Mon Aug 2nd, 2010 at 05:21:59 AM EST
For the next entry, I had intended to write a short piece on the development aid witnessed in Malawi and Zambia so far. It wouldn't be a remarkably noticeable piece, or one with significant impact, but it would pointedly apprise the corroding qualities of developmental aid on the social web in Africa. Succinct and depressing, it would sketch out the witnessed dimensions, small and large, of aid's detrimental effects, gradually undermining and eroding the finer qualities of Africans. I knew I would not be the first to tackle the subject; dozens have gone before to provide far better, more detailed, footnoted documentation, whereas I could only rely on the impressions of one journey and accounts of fellow travelers.
But an elephant stepped on it. Almost literally.
Travel-blogging - afew
Living in South Africa, I dreamt of Kenia. In South Africa, they've kept their fascination for fences, also after 1994. Most, if not all, major national reserves in South Africa are encapsulated in barb wire. Not so in Kenia, or so I had heard, and thus I dreamt of safaris, camping in the midst of the wilderness, and wild animals passing right through the campsite during the night while we slept. Adventure! Excitement! The Africa of Hemmingway! La la la!
What I didn't realize at first when arriving at South Luanga park, in Zambia - one of the country's prime reserves, and one that is magnificently diverse - that the torpidly flowing Luanga river formed the only existing barrier between the official park and our campsite at the eastern shore. The safari starts already at the campsite. Stacks of belly-flopped hippos were gronking raucously to each other. Sitting on a trunk, nibbling sandwiches, we admired the spectacle of a herd of elephants leisurely wading across. To our side.
The implications of that were underlined further by Wonky, a little later. "Wonky is trouble," rumbled Shawn, the South African owner of the campsite. Wonky is an elephant cow, with 3 of her children in tow. They call her Wonky-tusk, or Wonky for short, because of her right tusk, which is growing the wrong way: with the point down, instead of up. Wonky knows by now that, irregularly, hapless visitors forget to take out all their food out of their tents or cars, and Wonky sniffs at each one to see if there's something to loot inside. If there is, the tent will be ripped, windows will be smashed. A few months ago, an elephant smelled one miserable apple left in a 4x4. All windows got smashed, and the car turned upside down in the elephant's quest to locate the apple. It succeeded.
Wonky also knows about the white rubbish bins, smashes them underfoot regularly. She rummages through the trash heap of empty bottles. Also the local farmers are troubled by her. There are ecological means available to keep elephants at bay: a fence smeared with a paste of red peppers. An elephant's nose is delicate; it can't stand the smell or taste of the fiery hot peppers. But it's still easier to shoot a nuisant elephant. And fences, well. They're not too popular in Zambia, I learned.
And thus strolled Wonky with her kids onto our campsite that afternoon. Her son, a male bull hitting puberty, is following his mother's example. At a certain point, mother and son were both flanking our tent and car, sniffing the windows. Wonky rummages underneath our tent, pulls out the tent bag, whips it empty, scattering all the pins, and, not finding anything, begins to rip off branches instead. Watching from a distance, we saw the comic side of it, and were somehow at repose, seeing the tent you use everyday being lifted by a trunk.
It gets a bit different when you're inside it.
You wake from the sound of splitting wood, cracking branches. An elephant walks silently; you won't hear its approach. An elephant walks on tiptoe, its palms finely cushioned. The only way to gauge the elephant's approach, lying in the dark with a faster pulse, is trying to estimate the proximity of the sound of ruined foliage. Close by, further away, closer, very close. Until you realise that the amount of din can never be made by just one animal. Which means it's a herd of elephants. And then comes that other sound that brought the hairs of my neck on end - a low, primoridal growl, like coming from a hell-beast stuck in a dark cleft. The rumble of elephants was used to voice the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park. Unlike the dinosaurs, the rumble is actually a friendly one; elephants use it to say, "Hello, I am here."
But for us, primates inside a tent, the Jurassic Park experience was only heightened that night by the floodlights of the campsite, through which we saw irregular shadows flicker.
Every movie-maker knows: the power of suggestion gives more suspense than actually showing the damn CGI monster. At it least it didn't downpour that night.
A shadow flicks across our tent. Another one. Ignorance is bliss, and I am doomed. For I know that between the tent and the lamp there is little more than 3 meters of space. And our car sits there as well, leaving a path next to our tent which I had presumed to be too small for elephants. Through the mosquito gauze I peek outside. And up. And then further up, and my breath stalls. How big an elephant is, can only be expressed while lying prostrated on the ground, looking up to a full-sized elephant bull, his right leg less than 2 meters away from your face, and having a heartrate of 120.
Snorting. Another shadow falls across our tent. Shockingly, the tentcloth suddenly vibrates, and then Wonky comes into view, cantering, her trunk wagging, her upside tusk her signature mark. If she stepped on our pen, or gave our tent a comradely pounce, to let us know "I know you're there", who can say?
Camping in the wild has different effects on everyone. My SO turned to her other side after the first elephant marched through the campsite, slept through the whole thing and was irritated that she couldn't go out of the tent for a pee. I, on the other hand, have had my share of elephant for this journey, and will dream a little less about Kenia. Thanks to Wonky.