Linda had the fantastic idea to sleep in the Chobe National Park wild. The roads are mere water-logged slits in the rainy season and nearly impassable, and even during the dry season they ensure you’re never going more than 30 Km/hr. It’s illegal to sleep in the wild in the park, but camps are scarce and usually booked months in advance, and typically expensive. Linda decided to roll her eyes and decided the best way to see the wildlife up close was to avoid man-made structures and sleep right in the bush. We parked underneath a tree, made our usual camp, cooked our dinner, and she was right; to our immediate right, less than ten meters away, we saw the longest procession of zebras trotting briskly by us. It continued for a few minutes and was tailed at the end by two wildebeests.
It was a good show, and I thought that was the end of it when we went to sleep later. At two in the morning, sleeping in our truck’s rooftop tent with all four windows’ shades down, I woke up and turned to my side to notice that Linda was staring out the window. There was genuinely something less than ten meters away, a giant creature grabbing at foliage on treetops, pulling their branches down enough to send sound waves of crackling that snapped and dismantled branches wider than my waist. Linda looked at me, and I noticed her eyes were as wide as saucer plates. That was an elephant having its dinner literally at the tree beside us.
I’d been having consistent reasons to fear elephants for the last few days in Botswana; the first time I saw their astonishing magnitude up close, I started trembling, and felt a sensation I didn’t think I would feel on this continent: I was SCARED. This thing could crush our 4×4 with us in it, or roll us over, and we would have no way to defend ourselves. At least driving through national parks, elephants have their place, and we have ours, and there is a common mutual respect not to interfere with each other too much; and you’re always free to drive away very quickly if a misunderstanding should arise between you two anyway.
But here, at two in the morning on a pitch-black patch of nothingness huddled in our tent above the truck, Linda and I stared at each other and at our predicament; we were trapped. If that single elephant were to wander just one tree over to its right to investigate this large strange white blob squatting in the middle of its feeding ground, Linda and I would be diving headfirst into the dirt with our 6000-pound truck coming to join us in the oncoming scuffle. And that was when we heard the second elephant.
A greater distance away, but very obviously shuffling closer to join his mate, he blew his trunk in the call that would have woken both of us had we been foolish to keep sleeping up to that point. Coming from our right, we heard him march directly behind our vehicle in a quiet but effective stride; it still amazes me how quiet elephants really are when they are moving. And that’s when it dawned on me, the fact I had so recently learned that week: elephants travel in packs.
This fact, which only four days previously excited us both in our awed trip through the north of Botswana now came to invade our security as Linda and I began to hear the evidence of a family reunion gathering around our truck. I glanced at Linda again, and I couldn’t tell if the reason she was shaking so much was because she was scared, or if my own body was trembling so hard. What do you do when over six elephants are less than five meters away from getting annoyed at your truck’s uninvited attendance?
“Should we run for it?” I asked as quietly as possible, but Linda let her head sway softly from left to right in the softest head shake she could manage. “Where would we go?” She replied.
I already knew this answer before I said anything; the night was black in a way only farmers and the indigenous know intimately, and six elephants was an awfully small herd; there were sure to be more on the way.
All around us, the trees were snapping, smashing and shattering with the sounds of elephants’ stomachs rumbling with discontent. Sitting so remarkably close to so many elephants, we could hear so many of their sounds that did not involve their trunks. I never knew before that elephants can laugh: a low, baritone growl that revs like a hesitant truck with all the sudden sucks of air, and I remember thinking clearly, “Man, these things laugh just like Dr. Claw does from Inspector Gadget.”
Seriously, I’m not kidding, these are the facts National Geographic is not telling you. Elephants sound downright diabolical. It’s the sound of 10 lions given your scent and told ‘sic em’ growling in unison seconds before ripping your face from the rest of your head. I wish I could find this sound on YouTube, but everybody there just wants to pretend elephants are your friends. These are the sounds that put me into paralysis even now. Plus, they have this awful moaning sound that sounds like someone has stolen their most prized possession and they will murder everything in their vicinity until they recover it.
I’m really not sure how long Linda and I squinted out the window, trying to see if these leviathans were really as close to us as they sounded. I remember asking Linda if she remembered if our chosen tree was a particular smorgasbord worthy of a behemoth’s consideration. She shook her head and replied quickly that our tree wasn’t especially endowed with greenery. But, she said, that wasn’t what was bothering her. She was visibly trembling in the moonlight shining through our tent.
