I WAKE UP STIFF, AND THE FIRST THING I SEE IS MY BREATH IN THE AIR. A SECOND LATER, MY ALARM SOUNDS, BLARING, FROM SOMEWHERE INSIDE MY SLEEPING BAG, AND MY TENT MATE GROANS. THESE 5AM WAKE-UPS HAVE BEEN TAKING A TOLL ON ALL OF US.
I feel around near my legs, searching for my clothes for the day ahead. I know better enough now to keep them warm during the night with my own body heat. (I won’t go into detail about the first morning, when I discovered what putting on sheets of ice felt like.)
Once dressed, I count to three, unzip my sleeping bag and sit up. Fighting shivers I get my hat and coat on quickly, reach for my hiking boots, and I'm about to slip them on when I catch myself - Oops, I almost forgot. I grab my flashlight and use it to check them for spiders (or whatever else) before slipping them on. I throw the necessities into my bag – camera, binoculars, sunscreen, an extra pair of thick wool socks, a water bottle, my tattered field notebook, a pen, and my African Ecology guidebook.
I unzip the tent and step out, bracing myself for the shock of the frigid air. I’ve beaten the morning light, by little.
A dodgy wooden fence and nothing more separates our camp – or rather, our territory, from theirs. The thought used to unnerve me, but I tell myself it's the one thing the animal kingdom does respect, after all. Besides, I know what to do if I ever come face to face with a lion... Whatever you do, don’t run. Thinking about it, I wouldn't be able to do anything else but stand frozen in fear, but by now it's become a mantra, instilled in us before we left America for the trip.
I notice some new tracks on the sandy path outside my tent. Thanks to hours of training with expert trackers, I’m able to identify hyena (hyenas are sneaky, and don’t respect territories apparently), a small snake, and the usual cape turtle – a dove whose consistent crooning, slower and softer than crickets, has become soothing background music during this stay in the bushveld, at a nature reserve called Entabeni in South Africa – a wild, eco-paradise that has quickly and completely won me over, and has satisfied within me a deep, instinctual desire for wilderness, a connection with nature, and elimination of the unnecessary.
For me, it is more of a relief, not so much a challenge, to live with just the bare essentials – sleeping bags, tents, the fire, the running water for drinking, as well as the outdoor toilets (which I understand are more of a luxury).
But I'm in love with the fact that there is no “indoors,” except for maybe our classroom, although it does resemble more of a treehouse - built entirely of wood, 10 or 15 meters high above the ground, it can only be accessed by a maze of high, wooden walkways, which are 5 meters above the ground for "safety purposes."
By the fire, the rest of the group and I eat hot porridge and burn our tongues on bitter instant coffee. Before long, we hear the low rumble of the safari trucks approaching. Our guides greet us with genuine smiles, and they warm themselves by the fire for a bit. Soon they clap their hands and ask, "Ok, who's ready?" We grab our things and everyone chooses a truck, first come first served style.
We take off in opposite directions. The truck I'm on makes a left out of camp, the other, a right. I’m with Ima for the day - a quirky Australian woman, whose currency is her quick wit, her wealth of knowledge of African field ecology, and a knack for finding animals that love to stay hidden.
As we begin our search for those trickier ones, we pass the usual zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, impala and warthog, although to me they still don't seem "usual." It hits me, yet again, where I am on the planet, and I come alive with excitement and awe.
As we're making our way around a watering hole, I hear Ima mention, “fresh elephant tracks,” into her transceiver, and my heart skips a beat. We’ve been here a week, almost a third into our stay, and we still haven’t seen the elusive elephants. They’re so shy, Ima explained to us, because many of them were rescued from failed poaching attempts around the country. After their rehabilitation, they were brought into the reserve where they can still live in the wild but be given care if necessary. An unlikely herd, a dysfunctional family, who has somehow learned to adapt to a completely new environment, and not only function and survive, but thrive here.
Hours pass without seeing a sign of them. Although, we stop and observe plenty of other wildlife - baboons, hippos, a lazy, sunbathing crocodile, which we gather around and stand next to.... although its "laziness" is not fooling anyone, and we avoid getting too close.
Stomachs rumbling, we head back to camp for lunch, which is cooked on the fire by two lovely local women with the biggest smiles I've ever seen. We strip down into our T-shirts, and exchange our hiking boots and thick socks for flip flops. The midday sun never disappoints, even if it is May, and it’s turning to winter fast.
Later, after an hour break or so, we hop back in the trucks and Ima decides to try the densely forested part of the reserve, where the elephants love to uproot the trees and feed on the fallen branches. The road soon disappears, but there’s no stopping Ima. The rest of the group and I hold on to the metal bars of the safari truck to avoid coming out of our seats. (There are no seat belts.)
A voice comes on the radio, talking fast, either in Zulu or Afrikaans, which makes Ima shift gears and gun it. Elephants? Has another guide spotted them?
I see the growing excitement on everyone’s faces, matching my own. We turn a sharp corner, then Ima brakes, hard, and cuts the engine immediately. We fly forward, out of our seats. We settle, and in that second, a deep silence falls upon us as we hold our breath. There could be only one reason why Ima stopped so suddenly.
“There,” she says, in a barely audible whisper. We look in the direction of Ima's gaze, and just behind the nearest trees, less than ten meters away, we see her – a massive, 3 ton female, pretending to feed while really checking us out, startled from our abruptive intrusion. Absentmindedly, she picks up some small branches and sways them about with her trunk, bringing them near her mouth but never feeding. Her eyes tell a different story – she’s scanning, searching, and analyzing, maybe waiting for the opinion of the rest of the herd. Where are they, by the way?
Then, we hear an earsplitting, echoing thunder – tree trunks as thick as a car tires being snapped like twigs. Slowly we come to the realization - Ima has parked us smack-dab in the middle of the herd's feeding frenzy. Instead of leaving, they continue feeding despite our presence… it’s a really good sign.
Long minutes spent as frozen statues in absolute silence coaxes seven massive threats that could too easily have taken our intrusion the wrong way, into trusting, gentle giants. They come so close, passing just inches by the safari truck, we all sit in absolute shock. Not one of us dares to move, or make direct eye contact for too long. The simple movement and small noise it takes for a picture is dangerous, but I can't help myself. I have to risk it. I move like a sloth:
The moment of truth - A fellow student looks into the eyes of a wild African elephant.
If we want to, we could reach out and touch them.
We don’t, out of respect for their wild nature (and fear for our lives).