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Dignity in Flight

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The sun set a burnished copper over the Linyanti river as the hippos bellowed angrily 20 meters away. They made threatening displays by looking up and opening their mouths widely to show off their formidable tusks – tusks that kill more people in Africa annually than any other animal.

Here in the wild Caprivi strip on the northern Botswana/Namibian border there are no camping fees to be paid and no one to pay them to. There are no camping sites, and we built our camp in a cluster of leadwood trees next to the Linyanti river. We pitched our tents and hung a makeshift shower overlooking the river towards Botswana where the giraffe and buffalo walk in herds, painted golden yellow in the African sunset. There was no sound or sight of other humans at all.

Moremi, Savuti, Chobe, Madumo, Makgadikgadi Pan, the Kalahari and Kubu Island. We are always looking for the places where the last vestiges of wild Africa remain. Places where we can listen to hyena sniffing around our camp at night, just a quarter of a millimeter of nylon between your sleeping bag and those dreadful jaws, or where the elephant dung drops outside your tent, the grey giant having approached silently and unnoticed.

We were on our annual pilgrimage to the wild places of Africa. Our wives and daughters were left behind in civilization along with careers, loan repayments, mobile phones, email and fax machines.

I go with my friends, all carefully chosen: proven warriors who have been through the mill of life. They have been battered by the thoughts all men get, but they have loved their wives for decades. They have borne the responsibilities of careers and families, have seen life and death and have had failures and victories over many years. These are not stupid 45-year-old teenagers who brag about their sexual conquests, about how much money they have or about how respected they are.

These are men.

They are the select few who share my life: they really know my victories, weaknesses and strengths – and I know theirs. They are my comrades, my brothers in arms.

The trip was turning out to be more than we hoped for: the whole gang charged and cornered by an angry bull elephant; Johan was stalked by a lioness and David, his son, was bitten on the heel by a 2 meter rock python I caught.

We climbed the massive leadwood tree at horseshoe Bend and sat on the SA Army machine gun platform built in it during the border war. It was 30 meters above the white sands and we watched the elephants drink far below.

After Mudumu, we travelled down to Linyanti and made our camp here.

Tonight, as the the leadwood flames dance and the vast silence cover us, the wise men wax philosophical.

"Strange thing how a father’s words can affect his son. Even though the father may have died and his son is himself a father and grandfather, the words of the father stay. It is like a tattoo on him". A hyena called close by and Kobus’ glasses reflected the orange flames as he looked up at the sound.

"A friend of mine has a doctorate in genetics. His dad told him he is stupid when he was a boy and he still believes his dad’s words after forty years and a couple of degrees. Maybe that’s why he got those degrees in the first place – he wanted to prove his dad was wrong about him."

"We all need to change the way we thought when we were children." Johan said. "For example, when we were young we refused to face our problems. I remember rather running away from problems than dealing with conflict. That was one of the things in my life I had to change."

We all nodded and someone put another log on the fire.

It was right then that we heard it. It sounded like the slow building of the thunder of waves on a Mozambican beach.

Whatever it was, it was in the river and it was close – really close. And big.

We ran to the riverbank 50 meters away, and being the only one who remembered to grab one, I turned on my powerful flashlight.

A hundred elephants were making the night crossing from Botswana to Namibia, forcefully churning the Linyanti river white with the combined mighty power of their passage.

Like the roar of the sea they agitated the water – but not one elephant in the throng trumpeted or made any vocal sound at all. The whites of their eyes shone in the dark and their wrinkled grey skins were black and slick with the waters of the Linyanti.

And they were very close - too close. Two meters below us and out on the little bay to our left was a sea of elephants: some already on the near side helping their young onto the bank, some still swimming, their trunks like periscopes as they sucked in the cool night air.

In the eerie absence of their trumpeting the deafening roar of the water was all the more unnerving.

Right then I switched off my flashlight and the night immediately closed on us like a black glove. I screamed at the top of my voice: "O sh*t, here they come!"

To my great astonishment my silly little joke was completely lost on my dignified friends.

The sight of the teeming horde of elephants was too much for them. Very clearly they remembered being viciously attacked by a huge rogue elephant only a day or two ago.

Within a fraction of a second, these middle-aged veterans had spun around and were running at top speed, their fearful feet pounding the hard earth like a stampeding buffalo herd.

It was every man for himself.

Kobus, a medical doctor and former athlete, tore the earth at breathtaking speed. He ran leaning slightly back, his feet leading with their own terrified life, his shoulders pulled up high and his arms pumping vigorously. He never looked back to see if his son was going to survive.

He was easily overtaken by the more sedentary Johan who ran closer to the ground and vaulted the wait-a-bit thorn bushes with consummate ease and startling speed.

Gerhard, the youngest fittest and fastest of them all, was left choking on their dust, stumbling over fallen branches but doggedly aiming for the firelight.

They left behind their beloved sons who instantly realized that if their dads were afraid there had to be serious trouble. They were not far behind, shouting and ploughing through the bush and the thorns.

They were utterly amazed by the superb athletic prowess of their aged fathers.

Although this takes a long time to write, it took only seconds for it all to happen.

Oom Koos and I were still standing on the riverbank as we saw that Johan found his own million-candlelight flashlight and was frantically inspecting the dense bush for charging pachyderms.

Just then Kobus reached the safety of the camp, jumped into his pickup and locked the door. Seconds later, his son also reached the vehicle and started pounding on the door to be let in. We heard later that Kobus studied his fingernails and did not look up.

And still the elephants came as Oom Koos and I stood without speaking, the roar of the Linyanti filling our ears.

Then, tentatively, like shocked survivors of a bomb blast, we slowly made our way back to the campfire.

The youngsters sat and stared gloomily into the fire. Johan was pointing his powerful flashlight up into the sky. Kobus sat on a log and stared at the ground. Gerhard looked like he had seen a ghost.

No one said a word as the Linyanti continued to roar.

Oom Koos quietly opened a fresh beer and looked at Johan.

Mitch Mitchell is a bow hunter, outdoorsman and the author of several books on African wildlife and survival

"You never run away from your problems?"

For a second there was a stunned silence, and then we all burst out laughing, that deep-from-the-belly laugh that only good friends can share.

• A River Sings •
• Central Kalahari •
• Southern Mozambique •
• Dignity in Flight •
• From Desert to Delta •
• Sudan white water •
• Ghosts of Marromeu •
• Gonarezhou •
• Mana Pools •
• Walkabout in Hwange •
• Okavango Delta Trip Report •
• Overland to Central Kafue Part 1 •
• Overland to Central Kafue Part 2 •
• Overland to Central Kafue Part 3 •

•  •

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