©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
My nose presses against the glass as our plane begins its descent. I’m hoping to catch my first glimpse of one of the seven wonders of the natural world, having waited decades for this moment. Thirty miles away huge plumes of what looks like smoke billow into the air. Shivering with excitement, I recognize the plumes from pictures I have seen. It is not smoke, however. It is spray from Victoria Falls!
We fly low over the bush that extends as far as the eye can see. Its red-brown earth sprouts wiry grasses, and the landscape is dotted with umbrella shaped acacia trees, sturdy thorn bushes, and thickets. Off to one side is a family of elephants not far from a herd of Cape buffalos. In the distance a group of antelope (or wildebeests) are bounding over shrubs and thorn trees en masse, their hooves kicking up swirls of dust. Single dirt tracks appear, disappear, and reappear. Some drift into a kraal with its round thatched-roof houses, others into a tiny town, and some even melt away into the horizon. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, the airport looms into view. The runway rises up to meet us and we are in Zimbabwe, Africa.
After clearing customs I watch a group of men sing, dance, and drum on the entrance patio of the main building. Their costumes are a combination of animal skins and ostrich feathers along with spandex shorts. The performers must be in excellent physical condition because, although it is winter season, the sun is very hot during daylight hours, and they are not perspiring. We are!
I climb into the van that the safari company has sent to transport us from the airport, a distance of about 15 kilometers, into town. The driver frequently slows for wild baboons that are determined to cross in front of the van, for two zebras and several donkeys that can’t decide where the grass is greenest, for a stately Kudu whose spiraling horns reach up four feet or more, and for children in bright blue uniforms who are returning from school. We pass women carrying huge bundles on their heads. The driver says they can walk and balance those heavy head loads for kilometers at a time, and my own head aches with the very thought.
In town the driver stops at the booking office so I can reserve an elephant safari, while my cousins sign up for river rafting over category 4-5 rapids on the Zambezi River. Several passengers disembark, but we continue on to Victoria Falls Lodge, located about 10 kilometers out in the bush. Its draw includes the balcony restaurant and rooms that overlook a water hole. Sure enough, breakfasts and dinners are served to the real-time trek of wild life endeavoring to slake their thirst. Elephants, buffalo, warthogs, antelope, and birds of every size, hue, and description. Some of the egrets appear taller than I am. I pinch myself to make sure this is not a dream.
Early the next morning a safari van collects me from the lodge and an hour or so later, at the end of a single-lane dirt track, I have my first glimpse of the elephant conservation camp. Having never stood really close to a fully grown adult African elephant, I am a touch taken aback by their size. They are immense and easily more than twice my height! After an orientation and introduction to the eleven adult safari elephants, I climb to the top of a platform and take a look at what I will be riding for the next couple of hours. Jock is an immense bull elephant that came to the camp after being injured in a fight--or that is the assumption. When healed, the rangers released him back into the wild, but he reappeared at the camp four months later and so far has refused to leave. Jock seems to enjoy safari-ing people around on his back and helping care for other injured elephants.
One of the first things I notice is that Jock’s backbone seems to be sticking up some five inches above his body. As I maneuver myself onto his back I am vastly relieved to feel the foam rubber saddle between me and his back. My feet hooked in stirrups, it is very easy to adjust to the gentle rocking motion of his gait. The ground below looks very far away, however, and I am hanging on to the strap with both hands.
Jock’s driver, 22-year-old Krys, who recently got married and is the only person in his immediate family who has a job, rides in front of me. Krys gives Jock verbal instructions, often in English, to go forward, backward, to the right or left, plus foot and hand signals to keep him moving steadily along. Otherwise Jock might be tempted to dawdle. As it is he often veers to one side long enough to break off some foliage with his trunk and tusks. Shoving the whole thing--leaves, twigs, and branches--into his mouth, he chews as we walk along. Chris, who is from nearby Botswana and speaks Tsetswana, English, Afrikans, and some Xhosa (which is the delightful “click” language that I so much enjoy listening to), tells us that elephants typically spend up to eighteen hours a day foraging for food.
We also learn that Jock is about 38 years old and likely fathered one of the two baby elephants that tagged playfully along with us. They were born at the camp—after fifteen months of gestation. (And no, apparently there is no such thing as a gelded elephant.) Jock can gallop at rates up to 40 kilometers an hour, which is approximately 25 miles an hour. I sincerely hope that nothing startles him into a gallop since he is not equipped with seat belts, and the ground looks very far away! I look at his ears, lazily moving in the air like two giant fans made of thin leather. There are several holes punched along the edge of each ear at irregular intervals, and Chris explains that they were cut by thorns.
