It was late afternoon when the elephant took its last step. The young male, a sub-adult, likely broke away from the herd early in the day, trudged along a dirt path and lumbered into a thicket of suikerbos, where it fell, landing on its left side with a thud. In this position, prone, helpless, struggling to breathe, the young elephant died.
Natural causes, the ranger said, though it’s hard to say exactly what.
To the hyenas (brown and spotted), wild dogs, lions and other carnivores of the African bush, the reason for the elephant’s death does not matter. What matters is that dinner is served.
By the time we arrived on the scene – “we” being Jenny and I, Jenny’s parents, our ranger, Nick, our tracker, Max, and a young South African couple on their first safari – the carcass of the young elephant had become a sad, mangled, putrid smorgasbord. Just thinking about it now makes my stomach turn. The stench…
But, on this Monday morning, there was no better place to be.
As we sat, quietly, in the open Land Cruiser, just feet from the rotting remains, we heard footsteps from behind. Two very wary, but very hungry, brown hyenas approached. They made a wide arc around our truck, stopping often to sniff the air and listen for possible competitors, before trotting over to the smelly elly. One quickly tore a hunk from the pachyderm’s posterior, but the other was spooked. We had all heard, just moments earlier, a lion roar from just beyond our position; the hyenas knew the cats were close.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by the crack of a snapped twig somewhere to the hyenas’ right, our left. Was it an elephant, coming to protect the sanctity of its fallen comrade? Ranger Nick reflexively reached for the ignition. A fellow elephant would be extremely upset to find that opportunistic scavengers had already eaten the juvenile’s neck and part of its back, ripped open its belly and removed its intestines. Ranger Nick was ready to reverse. (Good…the dead elephant stinks!)
Alas, it was not an elephant, but the hyenas bolted, nonetheless. The two mongrels figured themselves no match for what did emerge: four self-confident lions, looking to feed. A young male, two females and a cub sauntered over to the gray buffet. We watched, in awe, with shirt collars over our noses, as the lions dove in.
But this moment, too, was short-lived. Again, the first lion roared from the bushes beyond. A rival pride was near. The absolutely rancid odor of death, of the disemboweled, dined-on elephant served as a breakfast beacon.
Time for us to leave.
The scene we witnessed, awesome and gruesome as it was, reminded me that as elusive as the Big Five animals can often be, each and every safari experience comes with a guarantee of another Big Five: the sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells of the African bush.
Of course, the sights are incredible, and the easiest to convey here. We can show you photos of the lions and the landscapes. You can see a red-billed oxpecker clinging to a giraffe’s neck. You can see a zebra foal nuzzling its mother. You can see a herd of playful elephants drinking and bathing in a watering hole. You can see Jenny’s mom serving as our tracker:
When we share video, you can hear the birds chirping or the small trees snapping under the powerful game drive vehicle as it crashes through the bush. More often, you can hear Jenny asking me whether I’m “getting this on video.”
But, what’s more difficult to convey, despite video evidence, is the feeling of the bouncy, jostling, sometimes bone-jarring game drives. Or the warmth of the sun or the coolness of the wind. Or the prick of a thorn tree catching you on the shoulder as you walk through the bush searching for a safe place to pee.
And, regrettably, there is no word count, pixel width or megabyte capacity large enough to do justice to the tastes and smells of safari. After a few hours driving in the open vehicle, you’re bound to find yourself with a bit of gritty, red dust in your mouth, leaving you parched in a way that only a sundowner – perhaps a fruity Sauvignon blanc or a tangy gin and dry lemon – can remedy. All the while, your nose is working overtime, discerning scents as varied as the freshness of wild herbs and eucalyptus to the pungency of dung and death.
I only hope that we can hold on to the memories of these sensations long after we’ve left Africa. I hope that we can, while looking at the photos, watching the videos and telling the stories, remember what it felt like, what it tasted like, and what it smelled like to be out in the wild. I hope that we will always have this sense of safari.
At least we’ll have the photos.