Lee Summerall’s writing is casual, irreverent, personal, rambling, and chock-a-block with imagery that tastes of lemon and red
wine. Lee’s travel dispatches arrive erratically from exotic worlds—China, Tunisia, Rome, Namibia, Morocco. Most recently she reported on a close encounter with an elephant much too interested in her three-ton safari vehicle. It brought to life my own adventures in Krueger in 2013, but I don’t think you had to be there to enjoy the writing, so I convinced Lee to let me share her dispatch with Late Last Night Books followers.
She writes: South Africa’s Kruger National Park is about the same size as Pinellas County, Florida. While Pinellas County has about a million residents, Kruger has about a million animals: all the usual suspects including the Big Five, every kind of antelope, all the cats (or so they say), and over two hundred varieties of bird. Like Pinellas, Kruger is largely flat, with few significant hills until it begins to rise to the Drakensberg Mountains.
December is Kruger’s June, springtime, and unless it is raining it is arid, the air clear, and the 20 MPH wind as the three-ton Nissan safari vehicle rattles along the sandy roads is dry as an oven. In Kruger, open-air safari vehicles must have thick panels on the sides, so the experience is similar to drinking champagne through a straw: something is lost in the process.
In Kruger, there are good days and there are not-so-good days, for game viewing. If you are ever going to be a gambler, Kruger may be where you really get the habit: if I stay out here another five minutes, we’ll see a rhino…okay, five minutes gone, let’s give it another three, I know it’s there…okay, then, maybe just five more…I know the beast is out there, just go around this curve…maybe in that clump of bushes?… Like a jackpot, the rhino/elephant/cheetah is just around the corner, you only have to try or wish hard enough and it will, it has to, it absolutely must, appear.
So it was with us as we rumbled/rattled (those panels are screwed on and the screws sometimes—really, usually—work loose and the noise on some of the roads is incredible, miles of roads.
And we saw…not much. Wildebeasts, sure, and their attendant buddies the fancy-striped-pajama zebras, the wildebeasts looking like something made up of leftovers from unused parts in the animal factory. Antelopes from the small, delicate duiker to the huge and magnificent horse-sized cinnamon-black sable antelope whose long, magnificent horns (sometimes reaching clear back to the animal’s haunches) make it one of the most sought-after and expensive animals for a hunter to shoot.
A guide told me that canned hunts—where the animal is penned or caged and the mighty hunter has only to walk up and pull the trigger—with a mature sable carrying three feet or longer horns can go for millions of ZA Rands (the USD is worth about nine Rand). Lion cubs, if captured, can be raised in a pen and then the morally-defective hunter eager for a trophy without all the bother and danger of stalking, and wanting a sure thing, can pay the unscrupulous game reserve owner, then simply point and shoot. And happily trot home with his trophy.
The sable is not one of the Big Five, it is merely beautiful, and unfortunately looks really impressive on a living room wall. The Big Five are so called because they are the ones which, if wounded, will turn and stalk the hunter: elephant, Cape buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino. These are the ones Hemingway wrote about, and hunted, and shot in what could be called an honorable way.
Notice the grumpy and highly territorial hippo, responsible for most of the human deaths from wild animals in Africa, doesn’t make the list. In the water, they are agile, but it is when they are on land that they are most dangerous: they come out at night to feed and when they return to the water at dawn they often encounter humans. It is almost impossible to outrun an angry hippo, and they appear to be angry most of the time.
The elephant, Emperor of Animals, goes where it wants, and when. Our endless search for “meaningful” animal sightings was getting desperate. After lunch break—when we looked at the sightings map and noticed that yesterday’s map was loaded with colored stickers denoting rhino, elephant, and more, but that today’s map was almost bare—we got back in the vehicle and rattled off. It was like being duct-taped to a clothes dryer filled with tin cans, you couldn’t get away from the noise. An excruciating hour later, rounding a curve, we saw him. Jackpot.
You know, when you walk into a bar, and you see a guy swaggering around, and you know this guy lives to pick fights? He loves to split his knuckles? It’s written all over him? Get-in-my-way-you-die? His arms are slightly away from his sides and his jeans are probably too tight?
It was that kind of elephant: a bull, in his stupendous prime, swaying slightly from side to side, swaggering along a path (not that a path was meaningful to a guy this size, he just went where he wanted and would knock over anything that got in his way, from trees to vehicles). Not feeding, although elephants feed twenty hours a day; he’d probably just pushed over a tree and nibbled a few tender leaves off the top and maybe a bit of the root system, and now was just out for a stroll, maybe looking for a bit of love.
His trunk swayed with him, casually touching the ground or testing the air, and his tusks were big and white, and despite his bulk he just flowed. He was a left-handed ellie, his left tusk was a bit shorter than the right, he preferred to do his digging and probing with the left tusk, then the detail work with his trunk. When they are born, ellies can’t control their trunk; it takes quite a long time to strengthen the muscles and learn how to use them; the adorable image of a Smart Car-sized month-old baby elephant with a floppy trunk is almost an icon.
Our guide/driver/commentator slowed the vehicle and we all tried not to breathe too loud. It is a rule that never, ever, do you stick yourself outside the vehicle. The animal only sees a large mass. Calling attention to yourself is similar to waving the cape at a bull in the bullring. As we all sat statue-still, the ellie came on, casually, swaggeringly, a force of nature, as potentially destructive in his own way as Hurricane Sandy.
He turned slightly towards us. And his ears went out, unfurling like the mainsails of a pirate ship. The driver reversed the vehicle and slowly backed away. Still the ellie came on, inexorable as an oil tanker, and damn near as big.
“Easy, big boy, we’re all doing fine,” murmured the guide. So cool. Absurd to be so cool. It appeared that the ellie wasn’t as cool.
Big Boy altered course again, closer, ten yards?, the huge ears really flaring now, a mock charge that could turn in any second into a real one. It he really was in musth, in the grips of the mating urge, he was beyond predictable. Coolly, the guide murmured a few more assurances— which Big Boy wasn’t buying—and backed us up a bit more, but we were still at ten yards, maybe less, and Big Guy was really interested in us now, ears semaphoring, those enormous tree-trunk legs with the dainty ankles covering the ground, the wrinkled bulk rising like the side of an ocean liner, in the road now, the trunk coming up like a baton, and we had all forgotten how to breathe…
He altered course again and veered away and in a moment he was gone, into the low brush, his little encounter probably already forgotten.
But not by us, never by us.
Wish you’d been there.
Lee was lucky. On December 30, 2014 a car in Kruger was flipped several times by an elephant sending a British woman to the hospital. Read 600 (unpaid) book reviews by Lee Summerall on her blog www.nuts4books.com.