Monday, March 3, 2014

10 Mana Pools

 African elephants are best
I did a survey down the pub last week. All my friends think African elephants are best. Because they're the biggest, have got massive tusks and have proportioned ears that they waggle (the elephants, not my friends; although Stan's ears are pretty flappy.).
So African elephants are the best. Really, they are, they are the best. I came across a wild one face to face on a canoeing safari through the Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, back in 1993. Livid it was.
I have since read about Loxodonta Africana (Loxodonta being Greek for 'oblique-sided tooth') in "literature". It is the African elephant that seem to pop up in posh Boys Own type books (literature") to appear tough and Hemmingway-esque. Big butch bearded Edgar Burroughs used African elephants to show off how hard his mythical Tarzan was. You want a tough beast to hang on the wall and impress the totty? Get an African elephant.
Indian elephants? Nope. I hate to say it, in George Orwell's essays written when he was a copper in Burma he comes over as a bit of a nancy when he describes how he shot a Maximus Indicus because of some peer group pressure. The Indian elephants in "A Passage to India"a aren't much tougher. Cushioned seats, parasols, painted spirals omn the forehead and an Edwardian virgin perched on top wending their way to the Malabar Caves. What's macho about that? Get a grip.
Which is why. When. My guide, Ndoro (a native financial adviser dropout from Harare) asked for a volunteer to get out of the canoe and take a stroll onto dry land to steal a close up of a 10,000lb Loxodonta bull I was the first to volunteer.
It wasn't difficult to see that it was a bull. My safe estimate was it had at least 45lbs in that particular department.

Sure I was up for it. Get up close to an elephant, with a real African guide with a real shotgun in the real safari park while doing things my chums back home were already jealous of.
I was ready for Ndoro's briefing session. "Stay behind me, and be very, very quiet." "Rightio." That, was the briefing session.

Slightly vague, I thought. Not too much detail there then. No concerns about my bright orange tee shirt then? Not bothered about you being a tiddly, short, agile, guide bloke with a hefty shooter and me a six foot four novice tourist hands full of poxy camera? No helpful tips for someone who's never stood toe to toe with an African elephant? You're not worried about my deodorant and the wind directions and all those things Robert Redford would be telling David Lean if he was taking Meryl Streep out for a wander into an elephants' front garden?
Is there any Plan B? Thoughts about a Plan A for that matter? Nope. A vacuum of silence.
I think after years of doing these trips Ndoro had distilled the briefing to its purest essence, he'd boiled away the watery sauce to a saturated mouthwatering jus, or maybe he only wanted that I stayed behind and didn't bugger it up by getting excited.

And. He was off and away.

The Zambezi riverbank mud had got very sloshy and slurpy after the previous night's electrical storm lashed rain down all night onto our sand island camp. The clay bank Ndoro and I sloshed up onto and through was so muddy we were up to our knees in ten yard, up to our thighs in fifteen and after twenty I was sure Ndoro's bollocks were getting the spa treatment. Me? I could hardly move. Le alone run.
Twenty yards away from the elephant and it was already bigger than anything I'd seen at Whipsnade...

"Excuse me. How close are we intending to go?"

"Oh, very close. Be very, very quiet."

The elephant ears, the ones behind the great, long, lethal tusks, were starting to flap. The tusks had seen some previous action; bashed, chipped and off curve.  And Larry Loxodonta had started doing a "thing." With its foot. As I remember the thing wasn't a "come closer guys, do me in profile" thing. It came over more like Travis Bickle; "Are you walking at me, are you walking at me? I don't see anyone else here. Are you two walking at me?"

Now I realised the reason for the brief briefing. Key point remembered. Not much else I could do. There was  not much chance of a quick Lynford Christie at the first sign of my "let's go and have a chat with a wild elephant game" going tits up. (That mud is why, in the photo, me and yer man look like we've been sawn off at the thighs.) No option for a Hemmingway shot though the forehead.

"We are on the wind's side. It is okay. Be very, very quiet."

Whimper whimper.
Slurp, in the mud, slurp.

I have no experience but I was pretty sure that elephants weren't supposed to do all that 'eye to eye' that this one was up to. Assumption correct. Yer man now had his rifle up at his shoulder.

" Whathuffffff "

"Quiet. Very quiet."

Not a man for lenghty instructions and reassurance, this one.
And if he'd left out the "Be" in the urgency. No reference to Kant and our state of existence, hmmmm, things must be urgent, they must be dicey... this elephant tourist taking a photo thing was  hotting up.


More like. I was thinking "Christ Al f'king Mighty, I hope this b'stard of a beast hasn't got issues with a grandparent or a rellie or a mate being shot by some Ernest Hemmingway type fellah or has lost a child in a stampe while making a Tarzan remake. Or even had an Indian cousin elephant mail him one day saying how some upper class English toff shot his nephew.

Seeing I was the white bloke and by association the white oppressor raping the land and dontredding little Ndoro with the shotgun I was the one that was guilty, guilty, guilty and deserving the death penalty. Being a betting man I would say I was nine to four on favourite for coming in first on Mr Flappy Ears' Stomping List.

Of course, I kept such thoughts quiet. Very very quiet.

I quote from my diary/noteboook, the one I always write when off on the road. "It jerked back its head, with such strength in his neck. It was the head jerk type I do when I'm nodding nod nod nodding off in a hot, stuffy meeting room and I wake up a split second later with a startle. A split second after the head waggle and the tusked hunk gave the front right foot a stamp and he started to run at us. Galloping pallodding through the mud. Coming our way. Ndoro was there, rifle raise up to his shoulder and I am looking straight down the barrel to the sight and to the elephant and it was clear he was ready to give it a brain shot. But all he did was shout Oi Oi ! "

Oi Oi.
What? Oi Oi? Oi Oi... I could have done that. I could have shouted Oi Oi.
Why didn't I get briefed about the Oi Oi thing. And let me shout the Oi Oi when it got to the pant  pissing part of the session?

Oi Oi. Jesus. Why use a trident missile when you can simply shout Oi Oi at the Soviets? Oi Oi. Yeah, that could reduce the UK's nuclear defense budget. Osama bin Laden crapping himself in a cave if the Scots Guards trotted over the horizon shouting Oi Oi. My ass.

Having said that... just one single oi oi burst was sufficient.

And there we stood. The three of us. Elephant doing his ears. Me doing my ass cheeks. Both of us probably thinking the same thing, "Did that bloke with the gun just shout 'Oi Oi' ?"
"Back to the canoe." said Ndoro with his rifle still raised up and wedged in near his shoulder.
I felt like taking the piss and saying "Should I be very very quiet?"

But no. I didn't say that. But believe you me, I was.

Uhhuhhhhhhhh. Breathing out sound.
I was twenty seven years old. Sitting in a canoe getting sunburnt, getting flooded in a rainstorm in the tent and walking through thigh deep mud to an elephant was the best hundred dollars spent in my life so far.

Writing this down now I am relieved Ndoro didn't have to shoot an elephant just because he'd asked for a volunteer and I was pants at the keeping quiet part. I was more glad later, back home. I was glad because my pal had been shooting photos of the fun from the canoe. Being a total lamp, I left and forgot my roll of film (with the close ups / over the shoulder views pre and post Oi Oi) in the back of the Land Rover.

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