A junior elephant also trots along with our safari group, obviously not wanting to be left behind. This youngster had been found in the bush--a tiny baby standing forlornly beside the body of his dead mother, who was likely killed by poachers since her tusks had been sawed off. The camp elephants had welcomed the little guy with open trunks, while the rangers fed him every two hours around the clock. Junior had consumed 55 liters of formula per day until he grew old enough to start grazing and browsing. Krys explains that many such animals are not able to survive. He also tells me that some animals graze (e.g., antelopes) while other animals browse (e.g., giraffes). Elephants do both.
Back in camp I scoop up handfuls of special feed pellets and hold them out to “my elephant,” Jock. Most turned the tip of their trunks up so their riders could drop in the pellets. Not Jock. He “vacuumed” them from my cupped hands, the soft ends of his trunk passing lightly over my fingers checking for every last treat. His eyelashes were at least 2 inches long and thickly sprinkled along the lids of his rather small eyes. The baby elephants bump into us, wanting a treat, too, so I pick up some of the pellets that have fallen to the ground and share those. One of the babies is teething and holds it trunk back over its head hoping one of the riders will rub its gums. Stick my hand in your mouth?, I thought to myself. Cute as you are, I don’t THINK so.
The following day I finally get to view the falls up close and personal, the ones I have wanted to see since reading my first book about Africa at the age of seven. It was the story of David Livingston, a Scottish missionary-doctor turned explorer, who stumbled across the falls in November of 1855. Believed to have been the first European to see them, Livingstone promptly named them for Queen Victoria. Livingstone wrote: “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” From that first tantalizing read, I had wanted to see Victoria Falls, and they did not disappoint me.
The indigenous people named the falls Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means the smoke that thunders. And thunder it does, so much so that it can be difficult to hold a conversation. A rainbow can be seen curving over Devils Cataract, above water that roars off cliffs from a relatively flat riverbed at the rate of nearly 40,000 cubic feet-per-second and drops 360 feet, throwing up billows of spray. Fortunately it is July, the beginning of the dry season, and the heavy mist, while visible, does not obscure a view of the falls, as can happen during the rainy season. By comparison Victoria Falls dwarfs Niagara Falls, the latter being only about half the height and width.
The western half of the falls are located in Zimbabwe, formerly known as Southern Rhodesia, while the eastern half are in Zambia, the former Northern Rhodesia. My brain is getting a work-out learning to pronounce and recall these more recent names! Dressed in a slicker and under an umbrella I walk along the observation path, although my gear doesn’t seem to prevent me from getting wet. The spray blows up, down, and every which way without apparent rhyme or reason. In fact, because of the continual spray-mist, the topography of the land is quite different right around the falls. It morphs from bush into more of a jungle, with thick foliage providing covering and camouflage for a myriad of wild things such as the family of warthogs—so ugly they’re cute--peaking out from under an elephant-leaf plant.
The chasm itself is relatively narrow (only 200-400 feet wide) with two towering islands: Cataract Island on the western edge and Livingston Island toward the middle. Anywhere you look the view is picture-perfect. The curving path leads to the Victoria Falls Bridge that spans the Zambezi River. It was the brainchild (the bridge, not the river) of Cecil Rhodes, a British-born South African businessman. Founder of the De Beers diamond company, which at one time controlled 90% of the world’s diamonds and now controls about 60%, Rhodes died before the bridge linking the two countries was completed. The Rhodes Scholarship, the world's oldest and arguably most prestigious international fellowship, was another of his brainstorms.
The border post at this end of the bridge is for the town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, while the border post at the other end is for Livingstone, Zambia. I watch foot, animal, and vehicle traffic traverse the bridge and wish I had time to walk across.
Way too soon I find myself back in the van heading for the airport. Once again the driver waits for baboons to wander across the road, and once again we slow for donkeys, antelope, warthogs, smaller buffalo, and pedestrians. I have fallen in love with the country, with the falls, with the animals, and with the people. I have exposed my brain to a myriad of new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes—my heart to as many emotions. I trust that millions of new dendrites have grown on my neurons to enrich their synaptic connections and to help age-proof my brain! As the plane hurtles into the air, my nose again presses against the glass for a last glimpse of the smoke that thunders, and I know already that I must return!