Alden Boon

Being One with the Elephants at Addo National Elephant Park

21/11/2016

Addo’s sky ere dawn was a curtain of black, vast and starless.  On this particular Friday, I had woken up early to prepare for a day at Addo Elephant National Park. At the suggestion of Cindy, my guide from Earthstompers, I cranked “Circle of Life” up to a loud volume and psyched myself up for the day.

A sign “Dung Beetles Have Right of Way” at the gate amused this city boy, until I realised heeding the advice is not volitional. The 28,000-hectare Addo National Elephant Park is home to a thriving ecosystem of Cape buffalos, zebras, antelopes, warthogs, and of course elephants. Quarries they are to lions, hyenas and leopards: natural predators introduced to the park to keep the grand design in check.

Much fewer in count these animals are than their preys, so lady luck must be smiling upon us as my group and I spotted a lion five minutes into our game drive. “A male lion sleeps up to twenty hours a day,” hollered our guide over the four-wheel-drive vehicle’s whirring engine. “Sounds like I found my spirit animal,” I thought.

Long winding stretches the vehicle now traversed. Looming before us were tall verdant trees, which stood with wizened ones heralding the coming of winter. Like domesticated sheep, my fellow spectators would at our safari guide’s every beckon stand up, crane their necks and point to a faraway disembodied being. Cameras flew aloft and were steadied.

“There, right there, behind that tree, do you see it? Oh, it’s so beautiful!”

“I don’t see… oh I see it!” I said, masking the truth and begrudging my failing eyesight.

Addo Elephant National Park | South Africa
Grazing warthogs. Like elephants they have tusks, meant for combat and digging. Their mane runs from their spines to the middle of their backs.
Addo Elephant National Park | South Africa
The stripe of a zebra is like a fingerprint: unique to each individual.
Addo Elephant National Park | South Africa
The lion sits amidst verdant shrub, his gaze travelling far and wide. Solitary though he might be an air of deathly authority he still exudes. For now he regards the roving vehicles as nothing more than a trail of ants.
Addo Elephant National Park | South Africa
Belying the Cape buffalo's calm presence is a potent rage that one is foolish to stir up.
Addo Elephant National Park | South Africa
Elephants intertwine their trunks as a sign of affection.
Addo Elephant National Park | South Africa
A herd of elephants enjoying a respite at the watering hole.

A scene of tranquility 

We were now whisked away to a viewing area. Like voyeurs we were, gaining a glimpse of the elephants’ lives through enlarged peepholes. Quiet as a mouse we had to be: An elephant in musth could come charging towards us and tear down the fence in one fell swoop — there would be no barrier between us and the creature. The silence was interrupted only by the sporadic sound of camera shutter.

But our experience was peaceful. Herds of elephants, young and mammoth, came to the watering hole and drank. Some playfully sprayed water over their bodies. Some would intertwine their trunks with others’: the human’s equivalent of a handshake. The elephants shared the space harmoniously with a few grazing antelopes, not minding their presence one bit.

An out-of-this-world experience

My second game drive began shortly after lunch, and this time I was ensconced in a private SUV with Cindy taking the wheel. It was a fruitful endeavour: we chanced upon tortoises, dung beetles which we gave right of way to, and even a Cape buffalo.

The buffalo was relishing the blades of grass, looking every bit docile and unimposing despite its size. Yet, a cautionary tone crept into Cindy’s usually-dulcet voice, and I became very mindful I was only a guest in the beast’s home. Persona non grata perhaps, but for now it gave me leave to stay.

Shortly after, we left the buffalo to its sustenance and arrived at a vast expanse of open land. Yonder, a family of elephants treated themselves to a pool of water. Cindy manoeuvred the car so that we stayed on the left side of the pebbled road.

And then, the elephants came lumbering towards us, the thudding of their footsteps pounding louder with every heartbeat. I felt my fate hang in limbo: gaining in speed they were with every stride, and speed augmented their already-massive strength. This herd of ten elephants was headed in my direction, and whether their intention was malicious or not I could not guess. I was now at the mercy of these wild creatures.

Suddenly, a smaller elephant — but still dwarfing our vehicle — broke rank, went right and passed the front of our SUV. Its floppy ears, short tail and wrinkles against a grey hide were in full sight. It paid no attention to us, driven only by its motivation to head forward. Mere seconds later, the rogue elephant reunited with its family. Their heavy limbs whipped up sand as they moved, like wind stirring up dust.

I had survived the charge of the Mûmakil. Very fleetingly I was one with the gargantuan creatures, and the visceral experience was something I had hitherto never felt before. It is a feeling I will continue to chase for the rest of my life.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.

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