The rest of our walk to the village was uneventful. Sprawled among doum palms, the village was quite large with thatched grass huts, set in a very sandy clearing. Deep tracks in the soft sand indicated a 4WD road that ran down the centre of the village. A corrugated tin shack, the village shop, was stocked with soft drinks and other cans of food on shelves. The drinks were warm, since there was no power for electric refrigerators. A woman wandered out with some artifacts for sale, but went away again when she realised we were not buying. No one felt the need just then, for necklaces or bangles.
Lefty had gone to socialise and we stood in a conspicuous uncertain group, smiling and trying to chat with the children, who gathered around us and proudly showed off their ability with their sling shots. The women were busy preparing the evening meal, and a few men were to be seen squatting or lying on their sides, talking among themselves outside the grass huts. Complete families of chickens, strutted among the huts, scratching in the sandy earth. Except for the children, no one seemed particularly interested in us.
The sun was lying low and red over the western horizon and Mark wondered aloud if we had enough daylight left to reach our camp before dark. Lefty reappeared carrying a bag of maize meal for the polers. “Dinner,” he explained to me with a smile. He wore a dark green game rangers uniform, with a crafted leather belt, from which hung a long hunting knife carried in a wonderfully tooled leather sheath. I kept my eyes fixed on this, as I walked in line close behind him, playing a serious game of, “follow the leader”. Keeping in step, dodging thorn trees, stepping over logs, walking softly, sometimes slow and sometimes quick.
Suddenly the whole atmosphere of our walk changed, as around a bend in the
track, close to the river, we came across a herd of six or seven elephant. They were drinking in the marshes. Lefty whispered for us to sit down and make no noise. We obliged immediately. He crept forward and watched for a while. Then, retreating, he motioned us to move back as well. When he judged we were out of hearing of the elephants, he spoke to us.
“I am going to try and frighten the elephants away, so we can pass safely.” he whispered to Mark and me. The others crowded forward, but it is difficult to hear a whisper in the bush.
“If it goes wrong, this boy here,” and he indicated the young lad, “He will lead you to the trees.”
We all nodded seriously. I passed the message along to Anna who was behind me and she to Dirk and so on. However, somewhere along the line, like Chinese Whispers, the message went astray and when Lefty stood up to move forward, those last in the line began to tiptoe away towards the tree line. Lefty almost jumped up and down in frustration, when they failed to see his wild gesticulations to stay put. Luckily I managed to attract their attention and Mark indicated they were to stay crouched down with us, until Lefty gave us the all clear to move forward.
We crouched there in the dust of the track and felt our knees begin to cramp, while the elephants rumbling softly, continued to drink quite unaware of us crouched nearby. The soft breeze was blowing in our faces. Lefty stood and walked towards the herd. Absolutely nothing happened, as they didn’t see him and couldn’t smell him. They were right across our track so it was necessary to shift them if we were to pass safely.
After some minutes, when my knees were beginning to creak from crouching so long, Lefty begun to clap his hands and shout. Suddenly all was sound and movement, with elephants squealing and lumbering off. At first I was too scared to look where they were going, but I realised I would have a fighting chance if I knew which way to run, so I focused on them properly. They were magnificent. They shot across the track and into bush to the right of us, almost as if they were embarrassed at being caught out drinking.
Lefty swung an arm, urging us to move. “Quickly!” he hissed, “And keep crouching low.” It is amazing just how fast you can move in a crouching position when you need too! We had to squelch through the edge of the marsh and no one minded at all, that our boots got wet and muddy. There was our camp – so close! And more to the point, there were John, Jess and David watching us and laughing at our predicament! David had even video-taped it all!
Chores were suspended here because the “people”, as the polers were
referred to, had undertaken to be our crew in exchange for a little extra payment. This was pleasant since it allowed us to relax, in true safari fashion, in our canvas chairs around the camp fire, beers in hand, telling tall stories about our day’s adventures.
Later, after dinner and more beers, with the flickering firelight only just holding at bay, the mysterious darkness of the surrounding jungle, we broke into small companionable groups of new friends. Jess and I huddled in the dark, exchanging life stories with John. With no need tonight to stay sober to drive, he matched us beer for beer, telling us of his childhood in Kenya. In turn he listened fascinated to our stories about Australia.
We stayed talking by the fire, long after most of the others had gone to their tents. Vaguely, I recall stumbling through the dark to the bush toilet, “sweeping” the surrounding trees with our torches, for any wild animals brave enough to hang about, with all the clatter we had been making.
During the night, the silence was often shattered by the tuba-like calls of the hippo, and their splashing in the nearby pool. Once I awoke to the sound of heavy padding footsteps, and something brushed against the canvas of our tent. I wanted to lie awake and savour all the sounds of the African night, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open.