I was walking to the storerooms this afternoon to issue olive oil and pistachios when I detected the smell of fallen leaves. It was that crisp, familiar scent of fall on pavement. It was the smell of the first week of October, of walking the dog, or opening the deck door of #87 on a lazy Sunday to find dad reading outside, the forest before him. I looked down and saw green leaves strewn about the ground; it was certainly still summer here. I wanted to step on orange and auburn maple leaves, to hear them crunching beneath my feet. So I allowed myself a few minutes to miss it all. I would soon be busy sorting out staff issues and signing out mosquito coils and washing powder. Then I had to contend with feeding 17 male guests whose particularly fondness for omelets was quickly leading to what would be my umpteenth breakfast stock crisis. Inhaling the scent of autumn leaves, I wanted to go somewhere far away.
There between the dry stores, standing on scarred cement, I forgot the kitchen and imagined sitting at the purple granite counter top where we read the paper and drank coffee in the morning. I was wearing my favourite jeans and walking on a sidewalk covered with the remnants of springtime bloom. The trees were not yet bare; they were a warm palate of sunset hues, littering the ground as a paintbrush spattered lovingly on an artist’s canvas. Blown about by wind and increasing cold, the colours wrap us in the glow of the harvest season for a few fleeting days, until they crumple to charred debris, readied for their burial in glittering snow. From one beauty to another, all things pass away in time.
Then the silent nostalgia was interrupted by life carrying on as usual. The food order was waiting and the guests were arriving for tea. I returned to my desk tired and in no mood to calculate chicken punnet quantities. I was thus hunched over the keyboard engaged in a slow rhythm of procrastination when I heard the unmistakable sound of elephants trumpeting in the distance. P came to tell us that a herd was moving towards the water, just by my house. Had you described the scene to me several years ago, I would have been shocked to hear that anyone, upon hearing this news, would stay put. There I was, feeling too tired to bother. I’m not sure why I changed my mind. I suppose the cloud of frustration and burnout lifted just long enough for me to gather my senses and my camera in a hurry. For this I am grateful.
I found P on the boardwalk, standing still and facing three elephants. There were two juveniles with tusks barely protruding, accompanied by a large female. The lens cap was off before I arrived and I set about trying to photograph the scene despite the obviously insufficient light. After a few minutes spent pointlessly fumbling with camera settings, I accepted that this was not the time to worry about documentation and sat down. The young elephant was directly in front of me, busy eating his way through the greenery. I felt safe and completely shaken. I wanted to thank them, because earlier that day I had toyed with the thought of leaving. I was missing everything and everyone. I was longing to fold up the khakis and find my way to a new season. These giants had other ideas.
I will never forget the first time I met an elephant. I was twelve years old, on my first trip to Africa. We had been driving for hours through pounding rain when we came upon them. A great mass of grey and ivory stood firm against the storm. I could barely see through the water-smudged lenses of my glasses, but I cried, so overcome with the emotion of being this close to an animal I had loved since the first of many viewings of Babar. I’m sure this was the moment I first hitched my heart to the grasses and channels of Botswana.
Elephants were the great beasts of my childhood imagining; they embodied the Africa I dreamed of. I decided two years ago that if there ever came a day that I was not elated by their presence, I would pack my bags. Since arriving in camp last month, I’ve only caught glimpses between overgrown branches. The greenery has overwhelmed, causing my eyes to water and my sense of purpose to drift out of reach. As if to comfort a weary soul, the leaves are beginning to fall and the herds are returning to feed. It is dark now and the elephants may still be blocking the way home. I could try and sneak past them, but I’d rather stay a while.