and rubs and stains contrasting with the smooth skin on their ears.
Here is my favorite photograph of a male lion, taken in the Khwai area of Botswana. I think he was hoping, as he hid behind an eroded termite mound, that we couldn’t see him. Of the five subspecies left in the wild, this male is a member of the Southwest African lion, (Panthera leo bleyenbergi), the same species as Cecil, the Zimbabwean lion whose death as created an international uproar. This subspecies, also known as the Katanga lion, is the largest of all lion types and can be found in Namibia, Angola, Zaire, and Zambia, as well as Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Plus a small pebble on top of her head. She’s at a mineral lick in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, home to the Presidential Elephants. There are eight elephants in this picture; they fill the entire background. What looks like a small bite is gone from her ear. Elephants often have ragged edges on their ears, torn by branches and thorns.
The Presidential Elephants of Zimbabwe. A lot going on in this photograph.
A youngster, showing development of tusks, which begin to show beyond the lip when an elephant is three – five years old. Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.
A continuing series of photographs about elephants. This is my first photograph of an elephant, taken with an old Minolta, Kodak 400 film. The old film and my inexperience make this look like as if it’s an oil painting hundreds of years old. Zimbabwe, 1996, in that gorgeous evening light, a bull elephant.