Michael K Phillips
"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. " Pablo Picasso.
No Elephants beyond Tsumeb
The Road through the Etosha Pan was a dirt road and it skirted the edge of the reserve, leaving a thousand miles of untouched salt pans and savanna between the human access road and the desert and finally the Atlantic Ocean. This is one of the last untouched areas of Africa where animals can migrate and live out their lives of survival without the pressures of population increase, competition over arable land with people’s dependence on farming and pressures from tourism.
The reserve has a distinctive German fort from the end of the 19th Century, called Fort Namutoni. Its white washed walls have long since lost their military purpose and they and high metal fences serve to keep dangerous animals away from humans while they relax over G and Ts, service with a smile and endless braaivleis(BBQs) in the mistaken belief that they are savouring the true wilds of Africa.
Actually, that is a bit “holier than though”, to say the least for I have always enjoyed the sensation of hearing roaring lions some 12 feet away in the comforting knowledge that a twelve foot fence separates the lions from lunch, supper or breakfast.
They are not fussy lions especially if they are hungry! I read recently that a group of Japanese tourists had pulled up to a pride of lions in a minibus. (The Japanese were in the minibus) . Rumour has it that this event took place in the Kruger National Park and the tourists decided to have their picture taken while standing in amongst the lions.
The Japanese in Apartheid South Africa were classified as honorary white people while Chinese people were classified as “non-white”. Clearly the racial superiority of Japanese over Chinese came from the fact that Toyota signified far more in apartheid South Africa than Chop Suey. In the world of the early 21st century, some reclassification may have been needed given China’s present influence in the world.
“There is nought so queer as folk” springs to mind but the Lions showed no qualms about racial identity and killed the intruders. The decision to destroy the lions for their transgression was commuted as there were lion cubs present and the lionesses were thought to be defending their young from an unanticipated threat.
My memories of camp Namutoni with its waterhole date back to the days of the South African mandate over the territory of South West Africa. Every evening at sunset the South African Flag would be lowered over the white square tower of the fort to the piped tones of the South African National Anthem.
I have confused the reader now into visualizing a Scottish Piper droning said anthem over the vastness of the shimmering plains. By piped I actually mean through a sort of megaphone speaker attached to a record of some sort. Through the crackle and hiss could be heard the words:
“Uit die blou van onse hemel, uit die diepte van ons see…”( “Out of the blue of our heavens, out of the depth of our seas..”)
These words are still sung as a second verse of the South African National Anthem following Kozi Sikelele Africa…but alas no longer in Namibia which happily gained its independence in 1995.
I remember this because I remained seated while the anthem was being played and was roundly cuffed by one of my parents for being so insolent a child.
I would like to say that I was moved to show my displeasure at the illegal occupation of South West Africa by South Africa by leaving my derriere firmly planted on the bench facing the vast plains beyond. I would like to say that but in reality my mind was transfixed by a line of elephants meandering across the plain towards the waterhole in front of Namutoni.
While I was supposed to stop looking and stand for the National Anthem, the elephants paid no attention having a singular intention in their small brains….to quench their thirst!
In this they shared a common purpose with the majority of the upright South African folk standing with bush hats clutched to their breasts eyes fixed on the South African Union flag. The lowering of said flag at sunset and after the singing of the national anthem, signalled the instant evacuation of this lookout point on the fort for the bar below for beer and more G and T's. This was the height of cultural civilization in South Africa for all things material that feed the senses as illustrated in a commercial of the time that promoted:
”Braaivleis, rugby, sunshine and Chevrolet. “
It sounds superficial and that about sums it up. A superficiality of well being that covered up for a world in denial and turmoil. To survive, one subscribed to the good life and the wonders of God’s creation as seen through rose tinted glasses. And what glasses they were for me! Oval sunglasses similar to those worn by the Beatles on the album sleeve of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band.
Only days before my experience on Namutoni’s white tower,I had sat on a stoep (Afrikaans for Veranda) of a house in Windhoek alongside a stunning girl called Axcelle, listening to “Eleanor Rigby” while wrestling with a surge of teenage hormones and thankful for the concealment of my predicament by virtue of my sunglasses.
That’s a funny place to wear your glasses, you may think but actually, it is all in the eyes, I believed.
If she could not see my eyes then she could not guess the torment I was going through and I was outwardly “cool”.
The reality was, however, that like the ostrich with its head in the ground, I simply could not see the reality around me and know what Axcelle was bound to have known. The glasses had been purchased at Wecke & Voigts, the place to shop in Windhoek and were now an integral part of my outward image. The cuff delivered to my head by my father for not instantly rising to the strained music of the South African National Anthem sent my sunglasses flying to the ground and I launched myself from the seat in a desperate attempt to retrieve them.
The cramped conditions on the top of Namutoni’s white tower did not help. Between the thin and rotund, all bolt upright with hands firmly clasped to their chests, the patriotic ensemble began to topple like dominoes in a well ordered manner defined no doubt by the Fibonacci Sequence until they were all laid in the pattern of a sea shell on the roof of the tower surveyed by a solitary teenager placing carefully cleaned sunglasses on his nose. I say all laid out but of course nature always has room for the odd one out. In this case the lone Owombo lad whose job it was to lower the flag as the anthem reached its conclusion. He had seen the unavoidable forces surging towards him and he was now hanging over the edge of the tower with his feet on the outer brickwork and his hands firmly grasping the flag post which was bent like a fishing rod with a sizeable catch on the end of the line.
