Elegance among Elephants

May 18, 2005 · 0 comments

7-399-26  stock photo of Zimbabwe, Zambezi National Park, Sunset on the Zambezi River

text by Maxine Rose Schur

Sunset, Matetsi, Zimbabwe

The sun —a fiery globe — cast flames of light across the river. Though forty kilometers away, Victoria Falls filled the sunset air with a constant purr. Elephants grazed on the papyrus-covered islands and rolled in the mud wallows close to shore. One elephant knelt silently, head bowed as if in prayer. In the reeds, a frog chirruped. A white egret lifted off like a tiny Concorde. The river was infested with crocodiles, and the land rife with rhinos, jackals and lions but I felt a primeval peace. I had arrived only an hour ago at Matetsi Game Reserve in Zimbabwe and was now sailing on a covered wooden barge down the Zambezi. Plane-weary, our little group, clinked glasses of white wine and yelped with surprise at the water’s abundance of yawning hippos. I mentally pinched myself — this was not Disneyland; this was Africa! Real Adventure Land. Of course even before I left home I was intoxicated with the romance of going on safari and found myself repeating the words Zimbabwe, Zambezi, Zambia to delight myself with the very sounds of faraway.

Matetsi Game Reserve extends over 50,000 hectares in north-western Zimbabwe and is just one part of a huge conservation area. Straddling two countries Matetsi includes the Matetsi Safari Area where trophy hunting rights are leased to safari companies, the Zambezi National Park and Hwange National Park. For animals, Matetsi is a moveable feast. No fences prevent them from traveling into northern Botswana and beyond to Kenya. Because of this freedom, Matetsi has the greatest concentration of animal and bird species on earth, including zebra, buffalo, rhino, giraffe, kudu, impala, wildebeest, lion, leopard, cheetah, sable, and hyena. And with its approximately 50,000 elephants, Matetsi is the world’€™s last great elephant sanctuary.

7-399-1 stock photo of Zimbabwe, Zambezi National Park, Elephant on the Zambezi River bank

Matetsi Game Reserve is managed by &Beyond Africa, formerly operating as  Conservation Corporation of Africa, which also manages twenty-plus other exclusive and intimate lodges across the continent. All emphasize reclamation of land, preservation of wildlife, education, and strengthening local African communities. Matetsi is actually composed of two game lodges: River Camp aside the Zambezi river and its neighbor, Safari Camp on the savanna of the Westwood Vlei. Both offer accommodation that are “Out of Africa” chic.

Opening the door of my black teak chalet at the 36 bed River Camp, I was struck by the suite’s bold beauty. The rugged jewel-blue pottery, twinkling copper basins, languorously-draped bed canopy, intricately woven mats, fanciful ebony carvings and batik, private deck and plunge pool and windows delivering wide-screen animal viewing, all work together to create an idealized African ambiance.

7-401-19 stock photo of Zimbabwe, Zambezi NP, Matetsi Water Lodge, room

7-403-6 stock photo of Zimbabwe, Zambezi NP, Matetsi Water Lodge, bathroom tile detail

Though Matetsi Game Lodge offers exclusivity, it’s casual-friendly. At dinner the first night, we dined outside in jeans around an acacia wood bonfire. At our feet the Zambezi murmured and in the distance, jackals screamed. Best of all, less than a mile across the vlei, three elephants were drinking at a small watering hole and the white moonlight seemed to cast them into a marble tableau. In this new, exotic world, we talked enthusiastically about the next day’s safari, asking dozens of questions. I sat next to our ranger, Priscilla, a Shona tribeswoman from the village of Makone in the Eastern Highlands. She told me she had recently received her ranger’s license after studying four years at the National Resources College. Despite discouragement from some of her teachers and classmates, Priscilla had become Zimbabwe’s first black, female ranger. I asked Priscilla why she decided to become a ranger at all. “It’s hard to explain,”€ she answered, “perhaps it’s because when I see animals, particularly the elephants, I feel something great in my heart — it’s like I know them.

I was in awe of Priscilla yet slightly apprehensive. Pretty Priscilla didn’€™t look like she could knock the skin off a rice pudding, let alone protect me from charging bull elephants. The next afternoon, when I climbed up with my fellow adventurers into the open Land Rover, I felt a guilty and brief envy of the other group setting out with Ranger Dave — all bulk and biceps. He seemed far more capable of dealing with bad-tempered buffalo. Nevertheless, pretending I was brave, I went off on my very first safari. Priscilla laughed and drove fast while the native tracker perched high above the fender scanned the ground, bush, and horizon.

7-430-1 stock photo of Zimbabwe, Zambezi NP, Staff, Matetsi Game Lodge

From the Land Rover, I could see for miles through the dry bush, the benefit of coming to Africa in our summer. “€œMost tourists get it all wrong!€” Priscilla told us. Hoping to avoid the heat, North Americans come to Africa during the North American winter, forgetting that in the southern hemisphere the seasons are the opposite. They arrive in summer, when it’€™s hot, muggy, and difficult to see through the thick foliage.

