Or When The Elephant Wagged His Ears
Zimbabwe was in that hyphenated state when we were sent there in 1980. A war had raged for years in the land of Cecil Rhodes between ruling whites and subjected blacks. Thousands had died on both sides. Finally, in 1979, the British had brokered a peace. We spent a week in and around the capital, Harare Salisbury, shooting a story about the tentative transition from white government to black. When time came to leave the country we found ourselves stranded because all the flights to Johannesburg, the only gateway, were fully booked. We managed to get some seats a few days hence. Now stuck in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and sensing an opportunity, Martha and I called Shad Northshield, executive producer of CBS’ Sunday Morning and well known nature buff. “How about a piece on African wildlife?” He enthusiastically approved.
Another reminder of war was the sign adjacent to the airline check in desk requesting that all passengers declare their firearms and ammunition at the Weapons Collection Point. There, passengers deposited their Uzis, Mausers and Armalites. They could pick them up upon arrival at Kariba. Air Zimbabwe Rhodesia didn’t care if people went about armed, they just wanted to make sure nobody accidentally let loose a cartridge or clip while in flight.
As the turboprop took to the air it began its climb out in a tight circle directly above Harare-Salisbury airport. Once out of range of rebel SAM missiles, we flew straight on to Kariba and one of the most hair raising landings we’ve ever experienced.
The plane spiraled down and down over the middle of the lake. When we were about two hundred feet above the water the pilot made a fast run directly toward the airport. Kariba’s runway is perpendicular to the lake, so when we crossed the shoreline the pilot had to pull the nose up quickly to avoid power lines, and make a sharp, diving turn to the right. He was a good pilot, I’ll give him credit for that. We hardly felt a bump upon landing. But what a stomach wrenching approach!
The tiny airport was alive with activity. There may have been a truce, but the Rhodesian Army was taking no chances. They had a small detachment of attack helicopters at one edge of the airfield, along with a company of special forces troops. While the rest of the passengers collected their weapons, we picked up our own shooting gear– video camera, recorder and tripod. We linked up with Blue Water Charters, who took us down to the lake and our waiting speedboat. Robert, the boat’s driver, helped us aboard. He cast off, revved up the engine, and away we went. It took only moments to leave civilization behind; to feel as though we were in deepest, darkest Africa.
Bumi Hills was about two hours up the narrow lake. That warm, sunny afternoon the surface of Kariba was as flat as a sheet of glass. The scenery was spectacular. To our left were the verdant slopes of northern Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. To our right were the gently rolling, but no less luxuriant hills of Zambia. The sky was filled with fleecy clouds that encircled the edges of the lake, never seeming to cross directly over the deep blue water. Far off to the west an electrical storm darkened the horizon. We sat back to enjoy the trip.
About an hour out the outboard engine sputtered to a stop. Robert worked quickly to get it started again; we were soon on our way. Another few miles along it happened again. And when we were within sight of Bumi Hills, the outboard quit a third time. The boatman assured us we would have no trouble on our return trip the next afternoon.
We were met at the dock by a minibus that took us up to the lodge. There, nestled in the jungle on a hill high above Lake Kariba, was a modern resort, complete with swimming pool, bar, restaurant and comfortable rooms with private baths. During the civil war, Bumi Hills had been a popular up country holiday spot, especially among sportsmen who came for the game fishing. As we checked in we inquired about photographing wildlife. The woman behind the desk said we could hire the minibus for the afternoon, and so we did.
It did not take long to find animals. Down the hill, by the jetty, we shot a hippopotamus sticking his noisy snout up through the lily pads. Every so often he’d raise his entire head out of the water for a look see. It made for great pictures and rich sound. We drove along the road below the lodge, discovering water buffalo and a pack of monkeys. We then spent an hour in a blind, thirty feet up a tree. This vantage point unfortunately yielded little in the way of wildlife footage.
It was getting toward sundown when we asked the driver to take us back to the lodge. As we were winding along the road we came upon an opening in the bush, surprising a herd of elephants feeding barely thirty yards away. It presented a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity.
Not wanting to spook the animals, I crept out of the bus with my camera on my shoulder, signaling Martha to start the recorder. I got wonderful shots of all sorts of elephants– bulls, cows, calves, perhaps two dozen in all. It was great. But our driver was very nervous about all this. He kept urging us to hurry up. He talked about the herd’s instincts to protect its young, and how quickly they can panic and stampede. And as I was shooting, I remembered something I had heard in elementary school many years before: “Indian Elephants have small ears and are easily tamed. African Elephants have large ears and are always fierce.” Then I remembered something else. “If an elephant wags his ears it means he’s ready to charge.” As I panned across the herd I saw through the viewfinder all these untamable African elephants staring directly at me. And they were all wagging their ears rather fiercely. At that moment I was overwhelmed by prudence. I cautiously climbed back into the bus, motioning to the much relieved driver to go on.
