Travel Essay: The South African landscape spreads out in muted tones of brown, grey gold and dirt-green. As the horses in front of me move, the dust from their hooves spreads a smoky filter of light over the landscape. I can taste the earth on my lips. Sunlight streams out from behind a thin veil of morning clouds and the dawn chorus of firefinch and black-winged plover hum along in the sparse winter branches of the downed trees. Our guide blames the elephants for the twenty-foot diameter trees that lie sideways. Apparently, elephants tumble the trees as they scrounge for hidden puddles because they instinctively know that the trees know where the water lives. I have traveled from California to South African Makalali Preserve to horseback safari in search of the Big Five: elephant, leopard, lion, black rhino, and buffalo. I know, down deep inside, we are all looking for something.
As all seven of us ride out, we pick up a light canter, and as I have spent my entire adult life on the back of a horse, I balance lightly: a lifetime motto I try to live by both in and out of the saddle. A tower of six adult giraffe glide along with us for sixty yards, looking down their necks through the scant dry leaves clinging to the trees in hope of wetter days. Although the giraffe amaze us with grace, I want to see the Big Five, but mostly, I want to see the elephants. Rusty, our guide, mentions that they are the real kings of the jungle. They are the shakers of trees and the movers of seeds. With their destruction comes regeneration. As I start to disagree, he tells me to think about it for a bit before I respond. He flashes me a knowing smile. He says that the forest cannot survive without the elephants. I am convinced that I can’t either.
Out in the bush, Rusty teaches us about the art of tracking. Immediately, we spot elephant prints. To determine their direction, Rusty points out the shape and drag marks of the toe and judges their recentness by the pattern of depth the foot leaves in the sand. Rusty asks if anyone wants to feel the dung for more information. I eagerly dismount and pick up the poo to check the temperature and moisture with my bare hand. The warm, soft pile tells us the elephants have passed this spot in the last fifteen minutes, but the evasive beasts are not easy to find, Rusty states.
We continue our search for a few hours, and although we have no luck, we have hope. As we ride back to basecamp for lunch, I keep thinking about what Rusty has said about the real king of the jungle.
After lunch and a siesta, we grab an additional layer of clothes and camera gear and head out for a game drive in the roofless, doorless Landcruiser. Over the next few hours, we see plenty of wildlife. A white rhino-friendlier than the black rhino– splashes in a puddle with her calf looking like something from prehistoric times. We spot hyenas and hear them laugh as we ride away. The giraffe and zebra hang together and watch as we pass them, and although their stunning grace mesmerizes briefly, my mind is set on elephants. And as the sun starts to dip away behind the Drakensberg Mountains, the gentle rays wane and the air becomes chilly. But on we press in search of the elephants. Although animal sightings are never guaranteed, we are on a mission.
As we drive along the dirt roads with thick groves of trees that chaperone both sides of the lonely road, we spot movement through the gray brush in the golden hour of the day, and Rusty points out the shadows stomping through the bramble. We can’t yet make out a single body, but every now and again, the dwindling sun catches a tusk and a brilliant white light sparks through the nothingness of the brambles like lightning. I am reminded of the power and prestige of their ivory, of how it belongs to the elephants alone, of the death and destruction involved for humans to claim something that doesn’t belong to them. It hurts deep to think about that, right now, here. So I start to think that maybe Rusty is right: elephants might actually be the real kings, after all.
And then, out of the trees, fifty feet in front of us, a bull emerges like a skyscraper appearing out of the fog. He crosses the path in front of us. Fifteen feet tall and fifteen thousand pounds, his mysticism stuns, flesh and metaphor together. He stops and looks directly at all of us, acting as sentry as his herd crosses in front of him and creeps back into the bush. Remarkably sentient beings, the herd touches each other, trunk to tail. As they move, the ground softly, quietly rumbles. The precision and shape of their giant feet mute their steps. Big ballerinas. They pass before us and disappear, all except the massive bull. He waits for everyone to cross before he follows his herd back into the trees. And right before our eyes, all nineteen of them fold into the grey-green treeline to become indiscernible, leaving us stunned and hungry for more.
