by Howie Minsky
I awake as the first rays of light shine over the red sand hills of Nakavango Big Game Preserve in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, Africa. It is only my second day of my two-month stint as a volunteer here and already I feel at home. I close my eyes and breathe deeply; the aroma of coffee fills the air. I am at peace. I grab a chair on the veranda and look out onto the African bush just feet away. It is winter here—the dry season—and the lush greenery of the rainy season has given way to leafless trees, tall yellow grasses of straw and large patches of dark red Kalahari sand. These are difficult times for African wildlife.
This morning, I choose to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Not sure why… perhaps the sense of childlike adventure I feel here. I sip my coffee and watch as three warthogs nibble the salt lick a few yards away.
As I finish my second cup, our guide walks past and we jump to take our seats in the 4×4. I just want to get out into the bush and get to work. Thoughts racing… What creatures will we see today? What adventures await us?
Our guide says we’re heading to do maintenance on a watering hole, and then check on salt licks, and asks us to always be aware of people walking in the reserve; they are most likely poachers. We all nod our heads. We just want a safe environment for the animals to stay wild and free.
As we enter the gate into the preserve luck is on our side. We spot an eland (pictured) atop a nearby hill. As quickly as we see him, he dashes off into the woods. We continue to ride through the preserve toward the Never Ever Forest—aptly named for the inexperienced who become lost and will Never Ever find their way home.
As we drive along we see zebra, impala, baboons, black rhino—and then our guide spots the tracks he’s been looking for. As the vehicle slows, we see fresh massive circular prints pocking the dirt road. Elephant tracks maybe 20 inches in diameter.
These tracks are fresh, and we jump off the jeep to try and catch up with the elephant that made them. Walking through the bush we follow all the signs—the massive tracks, trampled saplings, mounds of scat (poo), and large branches ripped from decades-old trees.
For more than three hours we follow the rough trampled path until something changes in the air, a heavy dusky odor filling up the dry woods. And there he is, close by, a dark drifting shadow just through the trees. As we move forward, we see him looming in the woods, a mottled wall of grey, ears twitching, trumpeting loudly. He stomps his foot, telling us to stay back. We continue forward, his ears fanned as he listens to our approach. Soon there are only a few trees between us.
And that is far enough. He stomps his feet and begins to charge toward us. There is a thundering sound of bushes crashing and snapping, and as he barrels toward us he bellows as loud as an oncoming train. Already large, his outstretched ears make him look twice the size. Knowing that 95 percent of elephant charges are bluffs, we stand our ground. But in the back of my mind I am wondering about that other five percent. What if he doesn’t stop? What if this time it’s not a bluff?
A few seconds and he’s upon us, stopping just a few feet away. He is massive; all I see is the elephant head and ears before me. I can almost taste his earthy odor as my heart pounds in my chest. Again, he stomps his foot and tramples the bushes with his trunk. I am motionless, eyes wide, barely breathing.
As we stand our ground, he stares us down, shakes his head and turns. He slowly ambles away into the dark trees, until they engulf him and he is gone.
We head back to our vehicle in silence. Almost in unison, we exhale. My heart is still racing, my mouth is dry and my body is charged with adrenaline. I say “wow.” And I begin to laugh. What a trek. What a day.
What a place this is.