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Wednesday, 01 September 2021

Elephant Lodge: Gwango Safari Camp

Written by Richard Taylor
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No elephants for me apparently.

For various reasons, a dearth of transit in Namibia; sloppy planning in Zambia, my anticipated visits to the Etosha and Kafue parks had been skotched, so it was with trepidation that I registered at the Gwango Safari Lodge, which offered game drives to Hwange, one of Zimbabwe’s great national reserves, covering an area larger than Belgium.  The lodge itself was placed a few kilometers back of the railway line that served as the park’s unofficial border, and didn’t feature the manicured lawns, swimming pools and electric fencing of the Livingstone or Victoria Falls hotels.  It was an out of the way type of place, a forest clearing of white sands and thorn bush and giant ants.  A couple of workmen were repairing the short fences that braced the sandy paths and a larger cohort had completed the cement frame of a new two-story building. 

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A tall charming woman named Dorothy showed me the grounds.

“You arrange game drives?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Are they a regular thing?  Could I book one for tomorrow?”

“Oh, I’m sorry Sir.  We must have a minimum number.  At least three people.”

“Oh.”

“We’re expecting a large party tonight.”

“Okay.”

Dorothy put me in the Number Eight ‘Chalet’, a descriptor that certainly pushed the boundaries, but the bed was comfortable and the bathroom clean and there was a chair and writing desk.  Still, I had a feeling this was another bust.  The lodge seemed a going concern – the new building for instance.  But I was the only guest.  Large party tonight?  Believe it when I see it.  Even the name raised a red flag.  Gwango Safari Camp.  Formerly the Gwango Elephant Lodge.  Why the name change?  Had they run out of elephants?

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The large party arrived that afternoon, almost immediately setting off again for the three-hour ‘sunset drive’ and night safari.  I declined an invite, holding out for the full day booking.  According to Dorothy, there was a game drive laid on for Saturday.  Two days off.  That evening, as I sat down to a dinner of beef stew and plain rice, I considered what kind of diversion could be found between now and then among the white sand and thorn bush and giant ants.

It was not promising.

Dorothy dropped by my table to say hello.

“How’s your dinner, Sir?”

“It’s quite nice actually.”

“Did you hear Sir?  About the night safari?  They saw lions eating an elephant.”

Quite a coup for the lions, I thought, wondering how they managed to pull it off.


The sunset tour group took the table beside me.  They were chatting excitedly.

“We saw lions eating an elephant,” they said.

“Yes,” I responded.  Morosely.

A chunky young fellow who introduced himself as Scott and seemed to be someone in authority, invited me to the blazing fire near the dining area where the lodge staff had gathered to entertain the guests with traditional African standards.  I watched stone faced as Scott explained the lyrics, then a young staffer with glasses and brilliant smile took my hand, led me toward the fire and handed me her African maracas.  These were not the usual bean-filled balls, but thin sticks braced with wooden rings.  I’d already discovered that African stanzas could be chanted ’til dawn and I shook the maracas until my arms ached.

“They’ll never work again,” I said to a round of chuckles; the gloom and lethargy having been, at least for the moment, driven from my soul.

Which I kind of resented.

”Tomorrow, you will play the drums,” said Rashel, the lady of the maracas, determined to morph me into Gwango’s one-man percussion section.

The walk back to the chalet seemed twice as long as before, for the darkness was filled with jungle growls and hoots and trumpets.  More unnerving was the sudden dead silence.  Some evil beast sizing me up?  Picking out the choice cuts?  I fumbled with the key and locked myself into the cabin and was afraid.  Afraid and chilly.  I made a note to request another blanket in the morning.  It was a King Charles moment.  Wouldn’t want them to think I was quaking in fear.

By next day’s breakfast, monkeys had seized the grounds, swinging from tree branch to cabin roof to dining table, until our headwaiter Robert shouted ‘No no no!’ and chased them off.  The night safari ladies were chatting at the next table, watching Robert’s vexations with amusement.  One of the women identified the species.  Some kind of Sixties girl band tag; ronettes or shirettes or tourettes or something.

“Sorry, what are they called again?” I asked.

“Vervet monkeys.”

“Ahh.”

“Yesterday, I was out walking to the main road and saw some wild dogs,” she continued.  “So I turned and walked right back.”

Right place, right time.  The lucky ones would stumble across wild dogs and lions and elephant buffets.  I was left with giant ants and girl band monkeys.

