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 - 

    'Giraffes,' I said pointing.  This was not( btw) my first safari in South Africa.  In 2007 and 2015, I had done safaris in the vast Kruger National Park and then later had gone north towards Mozambique from Durban along the coast for another safari drive to see hippos, crocs and all sorts of large birds, along a wide river course near the Mozambique border. I'd also been on a day trip to Matopos Reserve in  Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and seen giraffes and other game there.

     On that first safari in 2007, at the start of the drive,  our whole group had got very excited to see wild zebras for the first time, everyone pulling out their cameras and snapping away. By the end of that 4-day safari we'd seen the Big Five (lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos, water buffalo) on a number of occasions and taken a billion pictures, so by then, no one raised an eyebrow if we saw a zebra. I'd also seen giraffes many times before -  they are such magnificent beautiful elegant creatures, it's always a great pleasure to see them.  

    We were all tired by now and getting hungry.  Msizi explained we'd be doing two more drives next day, one at 10 a.m. and we'd find the elephant herd which seemed to be eluding us tonight. He instructed me to be waiting at the same pick-up point again next morning.  I retired to the isolated but huge group lodge, where again, I was the only guest.  A white table cloth and silver cutlery had been laid out in the eerily empty lounge.   I ate my beautifully prepared vegetarian supper and strolled back to the lodge, where I fell onto the giant fourposter, read 2 lines from my Kindle book before falling fast asleep.   

A gnu/ wildebeest
    Next day, I knew what to expect when the truck lurched down into the watercourse and plunged and bucked up the other side, I gripped the railings at my side tightly.  When we got to the top and turned onto the track again, he pulled over and turned off the engine. He started talking about the elephants.
    'The thung iz, they maht approach the truck, yis?  If thet happens , no one spiks ok? No one moves raht? Doan put out yor hand, jus doan move orl raht?'  [He had a strong Zulu/South African accent].

We started driving towards the hill some distance ahead of us - there were some low buildings a the top of it -
    'What's that building I asked?' 
    'Oh thet's the old enimal orphanage,' he said - 'they closed it darn after the last poaching raid.  Now they're gonna rebuld it and tren [train]volunteers there.'

    I'd been reading An Elephant in my Kitchen by Lawrence's widow, Frances, which tells the story of the animal orphanage and the last terrible poacher raid which had left me in floods of tears.  I turned my head away as my eyes filled. 

    'Hey! Once we git up the hill, Ah'll be able to see where the herd is.' he was muttering. He put the truck into a low gear and we climbed the steep hill track until there was a sweeping view down across the bush on our right. 
    'There they are.' he was pointing and in the far distance nearly hidden in the bush, we could see a small clump of grey moving objects - elephants!  Oh my! The very elephants Lawrence had collected and saved from being shot.  The very elephants who knew he'd died of a heart attack many miles away in Jo'burg on the night before he was due to fly back and had gathered by the house in silence, waiting for his body to be returned to Thula Thula. The very traumatised elephants whose trust he had worked day and night to build enough to gather a strong herd. 

The herd is approaching - is it safe?

    He turned down a long steep slope and headed towards the sighting. Suddenly we were in an open clearing and not too far away was the herd.  Oh wow! The size of the matriarch and the bull! And they were walking towards us.

'That's Frankie,' said Msizi.  'Nobody move.'

Slowly, v slowly, I turned on my Samsung 7 phone camera, holding it in my lap.  They got nearer and then were surrounding the jeep. The bull elephant moved forward and stood next to me, looking me over. I was astounded by the rough bristly cratered skin up so close, as well as totally overwhelmed by his size, towering above me, looking down at me a couple of feet away. I took a selfie and my face is a picture of what the Americans call 'shock and awe'. I wanted to put out my hand and touch him but dare not.  
    Behind me on the other side of the truck, one of the female elephants went right up close to an older white-haired woman and put out her trunk to touch the woman's face. She too was in 'shock and awe.' No one spoke.  The guide started to talk low, pointing out their names and telling a line or two about the history of each, talking about Lawrence. It was a moment in time I will never forget. Completely rivetting.

