By Wendy Inouye
When you are tramping around on foot in the middle of the African bush, you are offputtingly far from the protection of the police, your embassy, and even Robert Mugabe. Best, then, not to piss off the wildlife. And if you do, try not to do it twice in one day.
It is two hours from sunset in the middle of the African bush, and I am about to die in an angry charge by a pissed-off elephant for the second time today.
Next to me, Susanna is pleading desperately with the guide under her breath. “Dean, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die, Dean,” she repeats like a mantra, gripping his arm, which is holding steady his raised rifle. The exact same thoughts are racing through my mind with debilitating clarity, but happily for everybody I am too terrified to breathe, let alone attempt to speak. For some reason, my internal programming has convinced me I should crouch down as small as possible, and I have adopted the low frog-like position of a heap-good Comanche tracker in a bad spaghetti western. For now, I am almost completely eclipsed from the elephant’s view by Judy (though quite how this helps, I am not sure), but she too appears to possess the shrinking instinct and I am losing my human shield fast. Behind me, Jenny is sitting bolt-upright, frozen, breathing shallowly. Her daughter, Megan, is perched beside her, transfixed.
The elephant pushes forward toward us, menacingly, ears stretched ominously out. Its sheer bulk is overwhelming. Dean’s finger hovers over the trigger of his rifle, gaze set, unblinking. Susanna’s pleas become more fervent. I am choking for breath, fighting every ounce of my screaming gut impulse to run, to get the fuck out of here. We are about to die. We are about to fucking die.
Lesson number one in the proverbial bushwalking manual is that if you find yourself faced off against a wild animal, the most important thing is not to run, because if you run, it will charge you. Instead, you hold your ground and do not move, and wait until your opponent is calm before you back off slowly. It will seem counterintuitive, you are warned. But counterintuitive doesn’t even begin to cut it. Holding my ground is instinctively the last thing on my current list of priorities, and I want to sprint away from here as fast as I possibly can and get as far as possible from this spot, from the herd of elephants who are now sizing us up. But retreating is not an option. If we do, the elephant and her herd could charge, and if the elephants charge, we will die.
And, I hasten to add, people have died while out in the bush, even with a guide. In fact, Dean has recounted several instances of this with us, a fact I now attribute to extreme sadism. Once in Hwange, in Western Zimbabwe, a musking male elephant caught sight of a young family and their guide spying on him nearby, and, for no apparent reason, he turned and charged them. And he was terrifyingly relentless. He killed the mother and daughter in sequence, and maimed the guide. But it didn’t end there: the affronted bull continued to hunt down the father, who ran like hell after seeing his family scythed down. The father escaped, but barely. He will probably wake up screaming from horrific nightmares for the rest of his life.
This face-off is so ironic it would be funny if it weren’t terrifying. When I first came out to Zimbabwe to start my epidemiology fellowship, I had had no intention of going on safaris, an activity I had firmly associated with pink middle-aged hurrahs clad in khaki and stupid-looking hats, squatting awkwardly and peering through binoculars, bellowing “oh, bully!” every time they spot an antelope. I wasn’t like that. I would do wholesome, community things, like do builds with Habitat for Humanity, or play street soccer with underprivileged blind township kids or whatever. I would get to know, like, real Zimbabweans.
My coolness took a hit, however, when, two weeks into my residence in Harare, I faced an upcoming four-day weekend, and realized I had eff-all to do with it. A half-day self-led walking tour around downtown Harare had definitively informed me that city strolls were not advisable as a leisure activity, particularly if you were (a) a lone woman, (b) clearly not African, and (c) (and I quote) “have a boo-tee like a mama.” There would be no karma-earning Habitat activities, as Habitat had long pulled out of Zimbabwe for reasons doubtless related to the country’s general dodginess. And, most annoyingly, I did not actually know any real Zimbabweans. I’d met the people I worked with; but it wasn’t as if they were on the verge of inviting me to share sadza at their rural homes. I made the sad mental note to make friends soon.
