Wednesday, June 4, 2008

the elephant in the room...

last night went well. bono bloody well stood me up. my old band mates showed up and accompanied me on bass and violin. there were about 40 people there. a chilled and laid back atmosphere. i have forgotten how much energy it takes to set up, perform and pack up afterwards. nevertheless, we had the most sumptious dinner afterwards. i was happy to overhear some people arriving and asking for the music! HAH. too late buddy. and then them saying they would come back on thursday...whew.

ok ok. yes. the elephant in the room. todays elephant was apparently almost in safari craig's car, and on safari craig's clients' laps. this elephant was extremely angry. when elephants start chucking trees and bits of wood about and showing the very broad front bit of their heads (like this one is doing in above pic), it's time to get the hell out of there.
i have over the years developed a deep and immoveable respect and love for these incredible creatures. in fact i am &*#($&^ scared of them. it's that old chestnut of the more you know, the more....ah, whatever... this picture makes my knees feel like jelly. having lived deep in the zambian wilderness (south luangwa national park) for 12 years, participating in walking safaris conducted by my safari craig and having encountered elephants for most of these years, i like to keep a healthy distance. why disturb them uneccessarily? a dear friend of mine was killed by one at the age of 23. and many africans have been killed by elephant. (elephant hate bicycles.) although it is a known fact that more people are killed by the kindly yet clearly intolerant hippopotamus than by any other wild animal.

elephant are truly a symbol of our continent - strong, majestic, wild and free but bloody well dangerous as hell. they have been an integral part of my life since birth. africa would lose her soul should the elephant no longer roam the wilderness. we are coming close to this. too many people and not enough space. desperate times. desperate measures.

i remember when i first started working at Sokwe, a leading Tanzanian safari company ( and was sent on my first assignment - to accompany a VERY famous fashion designer from New York and her entourage, to Katavi National Park in western Tanzania. she will remain nameless because i want to tell ALL of the story. she really disliked me from the beginning and was a mean old bitch. one blazingly hot afternoon, most of the group decided to opt for a drive so myself, the camp manager ( also seriously qualified safari guide) and the caterer decided to opt for a lazy walk. FD's (as in fashion designer) partner at the last minute decided that he too would prefer a peaceful calm walk instead of bouncing around in the car for 2 hours. of course, this immediately transformed the walk into a formal one. all the rules were set. walk in single file. no talking. always listen to your guide. and NO RUNNING unless you are told so.

I whispered to the guide "ok so we stay FAR AWAY from elephants yes? we are on foot and i am really scared of them." and to FD's very amusing and blissfully ignorant partner " oh nothing to be scared of. i have lived in africa ALL my life. walked amongst elephants and blah blah blah" as in whose afraid of the big bad wolf the big bad wolf the big bad wolf...anyhow, i made it clear that i was an experienced old africa hand as was our guide. nothing to worry about. its a breeze. its an adventure. trust me.

off we set. the afternoon was simply beautiful; a setting sun - distorted and red from the dust and bush fires - the hint of winter on the air and the smell of burnt grass and dust...and elephant poo, fresh, lingering. we followed a dry river bed, which still had remnant pools tucked into the curved corners of the sand river. around the corner we came and there, on the OTHER side of the small river were about 5 adult female elephant and a whole bunch of babies and teenager elephants. mummy elephants are notoriously fierce over their young. immediately my heart beat faster. FD's partner was ecstatic. guide was very assuring - they were on the other side. nothing to worry about. feeding. calm. so we crouched down and watched. we were dead quiet. the wind was still. they did not know we were there. which was fine at this point. until they decided to come down to the river, in other words TOWARDS us and CLOSER to us for a drink.

they were now between 15 to 20 m away. still calm. still did not know we were there. we were still crouched under a teeny weeny pathetic little acacia on a small bank which any elephant could spring up in the blink of a leviathan eye. elephants are uncannily agile and fast. it was inspiring watching them - water being sprayed over backs, the babies being all silly and floppy in the mud....but somehow i could not quite relax. they finished their drinking then slowly started walking um TOWARDS us on our miniture bank. they had not seen us.

so our very experienced guide stood up - SLOWLY and gently started tapping the edge of his rifle. like a toc toc toc sound - metal on metal. (elephants HATE this sound...they really do) the matriarch (there is always a lead mama) came to a dead halt. lifted her head, and held it slightly aloft. slightly sideways as though she was really trying to see us. she lifted her trunk to smell the air. the herd had all stopped. dead still. like they were huge grey statues on the white sand. not a sound. not a movement. they were now about 8m from us. the only sound i could hear was my heart thundering in my ears.

after a few seconds, the matriarch decided that everything was ok. there was no danger and continued leading the herd straight towards us. the guide stood up and shouted "no! go away shoo shoo!" with that, all hell broke loose. trumpeting, whirling around, clouds of white dust and elephants screaming. i don't think i even thought anything. i turned around and started running like hell. when FD's partner saw me running he thought "bugger this! i'm off too" and so did the caterer... the guide was furious and was yelling "stop running. stop fucking running!" my legs couldn't help it. i simply could not be there any longer. it took a lot of strength to stop when every single fibre in my being and body was saying RUN!!!! RUUUUUUUN! GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE OR YOU ARE GOING TO BE KILLED!

at this stage, everything was slow motion. the elephant thundered past us, as terrified as we were. tails up, trunks up and headed for the forest line..they were running literally 3 m from us.