Rusty makes a judgement call as to where they will cross next, and as we drive on the road parallel to the moving brush, we see their occasional penumbra, and catch glimpses of ivory tusks catching and reflecting the waning afternoon sunlight. Never before in my small domestic life as an English professor in California have I understood, or really even cared, about ivory rights and conservation efforts, but as I gaze upon their splendor, I feel something in me change. Even though I understand the complexity of those issues, in that moment, I can’t help but hate humankind for their exploitation of elephants.
Up the road, we stop again in another clearing and wait. This time, the gracious beasts come out through the break of brush and head toward our jeep in a meandering, steady, unhurried and deliberate pace. Their trunks sway and their ears flap, and we hear only the mechanical snapping and beeping sounds of our cameras. The elephants don’t seem notice the intrusion. They seem to know that we need to document their peaceful procession. As we sit in veneration, they come within five feet of the jeep and watch us as we watch them. They swing their trunks to and fro as they pass. If we stuck a foot out the side of the open-air jeep, we could touch them. They curiously sniff and reach their snake-like organ out to the air around our bodies, seeing with their snouts, as they pass us—so close I can feel the prickly, stiff-wire hairs on their trunk with my arm.
One elephant, a younger male perhaps around twenty and weighing maybe twelve thousand pounds, looks right at me as he passes, tusks alight with the sun and a face full of nicks and battle scars. He smiles a squinty-eyed knowing smile, directly at me. There is a hole in his ear, and I wonder what branch has the power to pierce that South-African-sun-hardened skin. He knows his power, and I fall in love with the total sum of his being. Not just with him, but with what he represents, what he has lived through, why he allows me this moment. They pass around the Jeep granting permission to take photo after photo. They accept our presence quietly and move around us, sniffing us before they head back into the brush and somehow magically become invisible.
We are stunned.Their heroic courtesy touches each of us. Looking at their wrinkled wisdom, their fierce tusks, their friendly trunks, the vortex of emotion in their almost-human eyes, my soul aches at their gentleness. I wonder how a person could ever want to take their tusks. There is a knowing on the part of the elephant—a tete-a-tete of species acknowledgement that suggests unexplainable erudition and mindfulness, so full of emotion and expression. Why did they make the choice to move so close to a jeep full of humans?
As we start to make our way back to camp for dinner, they grant us one more visit. As the sun sets in the distance, and the night coolness starts to creep in, Rusty stops the jeep in their path and we gaze in inaudible splendor as they come out of the brush, parading first in a parallel line, then slowly shifting horizontally toward us, trunk-to-tail, eight abreast but staggered like they want to play a game of Red Rover, marching steadily on a mission. All nineteen elephants swarm around the jeep at various angles and distances as they pass to the other side of the road in order to get to where they are headed, less interactive this time, but still so present! We are simply in their way.
I sit, dumbfounded, collecting my thoughts, feeling my humanness, paying homage to the gentle beasts. I reach up to my eyes for a second, and I realize that I am crying. Somehow, I am no longer a single person, but am, in some small way, a part of them. The emotional impact of their presence stuns me, and I think about the honor they have awarded us by their simple presence. In my humanness, I want to shout out “I love you” but I restrain myself. I am convinced that we have been assigned the task of sharing their message: We come in peace. We come in peace.
We stare mesmerized as they sink again back into the brush, thunderstruck by the nearness. There is mystery behind their masked gray visage, beneath those flapping ears, a delicate yet expansive power, commanding the wordlessness ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, roaring fires, and magical sunsets. I am reminded by these elephants of my duty of compassionate attention, of my responsibility to the supreme art of bearing witness, and my heart is full.
BIO: Sherri Harvey currently teaches English in California’s Silicon Valley, holds an MA in Modern Fiction and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She spends her days trying to balance thinking with doing by pouring over words, taking pictures, galloping her horses, hiking with her dog, scaring her husband and drinking vodka. She believes that the childhood force that gave shape to her thinking was the opportunity to travel extensively. When in doubt, go somewhere. She has published in Animal Literary Magazine, daCunha Global Storytelling, 3Elements Literary Review, TaxiCab Mag, Sunday Night Stories, Light, Space & Air and daCunha. She blogs for Women Who Explore. Check her out at sherriharvey.com.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SHERRI HARVEY c.2018