I was yawning and hiding from morning under thick blankets, dreading the cold I would feel upon removing my precious wool thermals, when C called. I gingerly reached through the mosquito net for the radio, assuming she would be reporting on a disaster of epic proportions. Had a rogue baboon pilfered the wine store? Had the ants progressed from attacking the contents of the tea station to preying on humans? I am going on leave in a few days, and owing to my impatience, have resigned myself to the tedious and illogical anticipation of the next crisis. I was thus both surprised and overjoyed to hear C’s answer: “George is back.”
I’ve said before that we do not name animals here. We are told to avoid such a practice, lest we give the impression that this is some sort of zoo. These animals are wild. There are no fences or borders, and they wander freely, driven by hunger, fear of predators and the quest for dominance. We will name prides and packs for the sake of identification, with titles that are normally derived from geography or visible physical marks, like torn ears and crooked teeth.
It is easier to remain distant from a nameless beast. We quietly mourn the loss of new lion cubs to hyenas, and the sad end of a wild dog puppy at the jaws of a lion, but we are also aware that these deaths are tethered to the natural ebb and flow of balanced existence. I will celebrate if an impala deftly avoids the leopard’s claws, just as I will be overwhelmed by excitement when privy to a cat’s successful hunt. All of it, the bloodshed and the quick escape, is survival. I am an avid observer, but I try to remain unattached to the fates of the animals I meet, accepting that they are destined to fall before they even grace us with their presence. Then, of course, there is George.
George is an old bull elephant who has been visiting this camp for over a decade. He bears the unmistakable mark of injury: a deep hole in his forehead above his left eye. He will spend hours half-submerged in the lagoon in front of camp, eating the soft reeds that thrive in the water there. Elephants grow up to six new sets of teeth as they mature, and George is using his last. His teeth are weathered and he eats with painstaking effort in an attempt to take in the nutrients he needs. One day his teeth will be so worn or damaged that he will become malnourished, and this is likely what will kill him. Even the mighty king of the wilderness cannot withstand starvation.
For years guides have predicted his death. When I moved to the camp, I heard about him and wondered if I had arrived too late. It was summer and he was wandering amongst far away trees, perhaps taking a path he has known all his life. In May the earth began to dry and I was grateful to witness his arrival. He spent his days feeding in the water and sleeping against the giant Mangosteens that shade our boardwalks. Sometimes we watched him pull down branches as the other bulls did, but it always seemed that most of the leaves fell to the ground. His movements were laboured and he rarely broke a railing or disturbed the humans who surrounded him. Weeks passed and the distance between us lessened. I addressed him by name and as the words danced in the cold air before me I understood that I was no longer an observer. I cared deeply about his survival.
The October heat descended on a scorched landscape of brittle branches and dust and George departed. I thought of him often, and hoped that despite his age, he would return when the seasons changed. In April the elephant bulls took up residence in camp and we stopped to examine each grey face that passed overhead in search of our old and tired friend. A month went by and I had to consider the likely possibility that this time, he was gone forever. That is, until I woke up to hear C’s voice on the radio.
“George is back.” I wrapped the camera in one of my winter scarves and rushed to work happier than the day before. After the meeting I went to find him. I followed an elephant traipsing through the brush by the outdoor sala of room one. He was walking towards my house, and I waited for him on the balcony, and then on the floodplain past my water tower. I greeted him and wanted so desperately to gaze into those eyes, but he never turned his tusks towards me. While I cannot be certain that it was George, the news that he is here is comfort enough.
I left him standing alone against a backdrop whose beauty I had nearly dismissed in my rush to go. I will leave this place soon. It is a fact I can no longer deny as it creeps through the floorboards of the tent I call home. When I imagined goodbye I was heartbroken. Today is different. Today I thought I saw George again and I remembered that farewells are not finite. In my dreams, words, and imagining, I will find my way back.
A few years from now, someone will ask me what it was like to live in Africa, and the question will evoke the memory of early morning mist over the banks of the Linyanti, the soft footsteps of giants, and the expanse of a magnificent space that cannot be broken by time or death.