“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta
After spending the morning evicting an ant colony that had taken up residence in our car, as well as watching hippos from our bungalow, we drove further north to explore the area around Letaba camp. Driving through open grassland dotted with trees, we came to a tree that had a vast amount of soft, new, leafy growth. Austin immediately stopped the car a few metres from the tree when we saw a lone bull elephant pulling the new shoots and branches from the tree and eating them. I laughed aloud as soon as I saw him due to the fact that he had a large pile of leafy shoots on his head! I was sure he must have placed them there himself, as the amount of plant matter was simply too large to have fallen from the tree and landed on his head. I had seen photographs of baby elephants placing branches and similar objects on their heads in play. It seemed this bull never grew out of it! As we watched, the elephant curved his trunk up over his head and grasped the collection of leaves and shoots, which he then dragged off his head and lifted into his mouth, where he began chewing them noisily. We left him to enjoy his meal and continued north.
By early afternoon we had passed through Letaba camp and driven to the shores of the Letaba River, which was just as wide at that point as the Olifants River but it flowed much more slowly. The sun blazed off the backs of hippos as they moved through the water in the distance. A magnificent tree with a trunk too large to wrap my arms around grew on the river bank, and shading themselves underneath it was a herd of impalas. The small herd of seven moved off slowly when we parked the car beside them at a look-out point and got out to search the river for animals. I wandered a couple of metres in front of the Suzuki and admired the view.
‘Don’t go too far from the car, luscious,’ Austin warned me.
‘I won’t, my love,’ I replied. ‘I’ll stay right here.’
Just then, the melodic cry of an African fish eagle rang out from directly above us, and Austin came to stand beside me. Taking my hand, he pointed to where the eagle perched over our heads. The beautiful bird called again and then, stretching its wings, it launched itself into the air and soared high over the river. Two elephants made their way through the bush several metres behind our car and disappeared around a curve in the riverbank. Exquisitely coloured dragonflies flitted around our feet, making blue and red flashes of movement in the grass. Raising his eyes from the ground, Austin spotted two bull elephants emerging from the trees on the other side of the river. Leaving me momentarily to retrieve his camera from the back seat of the car, he came to stand beside me again under the enormous tree and began photographing the elephants as they entered the water. They siphoned the cool, refreshing liquid into their trunks and sprayed it over their backs and behind their ears. After several minutes of playful bathing, one of the bull elephants began to swim across the river towards us and the other followed behind him. We knew they would emerge within metres of us if we remained still and did nothing to alarm them. As they neared the riverbank, they stood in the shallows and the lead elephant raised his trunk and sniffed the air, directing his efforts to the dense reeds growing immediately to our right. His companion stood behind him, waiting for his decision as to whether or not they should come ashore. The two elephants decided against emerging from the river at that point and circled around the reeds instead, disappearing from view behind them. Remaining consciously aware of the fact that there were elephants in the immediate area that I could no longer see, I returned my attention to the dragonflies hovering near the grass and was surprised to see a pale brown, stick-like praying mantis hunting them. The mantis was virtually invisible until it moved. I knelt beside it and watched as a blue dragonfly with black splotches on its wings alighted next to the mantis, which immediately struck like lightning and grabbed the dragonfly by its head. I called Austin over to photograph the spectacle, and he snapped as many shots as he could of the feeding mantis without disturbing it. Then he walked back to the car and returned his camera to its place on the rear seat.
‘We’d better get going if we want to see where this track leads,’ Austin said, opening his car door. ‘Maybe we can join up with those elephants.’
‘Okay, I’ll be right there,’ I called back, standing up and brushing the dirt and pieces of grass from my clothing. Glancing up to take one last look at the river, I froze instantly as a buffalo materialised out of the reeds and stood only twenty metres from me, fixing me with its tempestuous gaze. The buffalo’s broad, thick horns curved out over its heavy body and ended in sharp points. The buffalo raised its stocky head and I heard the rushed intake of breath as it smelled the air in my direction. Its wet nostrils twitched and its black fur was caked in mud. I knew the buffalo’s acute sense of smell more than compensated for its poor eyesight, and I realised I could be in very serious trouble. Not daring to turn my head or even speak, I listened hard for any clue as to Austin’s position behind me.
‘Don’t move,’ Austin said urgently. Relieved he was aware of my predicament, I stood fixed to the spot. Even my breathing became shallower and quieter as I desperately tried to avoid attracting a charge from the huge animal in front of me. For what seemed like an eternity, the buffalo and I stood there facing each other. Then the buffalo took several tentative steps towards me and snorted menacingly.
‘Get back in the car!’ Austin said tensely.
Keeping the buffalo in my peripheral vision, I slowly turned and forced myself to walk quietly, rather than run, towards the car, but as I reached it the enraged buffalo took off after me, its hooves thudding behind me. Grasping the door, I hurled myself into the car beside Austin and slammed the door shut. We both knew it was too late to turn on the engine as the buffalo charged towards us, and I braced for the impact I was sure would follow. At the last second, the buffalo swerved and charged past our vehicle, snorting loudly, and disappeared into the bushes behind us. Then a second buffalo launched out of the reeds where the first had emerged and galloped past the front of our car in the same direction. Breathing hard, I slowly turned and glanced at Austin, amazed at our good luck. We stared into each other’s startled eyes and Austin grasped my hand. I hugged him tightly and then he started the engine, reversing away from the reed bed towards the bushes. I twisted in my seat and listened hard for any movement from the buffaloes I knew were in there, but none came. My nervousness increased as we drove as slowly and quietly as possible past the reeds and back onto the track. Knowing buffalo sometimes congregated in very large herds, I kept expecting another confrontation every time we passed a particularly dense area of vegetation, but the rest of the afternoon passed without incident.
To be continued in Chapter 56, when the locust invasion at Olifants camp intensifies, and we have a fantastic close encounter with an elephant…
This blog is an autobiographical story written in chronological order. If you’re curious about how my relationship with Austin began, please read Chapter 1 – Taking a Chance and follow along with the story.