Shock and Awe

Like the bark of an oak tree.

Elephant hide, up close and personal


    After a while, they gradually, having carefully vetted us, moved away and started drifting back into the bush until suddenly they'd gone, vanished.  

    We all started talking then, and our guide switched on the engine.  
'Wow, that was amazing.'  I looked round at the others, they were talking in excited voices. The older white-haired woman, sitting beside her husband, spoke to me - 
'I froze. I wanted to give him my banana, but we were told not to move. I was in shock, he came so close. So are you coming to our braai tonight?' she asked.
I smiled and nodded, 'I just want to find something out, but yes - thanks for asking.'
    When I'd lived in Cape Town, many years before, we'd often had braais - huge meat fests. For our farewell party, before we'd left South Africa to return to cold freezing London, we'd had a huge oil drum, cut in half, full of coals and we'd roasted half a lamb and pork chops, boerewors sausage, as well as tables with huge bowls of salad, French loaves and cheeses.  We'd danced till dawn to the music of the late 70s - Roxy Music, 'This is Tomorrow' : John Travolta/Olivia Newton John: 'Saturday Night Fever', the BeeGees, 'How Deep is Your Love,' all songs that had come out that year - 1978.
    Now it was January 2020, many years had passed.  I'd been a vegetarian for 30 years now, so I asked the guide if there'd be any veggie food I could eat.  Zulu men are great meat eaters so I was expecting a negative response.  
    'Eh! Don't warry men! We've plenty food you ken eat.' He laughed as we bumped down the hill.     'But Ah'm looking for the rhanos before we go bek.  We'll hev a stop off before thet. You want some lunch?'  I realised I was starving as he pulled the wheel over to the left and drove into the bush. Soon we could see the watercourse leading to a large lake ahead.  He pulled the truck up next to a clearing by the lake and pointed towards the water - 'See! Hippos.' And when I looked I could see grey hump shapes in the water, one broke the surface and the large heavy head of a hippo snorted into the water and two more, including a calf swimming behind, all were splashing and heading for the centre of the lake.  
    We all jumped down and I noticed a small table with wine and beer and soft drinks laid out plus rolls and crisps for our lunch.  Some people had their cameras out, taking pics of the hippos, I joined in with my camera phone and we were all chatting. Another truck was parked nearby and we drifted around, looking at the hippos until our guide called us back.  He was taking us back to camp, by now it was past midday.  He told us we'd go out on another game drive at 4 pm, but we could have a siesta until then and the braai would be after that later in the evening.

Siswe by the lake
    We drove back, Msizi on his two way radio phone was trying to find out if there were any rhino sightings - but they remained hidden from view and I was dropped off.  I walked across the wide lawns to my cabin and several impala jumped off my front porch where they'd been grazing the lawn.  I set my phone alarm and slept for an hour and was waiting at the landing stage at 4 pm.  I wasn't going to miss any moment of our next game drive, I was loving every moment of it. 
    We saw the elephants again - this time at a distance.  Msizi stopped for the bird watcher's quite often and the guys behind me passed down their binoculars regulary so I could get a close-up view. I recognised Hoopoe and Ibis and saw the nests of weaver birds, hanging from tree branches. 
Weaver bird nests