My flatmate, Susanna, and I desperately researched getaway options. The problem is that Zimbabwe isn’t like Bangkok or Mexico City, or even Dar, where one can simply hop a bus somewhere nice for the weekend. With a hilariously inept bus system and even more comic road conditions, getting from point A to point B is a chore; and if point B isn’t along one of the main roads (which, by definition, none of those remote paradises are), it is pretty damn near impossible.
We were unexpectedly cast a lifeline when Ruth, our boss, casually invited us to come along with her and her husband to a camp she knew in Matusadona National Park. We initially hesitated, as going off into the wilderness with one’s boss in generally questionable, but the combination of Ruth’s easy friendliness and our strong aversion to Harare convinced us that this was not an opportunity to forgo. Anti-safari principles be damned.
I am not too much of a snob to admit that this is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. Our isolation from the rest of the world is astounding. It is at least two-and-a-half hours by speedboat to the nearest town, Kariba, although there are smaller settlements vaguely visible on the Zambian side. During the day elephants and big freaky birds gather along the side of the lake, and at night there are about a billion stars spread out across the sky. Last night I lay staring up at the thatch roof of our hut listening to the crickets, cicadas and African bush dwellers I couldn’t even guess at chirp, rattles, squawk and trill. The evening we arrived I saw three African elephants, up close and personal, and many more bathing along the shores during the boat ride into camp. I listened to the hippos snortling from the water, their noses and funny ears peeking out, and a monkey howling a warning of a nearby predator. I watched the sky explode into intense color as the big round sun set behind the mountains, backlighting the skeletons of petrified trees into eerie silhouettes. The closest word I can think of to describe it is “atmosphere”. It is over-awing.
The isolation also means that you are, essentially, in the wild, and the societal protections afforded by the civilization of streets, government offices and legal systems are null and void. You are on your own. If it comes to You vs. Big African Animal, the Big African Animal will probably win.
That became shockingly clear this morning, when I first came to terms how comprehensively screwed you potentially are if something goes wrong in the bush. Quite how I’ve found myself in the same situation again causes me to seriously question my survival instincts.
We had taken off at around six in the morning – an hour that anywhere but the bush I would consider ridiculous, if not criminal – to make an attempt at tracking some of the lions rumored to currently be in the area. (At the time this seemed like a great idea, but in retrospect I shudder a little.) We traversed the bush on foot, careful to note the large four-toed paw indentations evidencing the lions’ recent presence. There is something almost creepy about knowing that you are standing where just a few hours ago a dangerous predator prowled. Occasionally, Dean would point out interesting nature things, like the edible tic-tac sized berries on one of the trees, and a big clumsy indentation where a hippo had face-planted in the mud.
Dean reminds me of the tried-and-tested Aussie guide in Jurassic Park, but how he’d be if the boss’s children hadn’t been forced into his dino-safari group. I can easily picture him glancing back at us animatedly, gun raised, announcing, “We’re being hunted!” Even though he is Zimbabwean, whenever Susanna or I do impressions of him, he comes out sounding distinctly like the Crocodile Hunter.
After nearly two hours of unsuccessful tracking, it was clear that the lions were probably long gone, and so we wandered aimlessly toward watering holes to see if we could sneak up on any wildlife. As we were cutting across a path toward a mud hole, Dean suddenly stopped, pricking his ears at the sound of distant rustling. He gave us the “shh!” sign and led us into the brush. After about 50 meters, we stopped; ahead of us was a gully, around five feet deep. As I trained my eyes to the change in light, I saw what Dean had spotted along the bottom of it. Quietly, we snuck forward to the edge of the gully.
It was magical: in front of us, a mother elephant and her calf swung their trunks gracefully, reaching at surrounding brush. On the left, across the ditch, another elephant – maybe a sister? – tugged and fed on overhanging branches. We sat, mesmerized, as these huge wild animals were living out their lives less than ten meters away from us.
It was like this, dream-like, until suddenly the calf spotted us observing him. He regarded us for a few seconds, and finally decided that he did not like what he saw. Alarmed, he scurried urgently to his mother, emitting clipped, panicked trumpets.
