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Elephant Tailback

Kariba is not so much a town as a collection of small settlements, all by chance clustered in the northeast corner of Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe. The main part of the town is up a long steep road – probably an hour walk from where I am. At the campsite office, they said there was a shop just 10 minutes away.

The streets are busy with people, probably on their way home from work or off to the shops. A rustling of bushes on my left catches my eye. Not far off the road, plain to see, is an elephant. I stop and watch. A local man stops beside me and has a look as well. ‘Oh, that fucking old tembo,’ he said, ‘he’s always there.’ He then walks on, but I linger another minute, conscience of many other people going past ignoring the scene.

At the shop, I buy a few essentials and even found some real coffee, not the locally produced chicory substitute. On the way back I stop and watch the old tembo again. I am closer and have a better view of an elephant than I have ever had before, so of course my camera is safely back at the campsite.

The road dips and crests several times on this short walk. On the next crest, a crowd has gathered. They’re watching elephants.

Waiting really. Two large elephants are next to the road and everyone is giving them lots of space. The elephants meander along slowly, stopping to stuff a few kilos of greenery into their months whenever something takes their fancy.

More and more people gather, one crowd on each side of the valley the elephants occupy. New arrivals on the crest quickly evaluate the scene and accept it as placidly as commuters on the London Underground.

The two or three cars that come by turn around and drive off to find an unobstructed route. Those of us on foot wait, although I’m not altogether sure why; the two elephants are still several metres off the road and don’t look aggressive or dangerous. But I accept the crowd’s verdict. I suppose anything that large deserves a great deal of respect.

Everybody in the world knows an elephant is big. I knew that, or thought I did. What I had not understood is how big an elephant really is. Mountains and 747s are big too, but they’re just big lumps of conglomerated material. An elephant is nothing near that large, but it’s alive and moving of its own volition – and that makes it bloody enormous. Their gait is slow, but very deliberate – and, I thought, as unstoppable as a glacier.

The elephants pay no attention to us – they treat us as totally inconsequential. I have never been treated this way by a wild animal before, but I have never seen a wild animal this prodigious before. They give the impression of instinctually knowing they are in a protected area. And a human without a gun isn’t much more than a gnat it seems.

On the far crest, a little man in a tatty suit decides he cannot wait any longer; he is going to run the barrier. The elephants are not on the road yet – a particularly tasty tree is holding them up. The man approaches slowly, almost crouching, keeping to the far side of the road.

People jeer him. In some of the voices there’s taunting, but also some urgency. If an elephant’s feeding is this indiscriminate, perhaps so is their rampaging. The man creeps by. When he’s past the elephants, he breaks into a furious run, his tie waving behind him and his natty jacket flapping. He makes it, but no one else follows his example.

The elephants finally emerge on the road. They look set to cross it and plunge into the delicious bushes on the other side, but then randomly turn and start up the road towards us. The crowd jumps, hopping to their feet nervously and gathering their bags ready to hightail it. Some older people begin retreating down the road in a slow trot – knowing they need a head start.

The unperturbed elephants change their minds again and head off into the bushes on the other side of the road.

Slowly, people begin using the road again. A few minutes later, the bottleneck is cleared and it’s an ordinary scene in Kariba; people walking home from work and two elephants feeding in the bushes by the road.

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