The early morning haze slowly gave way to the power of the burning sun as it ushered away the last signs of a crisp, cool dawn. The smell of Africa’s wide open spaces in ones nostrils, always invigorating and exciting. The sounds of the morning bush inhabitants welcoming all to the tranquillity and calm that is the African morning. What would the day bring? Majestic lions on the prowl? An elusive leopard slipping across a dirt track? Circling vultures perhaps, just hinting at some overnight excitement? The anticipation of each new day in the African bush promising so much and rarely failing to deliver.
The elephants had been acting up all day. Across the region they were unusually noisy, nothing like the calm herds that had littered the landscape earlier in the week. The younger bulls were boisterous, mock-charging and feigning aggression at every opportunity - there seemed to be a lively energy in the air. However, as I drove the winding dirt tracks that hugged the now dry riverbeds of the northern Kruger National Park, I put this strange behaviour to back of my mind. The midday heat had arrived and as many of the animals sought shade to rest, I did the same back at camp
As the horizon attracted a now waning sun I found myself driving slowly along a dirt road flanked on one side by lush riverine vegetation and by a mess of Acacia thorn on the other. A sudden trumpeting alerted me to elephant activity in the nearby bush, where it seemed yet another young bull was performing. As I moved to investigate the commotion a view cleared to reveal two giants of the African bush; one towering over the other, which was lying awkwardly in the dirt. My initial reaction was one of confusion; the dirt stricken elephant clearly in some discomfort. Was the young bull offering comfort to a suffering friend? A few seconds later however, the tone of this encounter became abundantly clear. This was no gesture of generosity, but one of the new guard sending the old on its way.
The younger bull heaved the large tusker back up onto his feet, moved away a short distance, and then with the ferocity of an elephant enraged, suddenly turned and battered his foe back to the earth, driving him down as if to bury the large bull where he fell. Branches cracked and dust rose as trumpeting echoed across the landscape. The young bull relentlessly repeated the vicious attack; the contest was already over and the humiliation had begun. A once proud giant forced to endure the savage ambition of a new order. Every attack was punctuated by cries for help, piercing the air unlike any other elephant sound I had heard before.
I watched in awe, body trembling in disbelief. A glance over my shoulder to a nearby vehicle revealed a woman weeping – the situation was the most intense animal encounter I had ever witnessed. People watched on unsure how to react; the moment had truly taken hold of everybody. This was the wildlife encounter one could only dream of but would never fully be prepared for; and it was far from over.
An unsettled herd edged cautiously toward the fallen giant as the sense of tragedy filtered up through the golden dust. The herd remained a few feet from the fallen bull, with only the matriarch making contact. She trumpeted loudly, pushing him, encouraging him back to his feet. He lay motionless, apart from his desperately writhing trunk gasping for air, longing for that elusive breath. She nudged him hopefully as the rest of the herd inched ever nearer. Soon they were all gathered around him, touching his skin with their trunks, moaning as if sharing his pain. The blood on his body glistened in the late afternoon light, his eyes looking out helplessly; and then nothing.
A chorus of desperate wailing began. The herd traumatised; the elephants lingered, still hopeful that they might find another ending. But the bull lay dead. The gentle giants stood mourning as darkness arrived and draped the scene in a veil of night.
copyright James Campbell 2009
THE STRUGGLE OF THE BEAST
The first cautious volunteers prodded the dusty banks with trusted hooves, staring straight down a 20 foot drop into the murky flow. Reconsidering their destiny, like schoolboys shamed, they rejoined the herd, disappearing into the obscurity from which they had earlier emerged. As if to gather a collective consciousness, the herd grazed slowly back toward familiar grasslands, their cattle-like calls confusing the landscape. Consensus seemingly gained, the machine once again rolled toward the treacherous waters, as if a force uncontrolled by physical sinews pushed these unwilling participants toward the edge. This time at water level, a few noble soldiers emerged from the mass intent on leading their community through to a promised land of unparalleled botanical riches. First one hoof, and then a second, submerges as the soldiers push forward urging the waters to provide guidance as to a safe passage. A sudden jump backward from a
skittish warrior is followed by a rapid retreat to surer ground as the herd is once again left to consider the madness of this eternal contract that they have entered into.
Hours pass by as the pattern develops into a mesmerising battle between relentless current and stubborn beast. The giant herd once again finds itself clustered on the waters edge - the lead animal perched awkwardly atop a rock, clumsy legs trembling, undecided as to what their next action might be. A frantic jump forward into the unknown and the wildebeest disappears beneath the muddied brown surface, ending the wait. It emerges mouth agape, legs kicking below the surface, propelling the animal toward the relative safety of the far bank. The herd, governed by the eventual momentum of one, plunge into the racing water in a frenzied mass, desperate to conquer both the current and the hungry eyes that have patiently watched the saga unfold. The river becomes blackened with dense swathes of wildebeest as they now, without question, continue into the torrent.
As the first animals set their hooves onto the dry land opposite; the crocodiles have already started gathering in anticipation. The powerful reptilian masters of Africa’s waters slip into the rushing depths to take their share of the annual bounty. They needn’t go undetected as the herd continues to descend into the murk by the thousand and nothing will stop the focused mass now. Almost casually, a large crocodile swims toward the panic and opening its ancient jaws it easily pulls a large adult below the surface. In this environment there is no contest – if you are selected; you are dead. The crocodiles take their fill and as if the mass have seen it all before, they continue to plunge into the lottery machine. A calf, seemingly too small for this epic journey, is wrenched away from the thronging herd by the current and washed downstream. It’s panicked call for help and desperate pleas with the raging waters are ignored as the ruthless river powers on. The tiny animal cannot match the might of the torrent as its head disappears below the surface once more, reappearing several feet downstream, with a pained gasp for one last chance. It is not forthcoming and the weakened victim is finally sucked into the belly of the mighty Mara.
The vast majority of drenched wildebeest emerge unscathed from their ordeal. Lost youngsters call out in the hope of being reunited, while injured adults stand helplessly, knowing that they will no longer keep up with the herd. The mass, seemingly unconcerned with the necessary casualties of this journey, continue on in their relentless search for greener pastures. A line of wildebeest now extends over the horizon to the north, as if following an invisible road map toward what, for the next few months, will be home. Africa, however, is harsh and it will not be long before the rich pastures are depleted, leaving this mass of migrating soldiers to take their weary legs on another journey back to the breeding grounds in the south.
copyright James Campbell 2009