The first elephant we saw in Kruger made our entire side trip worth it. After seeing an elephant that didn’t quite sate our appetite in Etosha National Park, we were desperately hungry for more.
Sonica, the guest house owner, had told us where we’d best be suited to see an elephant.
“Olifantsriver is where you go. That’s got many elephants there. In African language, this means ‘Elephant River’. You should go there to see many elephants,” she said in her limited English vocabulary.
So, that’s exactly where we headed. And for the first part of the day, we came up dry. The river was dry, too. Such a wide, deep river valley was down to nothing but stream-like trickles throughout the entire riverbed. A sign above the bridge we were driving indicated that flood levels reached fifteen feet higher than the bridge in 2005. However, thirteen years later, the animals (and people) near Kruger were running dry on water.
“I knew we shouldn’t have listened to her,” Grandad said of Sonica, “We’ve done nothing but get burned by local advice so far, what made us think this would be any different?”
There were no elephants to be found. We sat and waited under the shade of a sky-scraping tree that overlooked the busiest part of the river we could find. Although the breeze was nice and the occasional fright of a nearby sound off in the bush making us think lions were on the prowl was a rush, we still were greedy for elephants.
And then, out of nowhere, we saw him. A big guy; larger than any animal I had ever seen. He had a beautiful gray color – one that you could only imagine an elephant having. And his tusks – Oh, boy, his tusks; the largest I’d seen even in photographs. He was an old boy, too. You could tell by how aged his skin was.
“Oh, my god. Oh, my god,” Grandad whispered to me. You could tell his entire heart was thumping with joy. He truly loved these creatures. “Adam, look. Look at him.”
The elephant in front of us moved with such grace and subtlety, and he put on a show that I swear he was trying to charge us for. Only a mere thirty feet away from where we sat silently, he stared right at us with us large, floppy ears spread wide as he operated his long, swinging trunk on a swivel.
I watched amazed as the power of his trunk ripped gobs and gobs of leaves from every bush around him. He’d rip limbs off with the leaves and stick them in his mouth all alike.
“He sure is an old bull, ain’t he? Wow, what an animal. What an animal,” Grandad said. He was deeply moved by the experience to witness something so raw and unexpected front and center. I was, too.
He turned to the river to wash down his meal and cool himself off. I’ll tell you, if you’ve never seen an elephant play in a river, it’s a scene everyone should see before their life is over. The great elephant laughed while he sprayed water and kicked mud all over his body. He was just an old boy having some fun; and why wouldn’t he?
Grandad whispered mutterings so weak. This was it for him – this was his chase in Africa all along – the reason he put himself through it all. He was so satisfied and I couldn’t help but be happy for him.
The great elephant put on a show for us worth every day spent suffering through the differences we occurred in Africa. It’s as if all of our problems and hardships we went through between us and with the cultural realities were solved in that one moment of pure elephant bliss.
Slowly, the beautiful gray mass disappeared across the river bed into the bush and we were left with just the lasting image of everything we’d just seen. It was beautiful. For the rest of the day, we relinquished in the feeling of that moment – and our day was far from over.
There’s one more moment to that day, and pardon me for going on about the animals – this is Africa, after all. It was later in the afternoon, still along the Olifantsriver but more southerly, we saw a trio of elephants by the roadside, but shyly hiding behind trees. We could see their trunks swing and ears flop, but they didn’t seem to want to put on a show as badly as the elephant before.
“A Mama and Pa and their baby, it seems. Elephants are very matriarchal creatures. Wouldn’t be surprised if we’re intimidating her. That’s why they’re staying behind the trees. They probably want to cross the road, but she won’t let her baby cross with us sitting here. We should go,” Grandad said.
I imagined how hard it must’ve been for Grandad to leave what might have been his last chance to watch African elephants, but it just goes to show the love he has for the animals. As per his request, I drove the car slowly away and down the road. Then, not three minutes down the road, another one appeared from the bush. And another, and another. Ten feet further, we saw a half-dozen more behind the bush and behind them a dozen more.
Soon, an entire heard had made it to the forefront of the bush. We saw more than we could count. I began counting, but lost count as soon as they started crossing the road. Fifty, sixty, seventy! All in all, we guessed we could have seen over eighty elephant crossing to the river. It was a giant herd. The female matriarchs of the herd cleared way for them to cross, and they didn’t like us being there.
All of the sudden, five giant gray elephants spanning the width of the double-sided road started marching towards our car. I looked in my rear-view mirror – more of the heard was crossing behind us, too. Grandad became concerned. I did, too, but not vocally.
“Adam. Adam. They’re getting nearer. Adam,” he said to me as I instinctively reached for my camera. I backed up slowly as I was filming the entire happening.
Looming monster elephants marching at us from the front side in front of a herd crossing their behind – another part of the herd crossing in my rear-view. We were trapped and I wasn’t sure what to do. The elephants to the front marched closer and we had only a matter of feet to the front and back to somehow escape this.
“Adam. Adam!” Grandad’s panic was rising with mine. I was gearing up for an off-road escape route, but our car clearly wasn’t made for such an escape. These beasts could crush us in an instant. One pounce on our tiny excuse for a vehicle and our existence would cease to remain. Five more seconds and I was going to floor it off the road; I had decided it all in my head without any time to consult with Grandad.
Then, right in the nick of time, the matriarchs stopped and the rest of the herd crossed behind them. They had given the herd enough room and all at once had stopped marching forward. They stood there like a wall until the whole herd – all eighty-some-odd elephants had crossed and then they themselves retired off the road.
As frightening as the entire thing was, it was quite a sight. Such a display of intelligence and dominance. Once our hearts stopped beating, we were able to grasp what we thought had happened and explain it to ourselves thoroughly.
We watched the herd rumble down to the riverside and sink knee-deep into the mud, single-file. What an advance system. Never in my wildest dreams had I expected such intelligence.
The road to Kruger was just what Grandad and I needed to top-off our Southern African experience. I had a suspicion in my mind and it end up becoming true; the exotic wildlife from another side of the world was exactly what we both wanted. The side trip of a side trip was complete. One more day in the village it all started in to wrap up the entire trip. I can’t believe it’s all over.