I’m not much of an early riser but here it’s easy to become one. The electricity, provided by a generator, shuts down at ten p.m. That bedtime, coupled with our waking hours spent in fresh air, changes my morning slothfulness. This gets me to thinking of the impermanence of things, even long-standing habits.
Like this morning, soon after a group of us climbed into the Land Rover with our guide, Lackson, and took off in the pre-dawn, he stopped and got out.
You can see by the three photos above that we amateurs were very good at making sitings.
“What?” someone from the back seat asks.
“You know, the animals who came this way last night and this morning. Their tracks tell me stories: who is going in which direction, who was being chased by whom, if anything got taken down while we slept. Soon these tracks will be covered and there will be new stories.”
The “newspaper” says that lions had been here last night, and hippos have already lumbered down to the river. Both the lions and hippos will laze around this afternoon.
“Ahh.” We nod in unison, while we note each of us thinking how all this took place, while we slept, in tents, mere meters away.
Hippos and lions lazing about.
Soon the day will warm up and the cold will dissipate, this morning’s “headlines” will be covered by windswept earth, and winter will turn into spring. Nothing is permanent. Everything changes, often in increments, sometimes imperceptibly. Every moment we spend in this bumping vehicle adds wear and tear to it, just as each moment adds wear and tear to my jostling body.
I’m shaken out of my reverie when Lackson slams on the brakes and outstretches his arm toward nine o’clock. All our faces whip left. We’re in the park now. A large bush is trembling. Lackson throws the vehicle into reverse and stops exactly at the spot where we’ll get the best view. We hear rustling and see a whoosh of dust explode upward from behind the bush. A trumpeting elephant broadcasts aggression. A moment later two lion cubs run from behind the bush followed by their mother. Lackson tells us she’s trying to shoo the cubs away from danger, but they are young, and curious. They keep trying to maneuver around her to see the elephant, and she keeps blocking them. The elephant may be down, but its still very much alive.
Downed an elephant? My heart races. Who do I root for? Surely the lions need to eat, and besides, I have a special fondness for felines. On the other hand, elephants are kind creatures, known for their self-sacrifice even in the face of danger. Then I realize I don’t have to choose; nature will do that for me. Truth be told, I’d prefer to watch a leopard sitting in a tree.
Meanwhile, our attention is drawn back to the bush. We can hear the beast behind it, hear it hefting itself onto its feet. And then we see it. An adolescent elephant, a chunk ripped from its shoulder, flesh glowing red against its gray casing. I cringe. I don’t want to see anything killed. Later I’ll learn that I was in the minority.
The bush trembles again. What is making the bush tremble? I hear others mumble, "Wait. What?". The lioness gets to her feet, stands ready but is still too tired to take a step. The bush looks as though someone is shaking the living daylights out of it.
Lackson explains. “The elephant is backing into the bush, using it to protect its backside. His head will face out, along with its tusks, ready to gouge any predator that comes near.” We wait. We wait some more. Lackson determines they’re at a stalemate. Nothing more to watch, at least not for a while.
“What will happen?” someone asks. “Who won?” asks another, as Lackson reaches for the ignition key.
“Either the lions will tire of waiting for the elephant to expose itself or other elephants will come along and chase off the lions. It’s a draw,” he says as he starts the engine and drives off. Even though he knows the standoff is not permanent, he also knows our focus on a scene where nothing is happening is not fixed either. Another five-minute wait would incur grumbles from the tourists. We move on, and as we do, I sink back into my seat, relieved.
I enjoy the passing landscape. So sunny. The shadows of scruffy foliage and trees dappling the road in front of us. So dry. It hasn’t rained here in five months. Every week the animals have to take more chances trekking farther and farther away in one direction to sate hunger, in the other direction to quench their thirst. Lackson says that in October it will rain and the entire landscape we’re dusting through today will bloom into a green carpet within twenty-four hours. It’s hard to imagine, just as it’s hard to imagine that someday this habitat, this way of life, everyone’s life will change.
Nothing is permanent. That is the fact that gave me hope during the decades I endured panic attacks. If nothing is permanent, then there is hope for many things: realizing a cure for cancer, realizing an alternative to oil as a source of energy, realizing people do not always have to be at war. And even though the traffic patterns of the bush will change from day to day, and season to season, and year to year, there is hope that once again, there will be plenty of food and water for all of life in Zambia and everywhere.