After that, everything happened very fast. More abruptly than I ever could have imagined, the mother wheeled around furiously, catching the calf unawares and knocking him to the ground with the sheer force of her maneuver. Her ears swung out into battle mode, and, raising her head, she gave a deafening roar that pounded through the bush. I don’t even think I can describe how terrifying the sound is – nothing, nothing, can come even close to the tremors that run through your bones and cause every single cell in your body to jump gears. No sooner than the mother had raised her trunk, the elephant on the left bolted through the brush as if shot, recklessly knocking aside branches and anything else in her path. I was certain without a doubt that we were about to be stampeded. My blood was pounding. I couldn’t breathe. Dean’s rifle was raised, his eyes fixed carefully on the approaching elephant. As the elephant began to charge forward, I tensed up, mentally preparing myself for the thunder of feet, the deafening clamor of their roars, repeats from the rifle, and horrifying squeals.
But then something strange happened.
About two meters away from the elephants, between them and us, was a two-foot-long monitor lizard, basking in the sun. The mother elephant pushed forward, ready to charge, when suddenly she spied the lizard. She must have mistakenly identifying it as the culprit, because without explanation she turned her anger onto the unfortunately creature, rushing toward it as if trying to stomp on it. The lizard bolted hurriedly from the scene, but not quickly enough to avoid some minor knocks. The baby was still squealing, lying on its side, and I projected disapproving thought vibes at it as if he were one of those professional soccer players who roll around after being breathed on in the hope of winning a penalty kick. The mother wheeled back and forth between the spot the monitor had deserted and Baby.
This, at least, is what I am told is what happened. I did not actually see any of this. Standing nearest the sister elephant on the left, all I could focus on was the thrashing of branches, and the fact that I could not tell whether she was fleeing or plunging straight toward me. Dean did not even seem aware what was going on stage left, all his focus trained to the same point as his rifle: the elephant in front of us. The spot where I was crouching put me first in line of the running elephant’s path, and I found myself repeatedly wondering whether Dean could refocus his aim fast enough and shoot should she have it in for me.
We regrouped in a small enclave a safe distance away. I was beaming and nearly jumping up and down, the unspent adrenaline spurting out in unabashed elation. Excitedly, we recounted the adventure from all of our perspectives, interrupting each other like impatient ten-year-old school children discussing a film.
“Did anyone get photos of that?” Ruth asked eagerly, and I wondered briefly where she was hiding the crack pipe. As if. As if I ever had any intention of busting out my camera for a suicidal close-up. My only thoughts at time, throbbing, had been Get. The. Hell. Out. Of. Here. Now. I grinned like an idiot, adrenaline still sparking through my veins.
After lunch and a siesta, we set out again, with a slight change in the group: Mark has decided to go fishing with the boys, and Ruth, in a true nod to post-modernism, has fired up her laptop in the middle of the bush to do some pressing work. In their places, Jenny, the camp proprietor, and her ten-year-old daughter Megan hop into the back of the jeep. After a 10-minute drive, we set off on foot into the jesse, a densely-overgrown woodland traversed with tunnels created by elephants. The effect is dreamlike. Because of the thick cover, bush animals come here to feed, semi-protected from predators, and to sleep. The atmosphere is like something out of a storybook, like we are wandering through an enchanted forest which has been magically lulled to sleep for hundreds of years. Animal bones are littered sporadically along the low-ceilinged paths. The only sounds come from the brush of our bodies against the trailing branches. It is eerie and beautiful at the same time.
Suddenly, out of nowhere comes the urgent tattoo of hoofbeats pounding in our direction. We watch a lone impala bolt past at full gait, meters away from us. The sound echoes in the jesse.
“Something gave him a real spook,” Dean observes. I run a quick inventory in my brain for possible suspects: lion, leopard, rhino, some freak bush-monster with a taste for human blood. I picture it lurking toward us, hidden by the dense brush, forgetting his lunch-date with the impala upon spying six tasty treats with good digital cameras. Nothing I’d much like to stumble onto in this dense low-visibility bush maze. What the guide said next is a more accurate summing up of his character than I could ever aspire to write.