The elephants continued their slow meander towards the waterhole and the great disk of fire continued its descent into the horizon as if the events on Namutoni’s tower were of no consequence.
I am pleased to be able to report that no white supremacists, recalcitrant teenagers, nimble Owombos , wild animals and any other form of life was endangered by this event. For the remainder of my stay at Fort Namutoni, however, the national anthem failed to sound at sunset and the flag had to be retrieved with the use of a ladder. The Elephants came and went as usual.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
I have often wondered what it would be like to be a wild animal at a waterhole. What would I make of a row of vehicles with flashing cameras and humans with funny hats? Many years ago when I visited the game reserve at Cape Point, south of Cape Town, I was intrigued by the sight of a Cadillac convertible left at the entrance to the reserve. It was in a state of carnage and a warning sign was hung on it saying “Do not feed the animals”. The animals in question for this reserve were baboons and the message was clear. For baboons in search of food, a car is an easy target for a demolition derby!
So animals do take an interest in humans. They can be aggressive in defending their young. They can posture to frighten away perceived danger. They can be persistent and deadly in pursuit of food and they can simply be curious.
In the early months of 2002, I was walking a trail from the Natal to Lesotho in the Drakensberg and was on a ledge path with a sheer rock face rising 400 feet on my left and a drop of several 1000 ft into a river valley to my right.
I stopped on a flat rock outcrop to unwrap my sandwiches and to break fast while admiring the morning scene that is so spectacular in this part of the world. Suddenly on a similar ledge some 200 yards away a female baboon and her cubs took up station in the morning sun. The large baboon definitely took a long look at me and then proceeded to get on with her chores of preening her young. A pleasant half hour was mutually spent before I went on my way, reinforcing my love of this intelligent species.
“You can tell if an elephant is taking an interest in you. He will stand upright and flap his ears. Then you must get the hell out of there! A fully grown bull elephant can make a hell of a mess of your car! They can move fast too, hey!”
The words of the park ranger were founded on sound experience but for the safari tourist , their air-conditioned vehicles stimulated a false sense of security.
Advice is always politely taken but people rarely believe that they will need to take heed. Etosha would provide me with memories that reappear in nightmares even to this day.
I am not good with animals. Ever since I took my wife Christine back to South Africa for our honeymoon(She being from Essex in England and all that). My sister in law, who remains to this day a great organiser, promised us a unique ‘wild weekend’ and we had visions of night clubs in Durban open to the early hours of the morning.
The uniqueness of the venue was assured when we discovered we were headed in 4 wheel drives to a hunting camp in northern Natal where the food was provided by a group of Zulus on coal fires and the circle of huts on stilts with adjoining walkways, was literally situated in the middle of the bush. None of this would have mattered much, was it not for the fact that freak weather conditions had led to a population explosion in Golden Orb Spiders.
The car park for the hunting lodge was some 150 yards from the lodge itself and visitors were given the opportunity to approach the lodge down a tree lined, grass covered walk way. On this day the gap between each and every tree was filled by an enormous web, the center of which was occupied by an enormous Golden Orb. Far into the distance the scene was repeated and even the power lines in the distance had webs suspended in every direction.
My attempt to convince my new wife that this was a sign of Biblical proportion was met by something unrepeatable. I would later suffer my first marital “come uppance” when I failed to take Christine’s advice on going to bed in the hunting lodge room after we had inspected all the cocoons and insect casings stuck on the walls and ceiling to ensure that there were no occupants who might morph into something nasty in the night and join us in bed.
The advice to me, came straight out of the Girl Guides survival guide and I as a South African who knew about these things, was not going to be detracted by such stuff and nonsense!
“ Make sure you stuff your shoes one into the other,” came the advice. “So that nothing can get in there during the night.”
Naturally, the next morning when I attempted to place my foot into my right shoe, I was met by a response of protest from the resident toad and a wife who was doubled up in laughter and the “I told you so” situation which was unfolding. Not only was I eating “humble pie” in large chunks but a toad in distress releases a toxic fluid and the rest of the day was spent uncomfortably photographing wild life with a nasty rash on the ball of my foot.
My photographs of wild animals are numerous but no matter how sophisticated the camera, my pictures show a succession of receding rumps of rhino, elephant, giraffe ...never the front part.
On this day, 20 years before our honeymoon, at the waterhole in the Etosha pan, I would have the opportunity of a lifetime to take a picture of the front of an elephant, approaching at 40mph, ears flapping, wild eyed, trunk raised and in full trumpet. Alas, the picture was never taken for blind fear and exhilaration broke the link between brain and hand and that camera film remained unexposed after the event.
Here on a small ridge overlooking a waterhole, some 30 cars and vans were arranged with occupants seated on bonnets, roofs, peering through sunroofs and importantly training super 8 movie cameras and slrs towards an unfolding scene at the water’s edge. The excitement was there for all to see and sense.