We continued down the road a few hundred yards. Rounding a blind bend we startled a young bull elephant, standing in the middle of the dirt track devouring a bush. He seemed at least as big as our minibus, but was probably built a whole lot sturdier. I fully expected our timid driver to back up. But apparently he was overcome by some macho perception that his Toyota was more than a match for this single rogue. Instead of shifting into reverse, he inched the bus forward, toward the amazed elephant. The creature raised his head high in the air, flashed his sharp tusks, cut angry swaths in the air with his trunk, and started to trumpet. And our driver, for some reason now completely unperturbed by anything the elephant might do, simply revved his engine and honked his horn right back. What we had was a classic Mexican standoff. And it made us very uncomfortable.
The driver, now thoroughly enjoying all this, continued to inch forward, countering every bellow from the bull with a beep of his own. Finally the rogue stood his ground. He would take no more from our noisy little machine. He seemed ready to attack. We were then only about a twenty feet apart, his giant shadow engulfing the bus. The animal dug his feet into the ground, lowered his head, wagged his ears furiously, made one very loud blast, and charged . . .
His huge, gray body brushed down the side of the car, trampling a thorny thicket as he passed. Content with scaring the wits out of us, the young bull veered into the brush and disappeared.
The veil of tension felt so keenly by the two wide eyed, and quite shaken passengers lifted. The driver turned to us and said calmly, “The elephant’s been eating funny leaves. They make him feel cheeky. But no problem.” No problem? He calls a near miss with two tons of pachyderm no problem?
When we got back to the lodge Martha and I headed straight for the bar, each ordering a double Bombay gin martini with a lemon twist, up. Stirred, not shaken. We’d been shaken enough for one day. “No problem?” we brooded. The spirits soon mellowed us. We conceded the driver might have had a point. Look on the bright side, we thought, it might have been the whole herd on a rampage. Cheered, we ordered another round to celebrate our good fortune.
After dinner we retired early. Our room was comfortable enough, but the sounds of elephants trashing about in the bush disturbed our sleep. Cheeky devils. The next morning, desperate to shoot more animals, we hired a guide to take us into the jungle in search of game. In the space of three hours we caught a wonderful variety on tape. There was a small herd of antelope, including a fawn who came right up to the lens for a good sniff. We saw monkeys galore. We even met up with a flock of neighing zebras. There were herons, egrets and kingfishers. But the piéce de resistance was a sequence of a rare fish eagle. I panned with him as he circled above the lake, diving until he came up with lunch, then alighting upon a barren tree trunk to enjoy his catch. I knew Shad Northshield would love these shots. Our guide was astonished by our good fortune. “You folks have seen more animals in one morning than most guests see in a week.”
We were scheduled to leave Bumi about noon, which would put us back at Kariba Town in time to make the afternoon flight down to the capital. As we were loading the boat a jeep pulled up by the jetty. Two men armed with Uzi submachine guns hopped out, followed by a tribal chieftain in full regalia. Our boatman, Robert, was furious when they tried to commandeer our craft. A shouting match ensued, the bodyguards emphasizing their point with the butts of their guns. While all this transpired, Martha and I sat quietly– though not very serenely– in the rear of the boat. If the chief insisted upon hijacking it, we had no problem with that. Who were we to argue with a pair of Uzis?
But our man stood his ground, making it clear to the chief that this boat was for this couple and that he and his entourage would have to wait for the next one to come along. During a lull in the argument the driver moved cautiously toward the boat, hopped aboard and started the engine. The chief was infuriated. More shouting ensued. The argument grew louder when the boat driver threw the outboard into gear and we began to move away from the dock. He pointed the nose eastward, rang up full speed ahead, throwing a tall rooster tail of spume. Expecting a hail of bullets, Martha and I instinctively ducked. When it seemed prudent, we peered over the stern to see the chief, still agitated, his fist still angrily pounding the air. Robert was pleased with himself for navigating us through that touchy moment. We were pleased to be on our way. We should not have felt so smug.
A few minutes out of Bumi the engine suddenly quit. The driver fiddled with it a bit, twisted the ignition key, the motor fired up and we were off. A few minutes later the engine suddenly quit. Again. More fiddling and we were off. Again.
In fits and starts we crossed Lake Kariba. Mostly fits. Smack in the middle of the lake the engine took a final gasp and quit for good. Robert was unwilling to accept this fate. He spent a good hour yanking on the starter rope. All he got for his efforts were blistered hands.
