Meeting the Elephants

Meeting the Elephants

Much of what has happened in the past year we've blocked out or put aside in our heads in order to get through. I know I did - but the time will come to remember those we've lost - all 152,000 of them.
This is the second half of my story about my adventurous trip to South Africa in January 2020.  I returned to the UK at the end of January, to be met with cold wet weather initially and then within a few weeks, stories emerging from China, in particular Wuhan, about a new deadly disease sweeping that country. And you know the rest.  By the end of March, we were all in lockdown, which seemed likely to be for a few months and we could barely leave our homes. My food shopping was now to be done online and gradually I was limited to talking to my neighbours in their front gardens in the small cul-de-sac in which I live. 
Before I went to South Africa, I had been taking care of my grandson for one day a week, then aged 15 months. Many people felt their only option was to isolate and not see even their grandchildren.  I refused this option point-blank.  Firstly my daughter was still working full days in her demanding job, organising guests for an online media discussion programme - but now she was working from home and needed the support. Secondly, I adored my grandson and was not going to be separated from him at this crucial point in his life.  Absolutely no way. 
The rain stopped sometime in March and an intensive dry heatwave followed - endless sun and blue skies, but we were in lockdown. Freddie played in the garden, we walked in the parks, I pushed the pram to playgrounds where everyone wore masks and all the play equipment was taped off. 

    Before Covid, I used to take him to cafes with playrooms, children's entertainers, drink coffee and chat with other parents/grandparents Now all closed. Now I had to play with him myself ALL the time.  Quite a challenge!

  The hot days of summer passed and in October I wrote up the first part of this South African Adventure and ended the story halfway -  where I was just about to go on my first trip to meet the elephants.  I decided to save this for a 'Part Two'. 
    By then we were back into the 2nd lockdown ... It was like a horror story, I'd got organised for the first lockdown and it had been sunny and warm.  For the second lockdown, the long hot summer had ended and the cold dark short days of winter were rapidly approaching.  Motivation plummetted. But hey, I was looking forward to a nice Xmas with my daughters and grandson - until Boris cancelled Xmas on Dec 19th (could you not have given us more notice Boris?) because of the sharp rise in deaths and hospital admissions. It took the wind out of my sales and killed all the anticipated fun. 

In the new year, I was concentrating on finishing my second memoir - Beyond the Bounds - finally (with the help of my friend and mentor Angela Newmarch) I wrote the difficult last few chapters and the magic words - The End (as I talked about in my last blog). That was a few weeks ago.

    Now we're nearly in July 2021 - I HAVE to finish this second part of the story. A great deal of sadness has delayed me, about the awful things happening not just to the people but also to the elephants and rhinos and all the wildlife in Africa.  This has been made a thousand times worse by the global pandemic and the terrible events of the last year, as many wildlife sanctuaries are funded by tourism. It's all mounted up in my head. I have to put myself back into that happy time in January 2020. Here goes - 
   Here's the last thing I wrote in Part 1 - 

It was now 2.30 p.m. and I decided to go back to my lodge for a siesta before the game drive at 4 pm. It had clouded over and had become cooler (about 22C), I would need to change from shorts to jeans and take a long-sleeved cardigan, I thought.  I climbed onto the huge bed, threw a shawl over myself, set my alarm and fell asleep. 

My luxury lodge

After my snooze on the giant four-poster bed, I changed clothes, sprayed myself with anti mozzy stuff, put a denim shirt in my bag and made my way across the lawns to the wooden platform/pickup point.
Soon our Zulu guide, Msizi appeared in an open-sided truck, this time with 10 or so others in the back seats.  I (the only solo) sat in the front next to the guide.  Great, I thought - front row seat. I do like a touch of danger, it's quite exciting.  Soon Msizi and I were engaged in back and forth banter. I asked about his wife and kids and the village where he lived. Zulu culture is very male-oriented and has a strict hierarchy amongst the men - women come pretty low down the pecking order, although Zulu women are NOT quiet and retiring.  Rural Zulus in this part of the world adhere to cultural rules more strongly. Msizi was used to Western women though and we got along fine. 
Msizi our Zulu guide

I turned to say hello to everyone as I got in - several elderly couples, two couples in their thirties, an Indian family - with two older children. I wondered what they were all like and how we'd get on.  It's the great part of solo traveling - all the people you meet. Normally I meet people in backpack hostels, travelling cheap.  These people must all be able to afford the luxury end of the market I thought. 

    Suddenly we were veering off the track and down a side slope towards a small river.  Our guide was giving a running commentary about the wildlife and then started talking about the elephants which got my full attention.

 'Yis, so ah, now when we see the elephants, Ah want you to remember, these are waald elephants, not those tame one's you git in the zoo back home, we may not be able to git tooo close, eh?' 

    We were all nodding vigorously - I guess most people had read The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, about how he'd put together his wild herd here and calmed them down. But there'd also been that one time with the elephant with bad toothache ... Lawrence had nearly been killed...

    'Not sure we'll see the herd tonaht folks, as they've not been sahted today, eh? Elephants can dus-appear in the bush, nah? But there's plenty other game, eh?  End if we don't see them today, we'll see them tomorrow, OK?'

    We all nodded again as the truck which had been pulled over by the riverside suddenly lurched forward and to my horror, headed straight for the river bank quite fast.  I clung to the bars at my side as it nose-dived down the bank and into the river.  I fully expected to be submerged, but the guide knew what he was doing.  The watercourse was quite shallow there and we churned forward, with water nearly topping the wheels, straight through and up the steep muddy bank on the other side and out onto a long straight track.  This track stretched away and then up a long hill in the distance.  The running commentary continued, he clearly knew a great deal about the birds and animals on the reserve and how to track them.

  Suddenly the truck stopped and he pointed to a tall shrub on the trackside - where what looked like an eagle was perched. He chatted about its characteristics. I glanced behind me and everyone had their binoculars out. My eyesight was poor due to what I later found out to be cataracts, so although I wore contact lenses anything further than ten metres was difficult to make out for me.One guy kindly leaned forward with his binoculars and said -
    'Here, do you wanna have a go?'
    'Ooh yes please.' I said. He was with his partner and son. Soon we were chatting away.
    'We won 2 nights in Thula Thula in a local radio quiz show in Durban.  We're camping for the weekend.'  
    'Oh did you bring a tent?'
They laughed.  'No, they have these big tents here with beds and everything.  It's very comfortable.'
    The whole group it seemed were in 'glamping' tents, all with double beds and washing facilities. They were having a braai (barbeque) later and when they found out I was solo -
        'I'm in a lodge but I'm the only person there - one group left yesterday and another's coming next week.  I'm being very well looked after but I feel a bit isolated,' a very nice Indian guy with this wife and two teenagers immediately invited me to come along. But I was quite tired from all the travelling, so I thanked them and said 'Maybe tomorrow'.  
    I found out later he was a consultant surgeon at Groote Schuur hospital.  Little did we all know what was to come - we were two months away from a global pandemic and his working life was about to be turned upside down.

    Meanwhile, our guide was dodging zebras and impalas leaping out of the bushes and crossing the track randomly in front of us.  Suddenly I spotted tall necks sticking out of a clump of bushes to our right -