FD's video footage was amusing...only amusing in retrospect. he was also lucky enough not to understand or know what COULD have happened.

opening scene: sunset. calm feeding elephants

middle scene: sunset, calm drinking elephants

end scene: screaming elephant, then sky ground sky ground sky ground sky ground sky ground.

stiff celebratory drinks were had by the fire and around the table. and i ended up singing Keeping Out Of Mischief by Barbara Streisand ... but that is another story entirely...entirely.

nothing quite like a whisky around a fire under the stars, a hyena calling near by and a story or two to tell.

my mother (may she RIP) told a story about throwing herself over us tiny kids in the back of a series 1 landrover in the zambezi valley in the late 1960's which had stalled, with a matriarch leaning over the back of the little car, screaming and swinging her trunk menacingly over us, trying to kill us. the only way to start it was with a crank. the driver had frozen and was shouting "jesus christ jesus christ" as my father climbed out from literally under the elephant's nose to crank the old rover up - with grrrrrrrreat success (as said in borat).

i remember sitting in a little tin boat with my mama when i was about 4 , tied up to an island in the middle of the great zambezi river, while my father had disappeared onto the island looking for big bull elephant. he disappeared in one direction into the greeness while 4 enormous bulls appeared literally inches from our little boat and crossed back to the mainland. i remember my mama lying over me and then when they had gone into the deeper water, she said " look darling. they look like teapots!" because an elephant can entirely disappear into deep water leaving only the tips of their trunks, like a teapot, above the water for breathing. and me laughing and not being scared at all.

and since i am on the subject, i simply have to mention mr alfred champoto, and mr rice time..both having left us to more heavenly wildernesses across the river styx. these two legendary gentlemen taught me everything i know about elephants (excluding my dad of course, who told me that when a lion charges me, i must lie flat on my tummy so it leaps straight over me. but he didn't tell me what happens after that . . . and of course Norman Carr who was one dad's dearest friends. please remind me to tell you how my father has all those scars on his big hairy tummy.) alfred champoto (pictured on the RHS in yellow woolen hat) knew me since i was a child. and then worked for us at our camp in luangwa. he was a great fisherman from the Barotse floodplains in western zambia, where he would return at the end of every safari season. and he was never scared of elephants. he would guide me through the herds in our old supply landrover happily shouting out instructions from the back seat on the open car while i would drive white knuckled and white faced through the elephant.

rice time maqaba tembo was our "fundi" (man who has the gun and knows EVERYTHING about The Bush and who is the only gentleman, to my knowledge, on the entire continent of africa, who toted a muscovian fur hat in the dead of an october summer where temperatures reached 38 degrees). he was entirely fearless of elephant, lion and buffalo and knew every single secret magical sign there was to be known. he was a real hunter meaning that it had been a calling. he had had the dreams. i have seen him shoot a charging buffalo and dropping it 5 paces from where we stood, me FROZEN. president kaunda gave him his rifle. rice time was one of those exceptional people, a few notches above everyone else. he naturally commanded utmost respect and he knew the ways of magic and spells. i remember once we found one of the resident pride lions dead on a walk, killed by a buffalo. rice drew a large circle in the dust around the lion,with a cross at each end of the circle. when we asked him what he was doing, he looked at us as though we had asked something like "are you sure this is a lion?" and explained that now, the lion spirit will not follow us. we need not worry about the lion spirit possessing us....der. and looked scathingly at us. how stupid can some people be?

i could write reams about these two legends. their names will crop up again. you'll see. and as long as i live, i will always remember them with great fondness and deepest respect. i am so lucky i was given the chance to share those gloriously wild years with men like them.

all of these men told me that i must NEVER let an elephant bully me. NEVER reverse away from an elephant. and NEVER run. NEVER. EVER.

Kitchen Board: Wednesday afternoon: 4 June 2008:
Contributors: Veronica and Janelle

Comments: Meet Godwin. he helps out with the horses, the shamba (meaning small farm or plot) and lives at the bottom of the hill. godwin's english is as good as my swahili. we smile a lot at each other. so. written on the LHS of the board are all the words which i have taught you, oh esteemed and delightful readers:

POLE which means?

SANA: which means?

KARIBU: which means: (careful. 2 meanings here)

KESHO: which means?

and introducing "haraka haraka" (on RHS of board) which means HURRY HURRY . safari craig gave me the saying: (after sternly warning me that i was tampering with The Board..i told him that rule had been broken on day 2 after being made..isn;t that what rules are for?)

ok so: haraka haraka haina baraka = literally hurry hurry no blessings. so means: to hurry is without blessing.

so chill hurry in africa. how nice.

kwaheri! (means GOOD BYE!) kesho!


eliza said...

I think I know exactly who you're talking about - and don't worry, I'll never tell either :). I think I saw you shortly thereafter, sitting on a beach, keeping out the way, making footprints out of shells and pebbles. xx

Janelle said...

precisely! shhhhhhh! made those toes made out of pebbles instead! quite. i love those smooth round mahale pebbles. i love mahale. XXX j

Janelle said...

well. not through the elephant...through the HERD of elephant...whatever.

Dumdad said...

Are you telling me that all elephants aren't like Dumbo? Don't believe you....

Retiredandcrazy said...

I love your descriptive way of writing. I could smell the heat and fear. You lead a very full life. Respect.

family affairs said...

Glad to hear your gig went so well...that's great and lovely lovely evocative writing, as ever x

Diana said...

Well that's it. I'll never buy any of that bitch designer's fashions. As I don't know for sure which one she is, I'll just boycott them all.

And by now, If you were familiar with my way of dressing, you'd be pointing out that clearly, seeing how I dress that I've never been 100km from any designer fashions, to which I'll just say, "Shush. Am making a political statement. A little respect, here. Ask Bono."

Bloody amazing those tales are.

N said...

I want to come live in your house. That is all.