A travel moment in Botswana

"The sun was tearing apart the sky in the west, shredding it into thin strips of red and gold. Soon there would be no sky left; just a big, shredded darkness where the light used to be. Our boat hovered in the current. Darkening water sluiced around us. Our captain kept the motor going, just enough so that we would not slip downstream. The shallow, reedy expanse of the Chobe River echoed with the laughter of hippos. They have a cruel laugh, as if they are celebrating some misfortune to come: perhaps the emergence of one of their immense, often fatal bodies in front of your motorboat.

But we were not here for the hippos. The six guests in our little craft sat quietly and watched the Botswana side of the river. Scrub trees protected a small, sandy beach. Chobe National Park has the
highest concentration of African elephants in the world, and at dusk, the herds descend to the riverfront to drink.

The beach was empty. We had seen nothing except a few storks. The boys in the back, armed with gigantic cameras, slouched in their seats. I heard muttering. Our guide idled the boat, gently turning us to face the beach. “A few more minutes,” he promised, but darkness was coming quickly.

One of the trees shook. Roots to tip, it rattled, shedding leaves. And then out stumbled a clumsy shape: a juvenile elephant, its large ears swimming around its head. For a moment, it watched us; then raised a trunk as if in salute, and tripped on down to the bank. It began to shovel water into its mouth with the tip of its trunk – a smooth ladling motion. It was a sloppy drinker; water spilled everywhere.

Out of the same pathway, other elephants followed. They emerged suddenly, huge gray shapes breaking from the trees. Some drank and departed. Others gleefully tipped water onto each other’s backs, their tusks glinting up like laughter. A mother, a beast of a creature, shook her head as her baby ran full-force into the water and collapsed into it. She scooped the child out and began slathering mud across its back with her trunk.

Our captain eased the boat closer, killing the motor so we drifted in to shore. I tried not to breathe. No one spoke. If we disturbed their play – if we forced these creatures away from this riverbank – it would be a sin for which we would not be forgiven.

The claustrophobic sunset melted into gray dusk. A bull elephant was knee-deep in the water, twenty yards from our boat. Each step took him a little further into the dark water. He lowered his mouth to the river. Water lapped around his saggy, leathery skin. Then he raised his dripping face to the place where the sun used to be. I expected a trumpeting, some kind of mourning sound. But he merely stood, as shadows liquefied around his body, erasing him from view."

C Dwyer

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