But winter bareness is perfect for seeing animals. Now, as we rolled along in the crisp sunny air, the landscape was dry and sparse; the dense thicket of sickelbush, skeletal, the twigs bearing only few dead, moth-colored leaves.

I spotted an African fish eagle fly over our heads, a catfish clamped in its mouth. I watched three small turquoise and purple birds, Lilac-Breasted Rollers, zigzagging between the acacias. I watched the tracker up front. I watched how he watched. He moved his head only in tiny increments from side to side while his eyes roamed. He did not talk but just listened, his head cocked to the smallest sound. As we drove along the tracker pointed out flocks of animals or a single animal that all of us would have missed because we did not know how to look for animals. Thanks to him, we got on the trail of zebra, giraffe and impala and were richly rewarded with up-close views I must have shot four film rolls of optical-illusion zebra herds and loping giraffe. But I couldn’€™t capture the graceful springbok that at approach, flee like dancers leaping offstage. My head was spinning with images when we came upon a sight that left even Priscilla speechless.

We had turned toward a watering hole. In the dimming late-afternoon light, there they were. Elephants. Hundreds of them. It was like a kind of elephant convention.

“€œI’ve never seen so many!”€ Priscilla cried.

She guessed that eight or more herds were amassed. Elephants were lying on their sides in the mud, bathing in the water, grazing on the tall yellow grass. Mother elephants strolled about, their babies stumbling to keep pace. Adolescent bulls arrived in their own aggressive gangs while older males, looking as large as mammoths, warily watched us watching them.

We sat silent in amazement… and a little fear too. After all, it’€™s one thing to see an elephant or two at a nice distance, but it’s another to discover that your large Land Rover is abruptly diminished by an uncountable number of African elephants.

Encircled, we had no choice but to stay. Without talking, we filled the air with camera clicks and the insect-like drone of film rewinding.

7-407-10 stock photo of Zimbabwe, Zambezi NP, Baobab tree

Twilight fell. More and more elephants arrived, as if on some pachyderm pilgrimage. In the gloomy light, the elephants passed before us, their feet stirring up huge billows of dust that obscured their legs and gave the dreamlike impression they were walking on clouds.

We were lulled by this apparition when a young male approached our Land Rover threateningly. Trunk lifted, ears spread wide as flags, he trumpeted a terrible warning, prelude to a charge. My heart stopped, another woman dove down on the seat and I learned the true worth of our tracker. To our astonishment, the tracker fixed his eyes steadily on the animal, showed his teeth and smiled. The tracker bobbled his head in a way I’d seen merchants do when rejecting a low offer in the bazaars of India. The bull elephant stopped his advance, turned and moved slowly away.

“€œDid he say something to the elephant?”€ I asked Priscilla.

“€œYes,”  he said, “€œHa! I know you’re bluffing!”

“How could he know that!”€

“€œHe just knows.”

The sky grew even darker and I wondered when on God’€™s earth, we could ever make our escape? In front of us, the watering hole swarmed with elephants. Behind us, stood a loitering gang of male adolescents. Another herd was arriving from the right and to the left of us somewhere lurked the threatening bull. I felt fear uncoiling inside me, and another woman reminded Priscilla in a tremulous whisper, that she had three children back in New York who needed her. But Priscilla turned to us and brightly announced, “€œTime for cocktails!” We had all been warned not to get out of the Land Rover whatever we do, but now the tracker jumped down from his seat and went to the back of the vehicle and withdrew an ice bucket from a wicker basket, then proceeded to mix us gin and tonics. In crystal glasses yet. Priscilla’s own calm, courage (and the drinks) soon calmed us. In the deepening dusk, the elephants had become no more than murky shapes. I sipped my cocktail to the mysterious music of their screams and snorts, knowing I’€™d remember this forever.

7-394-43 stock photo of Zimbabwe, Zambezi NP, Sunset on the Zambezi River

Night fell. We all suddenly realized that not only did the stars seem more brilliant here but they were in the wrong place. Pointing out the Southern Cross, the Connecticut lawyer expressed our wonderment at being in southern Africa by exclaiming, “€œIt’€™ s even a whole different sky!”€

At last, the adolescent gang moved to the left, allowing us to leave. But to turn, we had to drive right up to the watering hole. A group of mother elephants, the matriarchs,€ roared a warning and their terrifying bellows echoed in the blackness as we drove off.

7-412-27 stock photo of Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls, Main Falls

That night at dinner, we dined outside by candlelight then took brandies on the deep-pillowed sofas of the elegant outdoor lobby that overlooks the veldt. I looked anew at the pale gray elephants in the moonlit distance. Graham Greene once said that the darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it. At Matetsi, after my first safari drive, I sensed that I was beginning to know Africa, if only in my heart.

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