“Come on,” he announces. “Let’s go find out what it is!”
We creep deeper into the jesse, pushing through errant branches and stepping over fallen brush. At a small clearing, Dean signals us to stop, and, listening, we can make out the familiar sound of rustling leaves in the distance: elephants.
My stomach drops when I focus my binoculars on the source of the rustling: an elephant calf and its mother. Hastily scanning the perimeter, I detect at least three more elephants in the jesse. I don’t know what is going through everyone else’s minds when they clock this too, but if it’s anything like mine, it is the theme from Jaws. My heart sinks as Dean lowers his binos and heads towards them, silently motioning for us to follow.
We stop in a small clearing about 15 yards away from two of the elephants feeding on the brush, oblivious to us. Around us, forming almost an equilateral triangle, lay fallen trees, enclosing us in a kind of 18-inch-high corral.
“Right. Go ahead and make yourselves comfy,” instructs Dean in a whisper. “This is a good place – the ellies won’t come over these fallen trees.”
If it hadn’t been for this morning’s incident, I might buy that, but the residual fear has left me uneasy with the current set-up. To say the least. I am not convinced by our one-and-a-half-foot barrier; it seems akin to that delusional childhood belief that the axe murderer can’t get you if you hide under the covers. What, they are going to halt mid-charge when they come up against an ankle-high obstacle, and turn around and go home? Those elephants can get over these logs like the axe murderer can hack right through a cotton sheet. As far as I’m concerned, the best we can hope for is that during their mad stampede, a few of the clumsier ones take a slapstick tumble over one of the logs. I open my mouth to argue, but then close it again.
“They don’t know we’re here yet,” Dean explains. “What they’re probably going to do is, in a little bit, head off down that path there.” He points out a narrow but worn path about twelve feet away from us. “If they go that way, we’ll be upwind from them. They’ll probably get a whiff of us. They’ll know we’re here.”
“If anything happens, this is where we make our stand.” He underlines the point with his rifle. “We stay here. This is our Alamo,” he adds for the benefit of us Yankee participants, and I wonder whether he has actually read to the end of that gory chapter of American history. Susanna shoots me a look of epic doom, and I know she is wondering the same thing. He ambles forward for a front-row seat, the rest of us following gingerly.
After a couple of minutes, it happens exactly as Dean predicted: one by one the elephants break off of their activity and saunter off along the path Dean had pointed out. They are downwind from us. I hold my breath, willing them to continue walking past. “Go on,” I murmur silently under my breath. “Go on!”
We almost get off scot-free, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, the elephant at the head of the line pauses.
“They know we’re here, don’t they?” Susanna breathes nervously.
Dean nods. He is happy. “Anybody fancy a bit of whiskey?” he asks, pulling out a small flask, but not drinking from it. We laugh nervously, but with a bizarre apprehension, as though we are worried the elephants aren’t down with booze jokes.
Earlier today, when we were recounting our morning elephant encounter with Jenny and the others, Jenny had noted that whenever she’s asked guides what they are most afraid of in the bush, every single one has responded “a female elephant and her calf.” At the time, it made me feel brave, as I had only just survived the deliciously harrowing ordeal, but right now I wish I never knew this key tidbit.
Eventually the elephant seems to lose interest, and continues up the path, but the one behind her is not so nonchalant. Unexpectedly, she wheels her head around. She is looking straight at us. Susanna grabs Dean’s arm. The elephant starts coming toward us.
I am not sure whether he was joking about the whiskey, but I really, really wish I had taken him up on it. Something to make my hands stop shaking, or at least to make the visual of a stampede-death that much less vivid. Various scenarios are flashing through my head, and I am helpless to stop them. Dean shoots charging elephant, the rest materialize out of the bushes and stampede. Dean shoots charging elephant, gun misfires, we scatter panicked in all directions and get mowed down by stampeding elephants. Dean shoots charging elephant, the other elephants commit us to memory, then stealthily hunt us down back at camp while we are obliviously brushing our teeth.
