Sleeping with Elephants

At 5:30am a young man with an unmistakable Zimbabwean accent stood outside our tent and shouted “knock! Knock” or “Wakee! Wakee!” The sun hadn’t quite risen on the Zambezi River just beyond our tent. As we got ready for the morning game drive, we could hear the hippos snorting and splashing in the river a hundred yards away. Tea and a light continental breakfast was ready on the main veranda. Light breakfast was a relative term — usually hard boiled eggs, fresh bread toasted over a fire, sweet rolls of some sort, cereal, yogurt, juice, fresh fruit and cheese and meats.

By 6:30 we loaded into the jeeps and began the morning game drive. Peter road shotgun, a Danish couple in front, and Malcolm and me behind in a vehicle that could hold seven. Our guide, Mundoga, a slight, fast talking guy, kept up a happy chatter, exchanging jokes with us and laughing at our responses. A different Mundoga emerged when he was tracking animals — focused, intense and alert, leaning over the side of his door, studying tracks. Once or twice, he grabbed his rifle and walked a ways, leaving us in the safety of the Jeep. Without him we would have seen little, even if the animals had stood up on their hind legs and waved their arms.

When Mundoga spotted animals, we stopped. At least that first day. As the days went on we drove past the more common elephants, baboons, impalas and Cape buffalo. But initially we all got out our cameras and clicked away. The Danish couple had brought three bags of camera gear. They even had to buy an extra seat on the small aircraft that took us to the camps. Malcolm and me with our little Olympus cameras were clearly out classed. Peter was more respectable with our new Nikon.

We bounced along dirt or grass roads rebuilt each spring after the winter rains. Apparently, the “leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures” philosophy sort of applied to the design of the roads. Any potential obstacle to the road was left where it was. The roads weaved around fallen trees, between termite hills and up and down through ravines carved by the winter rains. It made for a lot of swaying and jostling and slow speeds — our guide called an “African massage”. The smoother, but not necessarily speedier routes were the dried up riverbeds. Riding along them felt a bit like riding on compact snow and ice — some sliding and skidding, always with the potential for getting stuck. Even these four wheel jeeps with their low gears were challenged and at one point we did indeed get stuck in soft sand, requiring all of us to hop out the give a hearty push.

By 7:30 on our first day we could have left Africa having “bagged” most of the major animals, except for the lions and leopard. There would be no rhinos—we were told they had been removed from this area to protect them from poachers. Around 9:30 Mundoga stopped along the banks of the Zambezi, set up a folding table, placed a cloth on top, began to make fresh tea or French press coffee for us, served with a shortbread cookie while we watched the hippos in the river. Across the way we could see Zambia and its mountains.

We loaded back in the jeep and went off in search of wild game for another hour or so. Mundoga periodically picked up the radio and called to the other guides, sometimes speaking to them in Shona, his native language, and occasionally in English to share the location of the more elusive animals. The prized sighting was the lions. Once located, we drove within a few feet of them, where they remained unfazed, even bored, by our presence. Once they moved to sit in the shade of our Jeep.

Back to the camp for lunch. We were greeted by the staff with cold wash clothes to eliminate the worst of the road dust. And if time, and the elephants allowed, we might have time for a quick shower. Elephants allow? Yep. At Ruckomechi, the elephants rule. They wander through the camp at will, up to five or six of them at a time, an occasional male, several mature mothers and their babies. If the elephants were between you and your destination, you simply waited. In more extreme cases, the staff drove you to your door. More than once we were held captive as five or six of them surrounded our tent.

The baboons were another hazard. While they clearly ran from us — we suspect because they had learned humans carry slingshots — the real problem was they loved to drop from the trees shading our tents onto our tents, treating the tents as trampolines. Malcolm’s tent was one of their favorite landing sites.

Through the heat of the day we lounged, wrote a little, edited our photographs, read a bit, or went for a swim. Then headed back to the veranda for afternoon tea at 3:30. Tea for some consisted of beer or wine, but we generally stuck with iced tea with the appetizers and sweets served. Then back in the jeeps for the afternoon game drive.

Game was less abundant in the afternoon. But the elephants, the Cape buffalo and the hippos were visible any time of day. And then the safari ritual of a sundowner. Just before sunset, Mundoga again set out the table, often on the banks of the Zambezi where we watched the hippos, and tracker/guide turned bartender. Gin and tonics never tasted so good.

In northern Zimbabwe, on the border near Mozambique, when the sun sets, it gets dark almost immediately. The drink helped calm our nerves for the ride home with only a red light, used primarily to spot nocturnal animals and less for navigation. It was at night that we saw the painted dogs.

One morning our guide, Mundoga, urged us to load up earlier than usual. A leopard had been sighted, triggering a mad dash across packed dirt roads, onto soft sands in the riverbeds, through six foot high mounds of grass and down narrow animal paths through the scrub brush. Without our guide we would never have seen the leopard laying at the base of a tree. Even after he pointed to the spot I had trouble seeing the cat, he blended in so well. Mundoga was experienced enough to bring us back to the spot in the afternoon to see the leopard draped across the limbs of the tree, a dramatic sight.

We returned the camp for the happy hour before dinner at 8:00 to share around the fire pit stories of each group’s adventures. With a staff of 25, and only 12-18 guests we were well cared for. And well fed.

The last duty for Mundoga or one of the other guides was to grab a rifle and escort us to our rooms. Anytime after dark we could only walk around the camp with an armed guard. I thought at first this was over doing the protective bit until I saw a very large male lion with his kill about 500 yards from our tent.

Lights out shortly thereafter, as 5:30 am came quickly.

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