by Aron Hyman
Day one in the Okovango Delta, the fourth day since we departed for Botswana from Johannesburg.
Road conditions in the Delta have been trying, and we only managed to reach our camp in Xakanaka after sunset. The camping spot is on the edge of a water channel.
It's not surprising that we didn't see the massive elephant bull towering above our Toyota Hilux as we scrambled to escape a swarm of mosquitoes. I spotted the creature only after hearing the impossibly deep groan or purr and as my eyes adjusted under the darkness of the miombo trees there stood a pitch black figure meters behind Matthys. It stood there shyly pulling at grass, purring at us. Then it came up to the Hilux to investigate us. Chris, Matthys, and I stood stunned behind the vehicle. The elephant's stomach was about level with the roof of the car. It could have very easily flipped it onto us.
Eventually it walked a little distance and rubbed against a tree giving us a few minutes to set up camp and apply insect repellent. The mosquitoes here bite through clothing. We hurriedly deployed our “instant tent” and set up our camp chairs and Matthys started a fire so we could braai our meat and 'braai broodjies' before the hyenas and lions could lock onto our scent. Lamps had to be kept off because the swarms of insects and the arachnids that eat them would instantly descend from the branches above and turn our camp-site into a micro hunting ground.
We could still hear the elephant rubbing against some trees in the darkness, and then as silently as it came it was gone.
It was not afraid of us at all. That first purr felt like it was saying, “hello, I'm here, I'm coming closer”. All through the encounter we continued to murmur to each other to try and calm ourselves and the elephant. It also kept making sounds, perhaps as a warning that it is alert of us, but as he slowly came closer, shyly hiding behind a tree not five meters from us – purring all the time and looking at us with one eye – I could not help but think it was talking to us. It felt as though he was also assuring us.
When he came even closer and we realised he could kill us without effort, we all felt it.
We had connected with him. He acknowledged us and welcomed us to his home. When I looked into his eye I thought I felt the soul of an elephant and I could hear the heart of the Okovango give a deafening throb.
The moment ended when Matthys declared that, "This is not a circus elephant".
After we ate we spent the rest of the night looking at the fireflies jump across the Milky Way while listening to a pack of hyenas cackle somewhere south of us while the moans of a couple of lions encroached on us from the east.
We also found out that we had set up camp near a channel opening made by hippos and their horrifying grunts were not far away.
Lying in our tent in a state of primordial terror the realisation came to me that here, I have no control over my fate.
My destiny was in the hands of whatever timeless spirit holds power over this place. I felt calmer. The lions roared us to sleep.