Dean has craned his neck around and is smirking at my battle-stance. “You’re doing well,” he whispers, possibly sensing that without encouragement I would bolt and leave everybody else with an oncoming elephant rampage. I glare, and try to communicate back using only thought-waves that he needs to turn the fuck back around and pay attention to the elephant that is about to kill us.
This elephant is definitely closer than the one earlier today, and this time we have no ditch to protect us. This is very, very real.
This is when Megan – ten-year-old Megan – reaches over and pats me comfortingly on the shoulder. “It’s okay, Wendy, it’s okay,” she murmurs soothingly in her southern African lilt, and I die about three times on the inside of shame. I refocus my energy on at least looking like I am not completely terrified, potentially salvaging what little dignity I have left. No dice, I suspect.
It is about four excruciating minutes before the elephant senses we are not worth the effort, and she starts off along the path again. We are on tenterhooks as she warily plods toward the bush, turning her head back slightly with every few steps. Right when we are about to breathe a sigh of relief, the elephant suddenly, and without warning, stops. She pauses, as if thinking better of it, and abruptly swings around and marches straight toward us. She does not stop. Judy gasps. “Oh shit!” Susanna breathes. “Oh shit, Dean, I don’t want to die!”
Dean stands up, and makes shooing motions with his hand, as though he were chasing an errant chicken off the porch. It seems hopelessly unconvincing, like a firefighter trying to stop a full-blown blaze with a Play-Skool watering can. The elephant is not impressed and continues forward.
Dean now whacks the butt of his rifle. Presumably the noise is meant to scare the elephant away, but I can also see it pissing her off. I want to run. This is not fun anymore. I want to get out of here, now.
The elephant powers forward, a chillingly determined rhythm to her footsteps, like that scene in Jurassic Park where the kids are stuck in the jeep and the T. rex has their number. Poum! Poum! Poum! I push onto the balls of my feet, just in case Dean suddenly screams at us to run; I would bargain almost anything right now to come out of this alive. “I don’t want to die, Dean,” Susanna mutters. “Dean, I don’t want to die.”
And suddenly, for no apparent reason, the elephant stops. She is now looking at us, challengingly, but no longer moving toward us. She stares. We stare back. Every second feels like about an hour. We face off tenuously for maybe forever, maybe one minute, until eventually Dean’s shoulders relax and he quietly motions that it is safe to move off. We slowly retreat through the brush, careful to make as little sound as possible. It takes all my energy to focus on walking one step in front of the other, and not passing out.
All of us but Dean are glancing back periodically, nervously checking whether the elephants are following us, or whether they look like they are about to launch a sneak attack whilst the guide has his back turned. To my horror, one elephant is currently tramping about in the “safe” spot where we had been staked out only seconds ago. She seems not to have fallen for the old “Fallen Tree Trunk” ruse, a detail I immediately commit to memory for future reference. Happily, she does not appear to be interested in pursuing us.
“Checking out the spot we were in,” Dean explains without turning around. “Wants to have a sniff around. They’re curious.”
We continue back to the road, growing increasingly calm the further we are from the scene of the ordeal. As we reach the jeep, I am almost back to normal, though my hands are still shaking alarmingly. Behind me, Jenny lights a cigarette and sucks in deeply. Dean, knowing we were never in any real danger, is amusedly glancing between me and Susanna, trying to make out whether it is too soon to make fun of us, and we put up a united front to suggest that it probably is. Only Megan has come out smelling like roses, a sad fact which has escaped none of us. When Dean asks if we should head out for sunset drinks, we all answer loudly and unanimously, “Yes!”
But not too loudly, just in case the elephants are somewhere nearby.
Wendy Inouye as a Bay Area native who consistently takes the wildly circuitous route to her final destination, sometimes by choice, but just as often not. She has lived in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, the Czech Republic, and Zimbabwe, and has recently returned to California where she does epidemiologic stuff.