     Msizi was an expert on the local wildlife. He knew every bird, animal and the individual names of every elephant. He'd worked for Francoise for many years and Lawrence before that. In the evening, he picked me up in the truck and took me to the other camp where my new game drive buddies were.  Long tables were laid out in an enclosed garden area, in a large rectangle and by the bar were tables full of salads and potatoes and falafel and hummus. The bar was, of course, well-stocked.  I was delighted. I shouldn't have been surprised - Francoise was a French business woman who grew up in Paris when she met Lawrence Anthony. She knew about food for all tastes. 
    It was lovely to be with the group and feel welcomed by them and I moved around the group chatting to everyone.  It's the best part of solo travelling - the people you meet and hearing their stories about themselves.  By now they'd all found out I was a writer and had written a book about my time in South Africa in the 70s. They seemed to find this fascinating.  When we'd lived in South Africa in the 70s, we had such a small budget to live on that going on a game drive was a distant dream.
    The following day was going to be the end of my time in Thula Thula and the morning game drive was also going to be my last.  Msizi had said that this time we'd see the elephants again and he had been enquiring left and right to find where the rhinos were.  He'd make sure we saw them.  
    As it was my last morning, I was feeling a little sad, but also so happy that I'd had this adventure. I packed away all my things in my rucksack and small suitcase, I was ready to leave. Now I really wanted to see the rhinos to complete the whole experience.  I'd heard so much about them.  The truck arrived at the usual pick-up point ear my lodge and I greeted everyone like we were all old friends now. We'd had this very special experience together.  I'd discovered that the white-haired lady, travelling with her husband, had been diagnosed with cancer sometime before and for her this was a bucket list trip. The Indian consultant and his family greeted me warmly. 
    I still didn't know how I was going to get back to Durban, but I'd discovered the previous night through my search engine, that there should be a bus/coach going from a village nearby and Msizi had said he'd drive me there - it was about 5 miles away.  A thought occured to me though and I turned to the group -
    'Anyone going back today and can give me a lift to Durban?'  To my relief the younger couple who'd won the trip from the local radio show were going back and yes they were happy to offer me a lift. I was relieved as the other route ie. lift to village, wait for coach would have been hot, dusty and tiring.  I texted Tor and he responded immediately  -  yes, he and Sydney would meet me in Durban central and pick me up wherever the couple decided to drop me.  'Sorted' as we Londoners say.  I sat back in the truck, ready to enjoy this last bush drive, my last glimpse of the elephants and hopefully see those rhinos I'd read so much about. 
    I knew Francoise had tried different things to deter the poachers, but in the end the only thing that worked was sawing off their valuable horns (each one worth c. £50,000 to a poacher), it was that or risk them being murdered on a daily basis by sophisticated crime gangs. 
    We had approximately 2 hours to find them....  we plunged across the shallow river again and drove on the long tracks until we reached the spot where Msizi said the elephants would be - and they soon appeared as if on queue with Msizi giving running commentaries about the personalities and adventures of each elephant.  Time was running out now, would we see the rhinos?  We all so wanted to as Msizi turned the truck around and headed back  - he was on his two-way radio talking (in Zulu of course) and I wished I could understand. Suddenly he turned to the group triumphantly - 
    'Yis they've been spotted and it's on our way.  I really wanted you all to see the rhinos before you left.'  He was smiling broadly.
    Everyone's faces lit up and as he turned the truck left and drove for about half a mile until there they were.  One of the females was pregnant. I sat in the truck and my eyes filled with tears as I looked at them. I knew how much it cost in care to keep them safe and the horrors of what the poachers had done to so many others.  I took a few pictures but mostly I just wanted to see and feel their presence and feel so privileged to have been there with them.

    We drove back to the lodges in silence, each with our own thoughts about what we'd seen.  Some people were staying a few more days.  
    My last lunch was ready - organised by the lovely Nono who had looked after me at the lodge and Msizi picked me up and took me the few miles back to the main lodge, where my lift was waiting.   We had a pleasant journey back to Durbs and the couple asked lots more questions about my writing, saying they would read my memoir (A Hippopotamus at the Table) as it sounded fascinating.  I spent another night with Tor and Jossein. They kindly drove me back to the airport next day.

    I returned to The B.I.G. backpackers in CapeTown and was joined for a few days by my dear friend Di ( who I'd known since the 70s and who lives now in Stellenbosch  - the Cape wine regions, with her husband).  It was hot, sunny and we went to the beach or The Waterfront cafes and shops, most days until it was time to return to the UK - cold, wet and the emerging talk of the distant problems in Wuhan .... 

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