“To see thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told – that the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.”
… Beryl Markum from “West With the Night,” 1942
The two elephants approached the watering hole warily, emerging slowly from night’s shadows. They flared their giant ears forward to capture any of the sounds of humans from the brightly lit lodge.
The dozen or more visitors eating their evening meal at the lodge restaurant paused, forks in air and drinks on the way to lips. All eyes were trained on the giant pair not 50 yards away. The elephants swung their huge heads from side to side as if straining to catch any errant sounds.
They were only two of the nighttime visitors to this lodge deep within the bush where we were to spend the final two nights of our safari.
Upon on our arrival at Severin Safari Camp, deep within the bush of Tsavo West National Park, we had been sternly warned that this was an open camp, where animals roamed at will and humans kept to the graveled paths. After nightfall, visitors must be accompanied from the restaurant to their thatched huts by a resident Masai staff member.
Clad in their crimson robes and intricately beaded neck and wrist ornaments, the Masai could be summoned from any far-flung hut by the flick of a switch. They would appear out of the dark along the pathway armed with flashlights to ensure their visitors didn’t fall prey to an errant water buffalo or hyena.
The lodge was surrounded by four manmade waterholes where animals could be spotted as they wandered in for a drink. Buffalo, gazelle and, yes, even elephants visited stealthily to sip water often not readily available in the hot arid bush.
At the restaurant itself, birds of all colors, shapes and sizes swooped down to catch any small crumbs diners dropped. Splendid starlings, brilliant in the hot sun, paused warily on the white tablecloths to beg for scraps before being shooed away by waiters. The more cautious hornbills and grey louries, also known as the go-away bird for its raucous call when disturbed, perched in the trees just off the patio hoping for hand-outs.
But this night it was the elephants who graced us with their presence. They took another step toward the waterhole, then hearing a sound from one of the watching humans, they huffed, turned and evaporated back into the night. Phenomenal that an animal of such girth could vanish so quickly.
That is the way, however, of the African bush. We could be surrounded by animal life but be oblivious of it. Driving down the road, we might catch sight of four legs or a pair of ears only to stop the van and have the leg- or ear-owner melt into the surrounding acacia trees.
Unlike the savannah, where grasslands prevail and animals have few places to hide, the bush is filled with thorny shrubs and small trees that served as perfect veils to conceal creatures. Tsavo West at the time we visited had received some needed rain so was lush with green grass.
The only animals that seemed unperturbed by the presence of humans or clattering vehicles were the giraffe. Easily sighted as their tall necks emerged above the tops of the trees, their whitened ears twitching, they peered curiously at our approach, seemingly endlessly interested in us.
And, like in the camp, we were admonished not to leave our vehicles to pursue the wildlife we’d spotted. While we could stand upright in the back of the van after popping the roof, we could not step foot outside in case one of the wild animals would decide we didn’t belong in their territory.
Michael, our earnest driver and guide, impressed this fact upon us with his story of a tour guide’s encounter with a python. The driver, who had stepped into the bush to relieve himself, was bitten by the giant snake that then began to wrap itself around the man’s body.
The three male tourists still in the guide’s jeep refused to leave the safety of their vehicle to help but did (helpfully) snap numerous photos and even a video of the battle. The guide finally escaped with his life and a broken rib and was later “rewarded” for his experience with an emailed video of the encounter.
Needless to say, we seldom ventured out of our safari van and only to relieve ourselves – but then never stepped off the dusty road. That python was always on my mind.
Despite being so tied to our vehicle, we saw an immense variety of wildlife, spying hippos and crocodiles at a crystal-clear spring and the yellowish flash of a leopard as it bolted from its treetop perch as we approached.
On our way leaving Tsavo on the final day we encountered for one final time the animal that I consider the king of African, the elephant. Just before we left park boundaries two herds of the behemoths ambled through the brush. Like the giraffe, they largely ignored our presence until we got a bit too close and the mother of a small baby determined us too close and took several paces toward us, her ears wide. We promptly retreated.
Safari. The word to me will forever be connected with magic and majesty. It has impressed upon me the divine beauty that exists in our natural world.
“Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind, where our species first stood upright on the savannahs of long ago?”
… Brian Jackman, a freelance writer known for his writing about Africa