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Monday, 16 May 2011

The Elephant's Party

Elephant approaching the Riverbank, Mongwe, Zimbabwe. Photo by Karl Raubenheimer.

The huge Bull elephant surveyed Whip-it-dupa-do with wise ochre eyes. He advanced down the mud bank and to the rivers edge. Behind him a line of eight more Bulls followed suit, the damp mud of the Zambezi River collapsing easily under their combined weight. Mark, our guide and boat driver, tried the 200cc engine, it whirred meancingly but the boat didn't move an inch. The Bull advanced again, lifted his trunk and stepped into the slow flowing water.

In the heart of Southern Africa, the Zambezi River begins in Angola, flows through Zambia, and graces the North of Zimbabwe, before finding the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. Behind the huge man-made Lake Kariba which borders Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Zambesi River flows down into the Zambezi valley. In this section of the River, between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, we found ourselves at Mongwe, far from civilisation, for a week of fishing, game viewing, and adventure.

The day had begun with a beautiful sunrise, making the hills of southern Zambia glow like embers in a fire. The insects rose as early as our motley crew of would-be bushmen. The tsetse flies delivering potent bites, filled with sleeping sickness. The heat of the day turned idle-lazing into a sweaty activity, and casting fishing lines into the deep eddies became a tiring task. Any liquid consumed rapidly became sweat, drenching ones body and flowing from every pore. We spent the morning motoring upstream, then drifting back down the River with the current, enjoying the tranquility. Pods of hippo and banks of crocodiles bordered the river, watching us with beady eyes, ready to tear to shreds any unwary swimmer. Brave Zambians rode the same river on hollowed out wooden canoes, coping with the imminent danger of becoming dinner, in order to put their own on the table.

The River flows over ever-changing sand banks, and around one particular sweeping curve, a pair of Lioness lazed with blood-stained chops, after feasting on an unknown and unseen victim. The boat drifted closer and closer to the magnificant cats, eventually coming to rest against the bank. The pair of Lioness, sedated after their feast, looked at us with satisfyed boredom. Karl, being brave, ventured out of the boat, camera in hand, in search of the perfect shot. He stepped cautiously onto the grass of the bank, and raised his camera. In a flash the closer of the two Lioness leapt forward in a classic move of intimidation. She mock-charged, and came in a single bound, halving the distance between her and the bewildered Karl. Our burgeoning photographer froze, the yellow eyes of the Lioness piercing through him. The 250kg mass of rippling muscle keen to test its teeth and claws. A violent death felt very close. Karl retreated and made it back onto the boat. Luckily, like domestic cats, Lions too hate water, unless you find yourself in the Ocavango delta of Botswana, where the Lion spend their lives hunting in knee deep water, bringing down Buffalo. “I thought she was even closer” Karl managed, “Then I realized I had my Zoom on”.

Lioness, Zambezi River. Photo By Karl Raubenheimer.

As the day began to age, the sky changed, evolving from blue, to azure, to a pink tinged canvas. We first saw the Bull Elephant around another bend in the River. 5km downriver from Mongwe, we crossed into Mana Pools, a section of the River plentiful in game, and popular with travellers and locals lucky enough to make it into Zimbabwe. The Elephant were gathered at the riverbank, eating the thorny acacia trees, and caressing each other gently with their massive trunks. We egded closer using the current of the River, and took the boat within 10 meters from the riverbank. Then the Patriarch spotted us.

Vroooom, the boat's engine roared, Vroooom. We were stuck, the unseen sandbank below holding us fast. The enormous Bull was now only 5 meters away, and advancing quickly. With his trunk raised brazenly above his old grey head, decision time was upon us. At any moment the huge grey shape could pluck one of us out of the boat, and dash us against the jagged rocks. Mark, putting down his beer, gave us our instructions. “Everyone out of the boat, its time to push”. Giddily, we disembarked from the relative safety of 'Whip-it', and stepped into the knee-deep water. The river was warm and the sun baked down on bare backs. Several crocodiles eyed us from a distance, and more than likely a few unseen crocodiles were even closer. They kept their distance. A nearby pod of hippo watched our actions with equal intrigue. The imminent danger filled us with adrenaline, and a rush of unexpected confidence. With our combined effort the boat finally moved, and Mark, sitting at the engine, sipped at his beer again. Reversing the boat 10 meters, we sat and watched the herd of Elephant gracefully cross the River, trunks and tails linked up in a grey train. They crossed the deep channel of water easily, and made their way to an island halfway across the River, where they were joined by a group of females who had appeared behind us silently. The full moon hanging low in the sky seemed to signal a social gathering for these huge beasts, an elephant party, and one where gatecrashing would mean certain death.

Boating back up the mighty Zambezi with the warm wind blowing in our hair (and lack of in Mark's case), life felt sweet. The nightcap went down with much appreciation; Appreciation for the beauty and joys of our adventures, the luckiness of such a luxury as travel and the contentness that comes with a fulfilling day. The sun set against a tranquil backdrop of Zambian Mountains . The mighty Zambezi kept flowing, as it always will, long after we and the Elephant have left this world.

Sunset on the Zambezi. Photo by Karl Raubenheimer.