The wildebees, zebras and giraffe were congregated to take their fill of water as in the distance a herd of elephant meandered towards the lake. To the right a pride of lions made preparations to catch their prey and numerous antelope stood erect in suspicious pose at the impending danger.
The mechanisms of nature were in full working order on that day and all God’s creatures where intent on playing their part in the forthcoming tragedy. All God’s creatures that is, except the human’s on the ridge. For them this was the front row at the movies.
While some focused their attention on securing the best position for capturing that frame, others, more domesticated and organisational in skill, shared out the beers, stukkies boerewors(pieces of farmer’s sausage), sandwiches, simba crisps and fruit pate. This was after all, a watering hole!
The elephants ignored the lions. Well you can if you are an elephant. In fact they ignored everything and the crush of wildebeest parted like particles of iron move away from a magnetic force to allow the tuskers to the water’s edge.
The big bull elephant however, never made it to the water. He swung round as if he had caught a wif of the boerewors and crisps and turned to face the entourage of vehicles from whence emanated countless illuminations of flash cubes, as was the technology of the day.
My, daughter, now a university student, on hearing of the story that unraveled decades before her birth, exclaimed that the elephant must have been a “big mother.”
I retorted with confidence that it must have been “big daddy” for with its large ears flapping forward and back, its trunk raised and the screech of its call suggested the presence of large doses of testosterone. Clearly the sarcasm of teenage language was lost on this old timer. Not that anyone had time to “sex” the animal as it gathered pace towards the cars and people.
As soon as it began to sink in that this guy meant business, beer bottles, half eaten “sarnies” and various “koeksisters” went skywards and people piled into vehicles and departed in reverse..there being no time to turn the vehicles around as the crush ensued.
Much later on in life I experienced a similar roller coaster ride in Cairo as a passenger in a black and white taxi. My co-passenger commented that he would have paid good money to have such an experience at Disney land. Here in the Etosha the experience was undoubtedly the real thing!
Stark experiences tend to force the brain into linking current events with personal experience stored somewhere in the depths of our personal memory bank. I was reminded of my fund raising efforts in Johannesburg when I was at school. I can’t remember what we were raising the money for but the event was to be a walkathon at Kyalami. Kyalami was then the grand prix racing track in South Africa and we were to walk round it as many times as we could in a morning with sponsorhip forms in hand.
Us lucky folk would be able to cool off after the effort by watching, free of charge, the racing trials on the track in the afternoon.
What followed could only be called carnage and like the elephant event in the Etosha it remains something of a miracle that no humans or animals were injured or damaged. Not so the effect on nerves and dented pride of both voyeur and protagonist. First to come were the motor bikes who slid off the chicane into straw bales in large numbers followed shortly afterwards by saloon cars who did likewise much to the delight of school kids who did not expect to be thus entertained. The cause of this carnage? The Naatjie!
The Naatjie is a small orange type fruit with a soft skin that peels easily. This is the fruit of preference for thirsty South Africans out in the midday sun as they are very juicy and easy to peel. The peel is bio-degradable but not sufficiently fast to have disappeared between the end of a walkathon and the beginning of a motor sport event. Et voila, the scenario is in place for the carnage that ensued. Rubber tyres and naatjies go together like the proverbial banana skins and people.
The equivalent of the Naatjie or even a banana skin in the Etosha pan has to be that we as humans feel that somehow we are not a part of nature. We are immune from the daily struggle for survival that animals face in every waking and sleeping moment. The Japanese tourists were ample evidence of that. The fact that the bull elephant never quite made it to the vanguard of retreating cars simply reinforced the fatalist idea amongst the lucky escapees that these things are subject to the will of God. Come to think of it, that was exactly the comment made by my Cairo taxi driver: “Inch Allah”about his ability to travel from one point to another in that great city without being crushed, rammed, compacted and/or entombed as the taxi interacts with other Cairo traffic using the roads.
And what of the bull elephant. Well, this is a success story. He successfully sent the unknown threat into flight with maximum publicity. There is no way the others in the pack missed this performance. If there were Oscars for star leadership performances in the animal world, this bull elephant would be the winner! Once the dust had settled and the cars and people were gone, first the baboons, then the Jackals and a steady trickle of a great variety of beasts of the field and birds of the sky descended on the viewing area to sift through the pickings took an interest in this example of animal cooperation.
The baboons had developed a taste for sweet koeksisters while the Jackals went for the boerewors and biltong and the Hyenas rolled in the dust in fits of laughter at the sheer surreal nature of the passing events. There were crisps and sandwiches, a rich selection of fruits and a frothy liquid that came in bottles and cans and made the animals stagger and sway in the aftermath. The Lions never took an interest in this example of animal cooperation. An aloof lot.
I have this sneaking feeling that were I to develop a “Doolittle complex” and was able to hide in a Whithaak tree and listen to the passing animals, I would have heard the head Baboon mutter to the elephant:
“Good one Tusker. Shall we try this again tomorrow?”
“Sure thing, Bamuti…..this never fails to work.”