The Shamwari Game Reserve

Before Dawn
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It is an hour before dawn, when sensible folks are tucked in their warm beds, with absolutely nothing of importance on their minds. The key word here is 'sensible', because I am sitting in an open Land Rover, in the middle of thick African bush, and I have something very important on my mind. We all do. There are six of us: two from Canada, an Australian professor of reptiles and her husband, a travel writer from Germany's largest newspaper, and a young Dutch woman. And Anton, our ranger, of course. We are peering at a spot off to our left, where it is as dark as everywhere else. Except, with the engine off and the headlights out, we are aware that there is SOMETHING, very close and rather smelly, upwind.

The bush crunches again. Not loudly. Not particularly threateningly. But close. Very close. Then a long silence. Whatever it is, it has stopped. It's listening for us. Or at us. (What is the directive term for listening, I wonder?) Whatever it is, this thing is trying to identify us, just as we are trying to figure it out.

Anton knows, of course. I know that Anton knows. He always knows. Yesterday, on our first game drive, he amazed the group by identifying the genders of distant buck at a single glance, pointing out the differences in wing-feather coloring of the kite family (all at a thousand meters, without binoculars), explaining the differences between black and white rhino dung, and naming a dozen indigenous trees and their properties.

But right now, Anton isn't telling us anything. Instead, he's letting us figure this one out for ourselves. In the dark. In the cold. In an open Land Rover just a few paces from SOMETHING.

There is a sound like a washing machine starting its spin cycle, and a sudden gurgling. Then, there it is, huge, pale in the darkness, and cutting out the sky above. It's an elephant. Right next to us. "Stay very still," whispers our ranger, as though we might be planning something aerobic just then. We are not. Did I mention it was right next to us?

You can read all you like about the majesty of wildlife in Africa. You can see a hundred nature programs on television. But when five tons of elephant, standing three meters tall, looks you right in the eye, in the gathering light of an African dawn, there is a feeling that is so different, so real, that your senses overload.

Elephants SMELL. Their guts make sloshing sounds. Their skins, even in the dark, have a wonderfully creased look to them. Their feet shake the earth and, indirectly, the padded seat of the vehicle on which I sit. This animal is very, very real.

For a long moment, neither side moves. We all hold our collective breaths. The moment lingers. Then there is a rustle, the soft snap of a branch, and five tons just seems to float away into a riverine thicket so dense it would have challenged Brer Rabbit to slip through.

The mood slowly relaxes. There are murmurs in three languages. We feel close, in the way that any shared experience brings a group of otherwise complete strangers together. We stretch. Some stand up. We have been motionless for some time, it turns out, and the adrenaline now needs to be worked off. Anton starts the engine, headlamps stab the bush ahead, and we move forward.

Shamwari Game Reserve is unlike any other I have visited in Africa, and that is why I am here. It has won numerous prestigious conservation awards. It is visited by royalty and film stars and the beautiful people. Before his much-publicized death in Paris, Dodi Fayed was working on a movie that featured the place. Actress Virginia McKenna of the Born Free Foundation made a media-blitzed animal release there.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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