An American in Zambia: Ghosts of Africa
Yesterday, Rebecca Berry made us all want to quit our jobs and become globe-trotting horse magnets. Today, she takes us elephant tracking deep into the Zambian bush.
In 2009, I traded in the safety of my house in Ocala, Florida for the uncertainty of a tent in the Zambian bush. Seemed like fantastic idea when I was in the cozy confines of my solid structure. Funnily enough, it didn’t seem quite as fantastic when I found myself lying on a small cot, in a canvas tent in the middle of the Africa bush with elephants wandering by. Over time, I was able to relish falling asleep to the ominous roars of lions and the eerie cries of hyena. Don’t get me wrong–It took over a month before I was able to go to bed, assured I wouldn’t get killed in my sleep.
I was in Zambia working on a horse safari with the aim of learning how to become a backup rider. Essentially the brave soul that rides at the end of the group keeping their eyes peeled for marauding lions and the like.
Days after my arrival and weeks before guests were due, Steve, the owner of the horse safari, took me out on an early morning bush ride. By 6 a.m., Steve and I headed out of camp and trundled down the sandy, rutted road looking for spoors. The only animal track I was able to find and label was one left by an elephant. They are, as you might imagine, big, flat, and circular. I know this fact is not overly impressive but you have to start somewhere.
Eventually and to my abject horror, we pulled off the dirt road and entered the thick bush. When you ride down the sandy road, you can see. Plan and simple you can see what is in front of you and what is behind you. There is a clear escape route with good footing and no hidden aardvark holes for your horse to fall in. When you enter the bush, you have no idea what you might find. There are no clear exits, tree branches are waiting to pull you from your horse and aardvark holes are ready to bury you. Contrary to what Walt Disney has led us all to believe, large African animals are not friendly and surprising one will likely not have a happy ending.
Just as my mind was getting away on me, envisioning all the possible ways I could conceivably die during this ride, we heard a noise. To an untrained ear, such as mine, I would have bet my life that a lion had just growled and was about to pounce. Steve held his hand up, suggesting that I remain quiet. I was fairly certain I was about to be killed and was completely unable to say anything, even if I wanted to. I tried to figure out where the noise had come from. I looked frantically around but saw nothing. Then again, lions were not really designed for easy spotting. The fact that my horse was busy eating grass did nothing for my nerves, although it probably should have.
Steve moved forward with his horse, and like a lamb to the slaughter, I followed. He turned around and mouthed the word elephant.
Elephant? Since when did an elephant sound like a lion, and if it is an elephant, why can’t I see the largest land mammal on the planet? Steve swung wide and we carried on, not seeing anything.
“An elephant? Are you sure that was an elephant?” I asked Steve, who has lived half his life in the African bush.
He assured me that it was indeed elephant and the noise he made was a warning to let us know that he was there and it would be in our best interest not to come any closer. Fair enough, but then why couldn’t we see such a huge animal? “Elephants,” he explained “are known as the ghosts of Africa.” The explanation, I felt, was fairly lame
We were now into the second hour of our early morning ride, walking down a narrow dirt road lined on either side by thick, overhanging brush, making the road feel like a tunnel. We walked along for about a mile when all of a sudden, the road darkened and it appeared as though someone had drawn a curtain across the end of the tunnel. “Elephant,” Steve whispered and then took off at a gallop. I could see that there was a mother and a baby elephant, followed closely by a third. Steve pulled up and once again, the elephants were gone. We couldn’t see or hear them. They had just vanished and it just did not make sense.
“Ghosts of Africa” Steve said, and this time I had to agree that it was probably a fairly accurate name.
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