I would hear a sound at night. It was footsteps. They had no direction, nor did they seem to be approaching or leaving. They’d gently walk through the space of mind. Coming and going as easily as a breeze. Pushing away needless thoughts of the demands of society. I knew its stride, an unmistakable rhythm, that the gait of only one can make. It’s no man that walks this way, I knew. It is an elephant. I heard the silence of his feet before lifting off the ground. I heard the gentle scrape of his soles touching the sand as they travel through the air and then I could hear the soft crackle of leaf as his feet spread across the ground on landing.
I could not see him, but I could feel his presence. I had heard this hypnotic sound many times now and have come to miss it on nights I cannot hear it. I squint my eyes closed, now, and push my head towards the edge of the city’s loud and confused noise. Trying to let the footsteps in again but they are halted by the synthetics of this place. This unreal place. Surrounded by the walls of concrete and the screams of motorbikes, the city allows no peace anymore. I long for the sound yet like a memory it starts to abandon me. The memories of sitting in the company of wild elephants, their gentle considerations of me start to fade and I am restless now. Yet there is a journey ahead that may evoke this this feeling, this memory…
My aching for this interaction is stronger than ever as I anticipate its immanence. It so close now yet not close enough so I distract myself. I consider the freckles on her hand as she toggles adjustments of her aircraft. Her sun-brown skin and her natural blonde hair unspoiled by product. Her features a beautiful and textured landscape like the one we pass over. Her eyes bright and full of life yet a sadness hides behind them. Her country brought to its knees by the greed of a few leaving fragments of a life and fragments of memories when things were once good. A vivacious Zimbabwean yet Michelle Hunt wears the sturdy cast of old integrities and distinguished bearing. I wonder on her life as she commands our aircraft through thermals, falling and rising and falling once more into the Zambezi valley. I can see details along this dry land now. Rocks in riverbeds and elephant paths through the “Jesse Bush” (a mixture of combretum and grewiathat make up a terrifyingly dense and grey habitat, renowned for hiding even an entire herd of elephant until you are amongst them).
I lift my eyes from warthogs running from the noisy bird above them to notice the grey-green haze to our north. An immense river cuts through the scorched terrain. “Zambezi river” I say in my head, as I always do when I see it once again, as if the valley belonged to it and so needed acknowledgment before we touched down in its land. A land that inundates you in its heat and its life on arrival. The rattle of cicadas fills your ears and shakes the air around you. The air you gasp at while stepping out the plane, as if you have been holding your breath for years. Clean and scented by dust and the forest around the airstrip, that now beets its drum.
I will not wrangle with you about natures ability to conduce not only happiness within man but also goodness. It is a fact. How its absence, in time, perpetuates a negative and pointless life. I have seen it many times. I have felt it. I have led countless trips like this into the wilderness. My primary grail to connect people to nature. I have placed many men and woman into these places. Some born of the wild and immediately and seamlessly fitting back into their place of being. Some deprived of it yet their self-awareness and consciousness leaves them yearning for this realness and purity. It means they soon understand what’s around them. They connect…and deeply appreciate their situation. Some, I see, are pale behind their eyes and empty like the duty-free shops of the now corroded-by-corruption Harare airport. Their ego and pride is too much for natures grasp anymore. They are alive yet cannot comprehend what’s worth living for. They look and yet seem blind to the marvel in front of them. They listen yet are deaf to the dance of the wild. They are present yet they do not care to feel the pulse of the writhing life that surrounds them, like the rock in the river they are unmoved and have no purpose other than to disrupt the life that flows past them. I pity them. I resent them. I must move on.
Alf Ngwarai, an eminent of the valley, a composer, his theatre the old albidia forest where the elephants roam to the river quietly winding its way past and everything between there and here. You are defenceless to his ardour for the wild and you only follow his gaze and gestures as they point out phenomenon here and there as if he was, too, seeing it for the first time. The plethora of knowledge he possesses is only believable when he starts to interpret the happenings around us. His relationship with the inhabitants of Mana Pools only understood when he walks us under the canopy of the blue forest. Eland and zebra, as if we had been there all along, only lift their heads briefly to acknowledge us before going back to feeding. Baboons, forever suspicious of their not so distant cousin, give us a curious examination on our way past, occasionally barking a profanity or two in our direction. Hippo call in the distance and, in the distance too, figures take shape. Alf smiles back at us while pointing. Massive animals, only a little darker than the shade they stand in and a little less blue than the haze of the forest. The shapes have life and sway to and from. Move, slowly, in your direction. Some with tusks, pale and megalithic like their carriers. Swaying to the gait and cutting through the dark shades as if trees themselves. “Elephants’ he says, whilst leading us in their direction.
We are with them now. I hear it again. The sound that I had longed for, for too long. If I had no sight, I would have been able to see everything. The sounds of footsteps all around us as elephants, aware of us but not concerned, move from one tree to the next. So close we can hear the sound of breath as their trunks comb the forest floor in search of nutritious pods or the canopy for low lying branches. Your heart rate slows to normal again, you breathe again. Realising that no harm from these animals is intended.
Your quads release from pushing your back into the tree trunk you sit against as you realise you are present with some of the most wise and gentle animals of earth. Time stands still as one of them stands upon his back legs. You brace as he descends back towards the ground with a branch clasped in his trunk yet only a minor plume of dust escapes his feet as he delicately lands into his normal posture. Youngsters flock to his side in the hope of feeding on his bounty. He chews his share, leaves the rest to the young then continues to the next tree, and the next. The shade and haze starts to take them again and soon you are alone. Contempt yet trying to comprehend what you have seen.
That night I hear sounds. There is a lion roaring in the distance, hyenas howling nearer and buffalo inhaling sausage tree flowers just outside my tent. I close my eyes, there it is, my old friend is back, walking his way through my dreams.