We couldn’t help but notice how quiet the lake was. And deserted. Yesterday we had seen many boats. Today there were none. The gentle wind pushed us slowly toward the Zambian shore. Martha suddenly grabbed a paddle and began frantically smacking the water in an effort to propel us back toward Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. After a few minutes, satisfied with her work, she put the paddle down and slumped in her seat.
None of us had a watch, but when the gray Viscount passed overhead inbound to Kariba, we knew that it was two o’clock. As the plane began its spiraling approach to the little airfield I felt sick, knowing that there was now no way we would be aboard when it departed. Missing this flight probably meant missing our flight to Johannesburg the next day, and there was no telling how long we would have to wait to get seats out. After a few minutes the airliner disappeared into the green mass of jungle at the end of the lake. Half an hour later we watched as it spiraled upward and away. We felt well and truly alone, and not a little scared.
Our boat was drifting toward Zambia again. As we were paddling, the driver got very excited. He spied a white splotch in the far distance. Rescue, we thought! A quarter of an hour later a large boat pulled alongside. It was another Blue Water craft, headed for Bumi to pick up the chief and his lads. The drivers spoke for a few minutes, then we parted company.
Sometime after that we saw a small plane cruising above the lake. We waved frantically. The pilot must have seen us. He made a wide turn and passed over us, dipping his wings. This was a good sign. He made a couple of more sweeps, then pointed his nose toward Kariba. We hoped he would report a boat stranded in the middle of the lake.
A hour later we caught a glimpse of two white wakes, one off the bow, the other astern. Minutes later a speedboat, “Blue Water Charters” emblazoned on its hull, pulled up. “Problem?” the driver asked with a broad smile. Robert explained the situation as he moved our camera gear from his boat to the other. As we were doing this, the tribal chieftain’s boat roared by. Standing at the bow, the chief gave us a flaccid royal wave as he sped by. The company had instructed our Robert to bring us in, so we left the other man behind in the dead boat. We took off like a rabbit when the driver pushed the throttle forward. The engine hummed smoothly, reassuringly, as we sped back toward civilization.
It was nearly sundown before we reached the dock at Kariba. John, the charter owner was furious. He screamed at Robert, as though all this was his fault. Turning on us, he asked acidly, “Why didn’t you commandeer the big boat?” When we mentioned the two guys with the Uzis, he just winced and shook his head. It was as though we had committed some cultural faux pax, that we just didn’t get it that “we” had absolute right to lord over “them.” Knowing that the situation was about to turn topsy-turvy—that blacks would soon be in charge—we kept our views to ourselves. We instead shifted into emergency logistics mode. “We can’t miss our flight to Jo’burg tomorrow afternoon. Can we charter a plane down to the capital?”
John made a few calls, first over to the local airport, then down to Harare-Salisbury. It took about an hour, but we arranged for a plane to pick us up first thing in the morning.
Blue Water put us up at the town’s best hotel, the Lake View Inn, overlooking the great Kariba dam. The rooms were converted workers’ housing, more spare than those at Bumi Hills. But we had a fine al fresco dinner of pasta Bolognese on the hotel’s veranda. The sunset was nothing less than spectacular. As darkness fell, the bay below us filled with boats, twinkling with strings of bulbs used to attract the tiny sardine-like Kapenta that serves as the basis for Kariba’s fishing industry. It was all somehow romantic.
Just after dawn the next morning, John came to pick us up and take us to the airport. We arrived to find a twin-engined Cessna—in matte gray finish with upturned exhausts (but no missile detectors)—waiting for us. With our gear stored in the back, and our camera safely strapped into a seat, we departed for the capital. It was a bit hairy, that take-off, like the gut wrenching landing, only in reverse. Our little twin spiraled up over the lake before heading south.
We landed at Harare-Salisbury with little time to spare. We were the last to board our Air Zimbabwe-Rhodesia flight to South Africa. The plane was an old Boeing 720 four-engined jet. Just like the Viscount and the Cessna, this aircraft whorled its way upward after takeoff. It did, however, feature a cheery bright red and white color scheme. We settled in for the ninety minute flight south.
Across the aisle from us sat a white man and his wife, and in the window seat, a young black man, nattily dressed in suit and tie. The woman asked the fellow where he was going. “To America,” he answered proudly.
The woman asked why. “To go to university.”
“Where,” she asked? “In Texas,” he beamed. “Oh,” she said with great interest. And over the next half hour she regaled the man with tales of the Lone Star State.
He listened keenly, and when she was finished said, “You know so much about Texas. You must have visited it often.?” “Oh, never,” she said.
“Well, how do you know all these things?”
He squinched unknowingly.
“You know, the television show . . . Dallas.”
“Ah,” he said, politely.