I returned to my cabin and washed out a couple of things.  That killed ten minutes.  Then I wandered back to the breakfast area and its thatched roof and adjacent courtyard.  Separating the courtyard from the forest was a short wall about four feet high and thirty feet long.

And behind the wall were elephants.

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They were dusting themselves, blowing earth with their trunks.  I wanted to jump up and down.

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“Oh look!” cried Dorothy, alighting beside me and snapping cell pictures in a blur.  We stepped closer to the wall, akin to tripping an invisible alarm, for the largest elephant turned and lumbered toward us.  We backed away again.  The eyes of the elephants were almost invisible after the morning dusting, yet there was no doubting the expression and angry symphony of snorts and foot stomps and ear flapping coming from the herd as they encircled the elephant babies, drawing them back with a spank of the trunk when they wobbled too far afield.  The adults kept their dusty eyes on us.

One of the workers from the new building came over to join us.  He wiped his brow, smiled at Dorothy and they chatted with animation.

“This language you guys are speaking,” I asked.  “What is it?”

“Ndebele,” said Dorothy.

“And what do you call an elephant?”

“Indlovue.”

Alright then.  Game drive or not, I’d seen my indlovue.

I returned to the cabin and dozed for an hour, lulled by the chatter of cleaning ladies and construction men outside the cabin.  Then I snapped out of it.  The voices had morphed into inhuman grunts and crunching branches.  I pulled the chair into the bathroom and stood on it and looked out the window.  Then I trembled for a while.  Then I texted a message to my sister:

‘THERE ARE ELEPHANTS OUTSIDE MY BATHROOM’

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Thirty minutes later they moved off.  Back at the courtyard, both elephants and humans had multiplied.  Scott was there with one of the safari drivers and the new herd had fewer babies and more large bulls.  Very large bulls.  For the first time, I noticed the small pool in the clearing, where they had quaffed their morning drink before the dust bath ritual.

“The ears are full of blood vessels.  They flap them to cool themselves off,” said Scott.  “They flap when they’re angry too.  But it’s a different movement.”

One of the flapping ears sported a large hole, which the safari driver declared a gunshot wound, probably from a poacher.  As for the more famous appendage, it could do virtually anything…pick up a penny even.  There were sixty thousand muscles in the trunk.

“You can get a good picture from up top,” said Scott, referring to the half constructed building beside us.

“Is it safe?”

“Oh yes.  The top floor is finished.”

“Okay.”  I paused.  “I guess one tends to over-photograph these guys.”

“Not at all.  You never know when they’ll come around again.”

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Another elephant glided in from the forest (how silent they were!) but the others honked and roared and chased him away.  Scott guessed he was from a rival herd.  I listened to a few more minutes of jungle lore and left the compound, walking back between the fences.

Then I froze.

An elephant was standing not ten paces from me, grunting angrily and flapping his ears.  Flapping them in the bad way.  Was this the recently humiliated outcast…in a mood perhaps for a bit of tourist-stomping?

I sidled across the path until we were separated by one reedy sapling.  The bull snorted dismissively and moved off.  I gingerly stepped over the fence, detoured through prickly thorn bush, raced the last few yards to the cabin and locked myself in.

And I thought, “What kind of crazy place is this?”


They weren’t finished yet.  Their morning dust-up complete, the elephants were once again foraging between chalets.  There was a half fallen tree behind my cabin, seemingly the back scratcher of choice, for a big bull was using it now and the scraping sound, even through the window, suggested a rake on tough leather.  Below the sill to my left, younger males were pulling at the grasses; at right was a mother and suckling baby.  Well, this was their lodge now.  I wasn’t going anywhere.  The bull and the youngsters might pay me no mind.  But a mother and baby?  Big Mama would dispatch me as soon as I opened the door.

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And I thought, “What kind of crazy place is this?”

That night at the reception desk, Scott informed me that a trio from Luxembourg had booked the same game drive as myself, filling the quota requirement.  I was grateful for that.  At the same time, I feared an anti-climax.  Gwango Lodge was a hard act to follow.

One of the security people tapped me on the arm and shone his flashlight down the dirt road.  A massive bull elephant was feeding, his trunk ripping down the top tree branches.  In the darkness, he seemed abnormally large, fifty feet high, the King Elephant, something prehistoric.

I returned to the cabin.  The phone signal went off.  At last I’d received an answering text from my sister:

‘WOW.  THAT SOUNDS SURREAL’

Yup.

 

©Richard Taylor



Last modified on Thursday, 02 September 2021