“David, they’re looking for my apple core out there. That’s why they all came here.”
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why one follows the rules, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. The most commonly dished out advice is never, never, NEVER leave any trash out overnight unless you have a special fondness for midnight visitors.
“I told you to eat the core! That’s what I’ve been doing!” my eyes did all the yelling as I recalled our campfire the previous night, with its apples for dessert. Why, oh why, I asked myself, did I have to do such a good job putting out last night’s fire and killing off the remaining smoldering flames? “I’m so, so sorry, David… I forgot the rules,” Linda whispered in agonized remorse, and for self-preservation’s sake, I had to end the argument there.
Grass blades snapped close by, and I was sure that it was the elephants’ discovery of our intrusive presence. I was already asking myself how I wanted to die. Did I want to still be in the tent when we got flipped over, or should we make a fleeting bolt out the front, jumping and sprinting away on our bare feet? My shirt and socks were off, and I put them on in preparation in case we’d have to make that jump. This wasn’t even our truck; we rented it back in South Africa and signed the contract promising to deliver it in one piece. But didn’t these people know we were going to see monsters on our journey?
It’s commonly said you die a thousand deaths before the real one actually hits you, and I was trying to debate how I could at least die with dignity in front of my girlfriend. This whole bloody fiasco was her idea, but generally speaking, Africa was her turf, and she was adjusting to life on the savannah better than I was. Through my trembling teeth, I was trying to debate whether I should spend my last few moments alive reminding my girlfriend how much I loved her, or to just keep quiet and enjoy the sounds of ugly inevitability.
But that’s where it occurred to me: The elephants had left already. Just like that. Without even bothering to blow a farewell, they had disappeared into the bush, much quieter than they had arrived. Linda’s eyes had shrunk to normal size and our tree was ours again. Neither of us had any idea to look at the phone and check the time to see how long the whole episode was, but we both agreed we were not going to sleep again that night if we could help it.
Frankly speaking, the elephants around agreed with our little agreement. From far and wide we could still hear elephants blowing and trumpeting, quite obviously caring little for people’s sleep schedules. “The Elephant is the boss,” I told myself. “He does what he wants, and you just pray that he decides to leave you alone.”
And it was around this point when I realized how true these words still were. Elephants still marched in processions all around the area, the sounds of branches cracking to denote their distance. But I noticed Linda was sitting up again. Most of the elephants were content to graze elsewhere, but one straggler was coming back.
Silently, in wearisome terror we could hear his feet trampling in set grooves back to us, his number one fans. But there seemed to be a sudden altercation. There were two elephants now. Where had this second one come from? What did he want? How big was he? But we didn’t have to wonder long; the two leviathans had apparently met each other, and we could hear that they weren’t happy by their collision.
It’s not hard to describe the sound of two elephants fighting, especially if one has a healthy catalog of movie fight scenes stored in their memory. It reminded me of the final dinosaur fight in Jurassic World, or of Godzilla fighting King Kong. We could hear these two very angry goliaths ramming against each other, pressing their sides against each other in violent thrashes and the sound of ivory on ivory as tusks were drawn. It would have been very cool if Linda and I would have had some way of proving to ourselves we weren’t the prize for the victor. Strangely, we never heard any trees getting thrown around, or even bumped into; they seemed to respect their surroundings far more than they did each other.
Neither of us knew who won, but they both seemed to tramp away dejectedly afterwards by themselves, so I guess it meant Linda and I got to be the winners instead. We allowed ourselves to start breathing again. We made an agreement to take turns sleeping and keeping watch for the remainder of the night. We had a big day ahead of us and we couldn’t afford to be baggy eyed for it all. But really, Linda was the only one who got any sleep; my eyes had been permanently sealed open and my adrenaline wasn’t dying anytime soon.
We were out of bed and getting packed and ready by 5:30 in the morning, which is when the sun is out in Botswana anyway. Except for the sounds of elephants trumpeting in the distance, there were no further altercations. Linda and I were able to drive away safely. At least, until the river-crossing episode.
Image: Chakkree Chantakad via Pixabay