Up until around 1998 desert dwelling elephants only sporadically visited the Ugab river from the north, likely following ancient migrating routes. When we did find tracks it was mostly of a big bull in his prime, he got the name Voortrekker, meaning pioneer. The Matriarchal herds however, had still not followed.
Around 1998/99 I was guiding a group from the British group Raleigh International on a two week walk down the Ugab to the coast. They were rough expeditions in those days, no tents, a couple of large pots to cook horrible stodgy pasta in, and otherwise surviving on a seemingly endless stream of cream cracker rations, divided down to the last quarter to stave off starvation.
Camping wild in the open far down the winding canyons, the last thing we expected was to bump into elephants.
Under a large Anna tree, one evening round the fire, a breathless group leader, Jade, came running into camp with her shorts halfway up her knees. With eyes like saucers she shouted in a hushed whisper. “I was having a pee behind the bush an something large fell behind me! Like a dup, dup, dup, and then a rush of water! “
Jade was sharing her evening ablutions with an elephant.
Not good. Pitch black night. In the open. Nowhere to run. A campfire under one large tree. 15 kids and me. God knows how many elephants.
Silently I got them huddled around the base of the tree and stoked the fire in front of them. The sounds where all round, soft rumbles, branches snapping. Unmistakably from of a herd of elephants moving and feeding around us in the dark. And we are crapping ourselves.
As it is in theory my job, I place myself between the closest sounds and the group, brandishing the two lids of our large pots. Ready to be the cymbal player to my own death-march.
To hear an elephant at night is kind of reassuring. You know they are going about their business. When it goes suddenly quite it’s time to panic. That eternal silence when every sense strains to find clues, and my death cymbals tremble out of control in stable hands.
The cow charged in complete silence. Low, trunk tucked in under her chest. The charge you only want to read about. Everything slows down to the pace of those ancient black and white movies, frame by frame.
Frame one, five meters. Que cymbal. Frame two, four meters. Que cymbal accompanied by loud screams. Frames three and four, large object somewhere in obscuring dust. Cymbals and scream reach a crescendo. Somehow the brain decides that it’s a good thing that I cannot see her anymore, and makes some time to reflect on it. And somewhere in that obscuring cloud she managed to pirouette herself back into the darkness. A very, very long three seconds all of that took from start to finish.
The second charge was not that quiet. Somewhere in the background the brain was running a comparison to come up with an accurate description of the sound she was making. How it decided on a walrus having its throat slit with a blunt hacksaw, I have no idea. But that’s what she sounded like. Accompanied by cymbals of course. And the mandatory screaming, that was by my own admittance becoming quite profound.
The pirouette this time however, was accompanied by a dramatic upsweep of the trunk. Or that’s how the brain translated the sudden rush of air past my head. But the brain had time to smile as it realised she is impairing her own accuracy with all the dust created by these dramatic stops and pirouettes.
As I bore quickly, all I can say about charge three and four is: Same old same old. The badly animated black and white movie with glimpses of something large coming and going in a cloud of dust. The suffering walrus accompanied by the cacophony of my cymbals and voiced terms of endearments.
And then, as I was thinking we were starting to get the hang of this pantomime, without making any excuses, she left. In a hurry. In her wake followed the silent grey ghosts that formed the rest of our audience for that evening’s performance. Leaving me with a vague feeling that I somehow missed my calling in life.
Thankfully before I could make any compulsive career changing decisions, i looked down to investigate the warm sticky feeling between my toes. Seeing the blood from my shredded knuckles drip, dripping on my bare feet a meter away from the marks of her last stop, I realised. No, I might be too aggressive to play the cymbals. And my performance clearly did not appeal to such a sensitive audience.
And that, my friends, is how I met the first desert elephants to move into the Ugab River Valley. Mama Afrika’s herd, and the murderous pirouetting cow called Medusa.