by Alan Qian
The sweeping plains and the intricate waterways of the Okavango Delta had gotten dark by the end of supper. At our campsite, a lantern sat at the end of the table, and another hung off of a tree branch nearby. Hundreds of moths swarmed around them, bewildered by the artificial light and helpless against their instincts. At the other end of the 30-foot clearing, the cook sat by her glowing fire. Feeling the surprisingly crisp winter air setting in, I topped off our teacups with more hot water. This was the third night out here for Emma and me, and by now we had acquainted ourselves with the uncaring nature of the land. Though we were his guests, the Okavango was too preoccupied with his own routine to provide us with comfort and warmth. “Make yourselves at home,” he must have said to us when our motored wooden boat docked after the half-day journey. Evidently, he meant that we ought to make our own food and shelter, and do our best to survive.
Being spoiled Americans, we had hired locals from the town to help. Niko, the young guide whose English often confused us, took us for bush walks after sunrise, and mokoro rides before sunset. Sam, who reminded me of Morgan Freeman, set up the camp. The cook, equipped with merely a campfire and some pots and pans, whipped up restaurant-worthy meals like little miracles from the earth. Here the five of us settled beneath the sprawling arms of an old jackalberry tree, its fallen fruits scattered across the campsite, sprinkling over piles of elephant dung we had yet to clear out.
Sam pointed to some faint, distant glows. “The village has party again,” he said. “They like to dance.”
Earlier, Niko had shown us on his flip phone a video of his friends dancing and chanting at the village. He liked it so much, he showed it to us literally dozens of times, continuously— we felt quite awkward after the sixth time. With no electricity or any modern comfort, the village was its own vibrant place. A party could always be had if your friends had a boombox and batteries.
In silence at the table, we listened to the faint beats of the music, fading in and out with the wind. They were a good couple of miles away, we were told. I thought about a life born here, a life spent about a tiny village in the midst of the earth’s most untouched pockets. The villagers were neighbors with the elephants, peers of the giraffes, and friends of the impalas. They were called humans, and they happened to carry boomboxes and drink coca-colas.
When the music faded out for the night, we were reminded of where we were by the occasional wailings of the hyenas reverberating across the savanna. The village had vanished with its people. We were alone in the dark. This was our kingdom.
“And now, time for a story.” Sam announced.
Like children before bedtime, Emma and I gazed at him. He had treated us with his African tales every night.
“When I was a boy, many years ago,” he began with a smile, an unpolished yet robust command of English, and long pauses between phrases, “my uncle took me to hunting. I was maybe fifteen. It was a hot day, and I go with no shirt. My mother told me to bring a shirt, and my uncle said put on a shirt, but I was a boy so I don’t listen. Why I need a shirt, you know? I have been hunting many times. I’ll be back before sunset, why do I need a shirt. Uncle said OK, let’s go, and we walked many many miles, with some water, no food. Many many miles. I was tired and thirsty.”
He poured himself some tea, and continued in a somewhat hushed voice: “In the afternoon, there is a buffalo! A big bull, by itself. We stayed quiet by the bush, watching, waiting, for a long, long time. Finally my uncle pulled out his arrow. One shot into the ribs! The buffalo tried to run. A little bit and it fell. We had a whole buffalo to ourselves! A whole buffalo! But we cannot carry it home. We need it to feed the family. That was a problem. And it was getting late in the day. So my uncle tells me to dig. I don’t know, why? He tells me, just dig a big hole in the ground. So I took out my pocket knife, and I started to dig. My uncle, with his knife, was carving up the buffalo. The hide, the meat, the bones. He wrapped the meat inside the hide, piece by piece, and placed them into the big hole I dug. We covered it up with the soil. You know why? This is like refrigerator. Keep the meat cool, and hide it from lions at night.”
Realizing it was a dark and moonless night, I timidly looked around for lions creeping about.
“It was getting dark and cold when we were done,” our guide said. “And I was shirtless. Oh my god I was so cold. Naked stupid boy. I was shivering really bad. My uncle tell me, good, now you learn your lesson. Always be prepared when you go out. You never know what is going to happen. I begged him to help me. But what can he do. Better to make me remember.
“Finally he made a fire, and we ate some buffalo. Barbecue buffalo. Oh, it was so good and the fire kept me warm. And we were enjoying the smell of the meat. Then suddenly my uncle froze. He told me, quietly, we have guests. A pride of lions is watching us. They must be hungry, drawn by the scent of the fresh kill. I thought, this is it. I’m eating a buffalo and the lions are going to eat me.”
“One of the lions came toward us,” he continued. “It was getting close. My uncle pulled a burning branch from the fire, and tossed at it. It backed off. Then another one came at us. And we threw another burning stick. That was the only way. Many many hours. We did not sleep. We keep throwing fire at them when they come…”
Niko said something in their native tongue, breaking the trance of the tale. He had wandered over toward the trunk of the jackalberry tree. Sam said something back in his usual casual cadence. Then he turned around and said to us quietly, “We have a visitor.”
We looked over to our right, where Nico was holding up high one of the lanterns. In the direction of the light, something stood a few yards behind our jackalberry tree. On a night of pin-drop silence, fixated by Sam’s tale of his encounter with the lions, we had not heard the soft approach of the giant. The light faintly illuminated the face of a young adult elephant, with his floppy ears and puzzled eyes. How did he encroach our camp, and pass the bushes and woods like a ninja? At this distance, where all that separated us was the spread of a tree, he appeared no longer as our curious safari subject, but as a Hollywood mammoth standing above us, contemplating whether to toss or squash all the tiny objects around him.
Sam got up from the table. Slowly, I too rose off of my chair, admiring the beautiful creature while priming myself for flight. Would movement startle the beast? Should I have stayed seated? He looks harmless, but suppose he charges? Emma stood behind me, as still as the tree, the elephant, the night.
Sam and Niko yelled and shone lights at him. He did not budge. He had made up his mind to be here, and a mind as large as his was not to be persuaded easily.
“Get behind the tree,” Sam directed us. I took a few steps over, half-hiding behind the trunk of the tree, and looked back. Emma remained there, frozen in awe as if a god had descended upon us.
“Come behind the tree!” I called out in a restrained voice. “Come behind the tree.”
Sam snuck off to the campfire by the cook. Our uninvited guest, though, remained devoid of any expression. I wondered, is he here for the berries hanging off of the tree that shades us from the midday sun? Is he seeking shelter here, next to us? Would it be incredibly pointless to take a picture of what is happening here in the darkness?
Sam came back to us, holding branches flickering from the campfire. He yelled and waved the glowing sticks at the elephant. Again. Again. The elephant did not care.
“Hoy!” He yelled and tossed a branch in front of the elephant. Sparks came off like fireworks.
“Hoy!” He did it again.
Perhaps a little annoyed, the elephant finally took a step. Then another. Then another. He moved with a ballerina’s stealth. Steadily he veered to the left, passing our tent. Soon there was but his silhouette growing smaller and smaller as he parted with us, the definition of his tusks and trunk merging with his body in the distance. Where he was off to, I would not know. The land was vast. The forests were deep. The night was young. Perhaps he would journey on and find a place of his own, complete with an abundance of berries, leaves and grass. But he was not a welcomed guest at our camp tonight. For as breathtaking as he was, we were born with too many differences.
I couldn’t help shaking an odd feeling though, that for this once, he and I shared the exact same thought. After all, on the many days when we did not camp here, this was his tree, and these were his berries. And mostly certainly, we had been walking around his dung throughout the day.
I looked toward the forest for his departing figure, wondering if he would change his mind. He was no longer to be found.
Much later that night, as I lay wide awake in the tent, I could hear the calls of our hosts. The commanding roar of a lion, the trumpeting of an elephant – perhaps him, the comical howling of a hyena. They were many, and not so far away. But they were hospitable enough to let us sleep for another night. The hyena would even visit us from time to time, making sure her guests had not stuck a limb outside their tents. We were assured of this by their footprints outside the tents the next morning.
About Alan Qian
Alan Qian is a Chinese-Canadian who considers Northern California his third home. Whenever possible, he travels to faraway places with his wife.