The Circle of Life

28 07 2008

Etosha 2


My first trip to the cinema was to see “Charlie the Lonesome Cougar”, which was not about an aggressive middle-aged woman named Charlotte and her club-hopping antics, but rather a Disney film about a mountain lion. It was enjoyable, but I would have rather been with most other 5 year olds watching “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”. However, it is possible that my first cinematic foray whetted an appetite that still rumbles to this day.


I really do enjoy nature documentaries. I’m not terribly fond of hour-long studies of the mating rituals of the microscopic mites that live on the end of my eyelashes, but I will opt for a wildlife film over the biography of an unknown actor whose on-screen career highlight was holding the door for Tom Cruise.


While in school, I dreamed of being a nature photographer. I romantically imagined myself living under canvas, risking life and limb lying in wait for days and shooting hundreds of breathtaking images.  When, years later, I made my first trip to Africa, I came close to my dream, albeit only briefly and never in any particular danger.


The great game parks of Africa provide the majority of visitors with their own National Geographic moments. A visit to any major reserve almost guarantees elephants and giraffes and a good chance of lions. In addition, most people have at least one lucky encounter and spy a cheetah, a leopard or possibly a kill. But some experiences transcend even those and make even the professionals jealous.


We were on a late afternoon game drive in Nambia`s Etosha National Park and came across an elephant carcass. Our guide estimated the giant beast had died recently and likely of natural causes. Jackals and vultures were investigating. In reverence we watched until darkness and then returned to our campsite. That was when the debate began.


The following day was scheduled for an early start and a long drive. Half our group wanted to get up even earlier and return to the elephant, whilst the rest wanted a lie-in. Splitting the group and making everyone happy wasn’t an option and so the arguments began. If people were opposed to returning out of sadness, I would have been more understanding. But their opposition was entirely due to their desire for an extra hour’s sleep. My intolerance rose and I soon led the elephant chorus. After all, we had plenty of time to sleep when the trip was over.


Amid much acrimony, the ‘elephant people’ finally won, and we all awoke in the pitch dark, broke camp and headed on our game drive. The ‘sleepers’ were clearly longing for it to be a fruitless journey so they could vent bitter satisfaction. There was stony silence during the short trip.


As we approached the carcass someone whispered “lions”, and all heads – including those of the ‘sleepers’ turned forward. Two large lions were using every single ounce of their impressive strength to feed on the carcass. Their muscular bodies strained at the immense weight as they worked together to manipulate the body to their advantage. The display of power was awe inspiring and terrifying at the same time. Then, mid-struggle, their noses turned to the air and they abruptly stopped. They glanced to their right and stood off, watching the bush intently.


An elephant suddenly charged into view. With trunk raised it trumpeted loudly and raced towards the lions. Other elephants followed and the lions backed away into the shade. Satisfied that the predators had left, the herd gathered around and warily smelled the air. One by one, each elephant came forward towards the carcass. They stood beside their young comrade who had lived barely longer than its own gestation, raised one leg bent at the knee and then slowly moved their trunk over the body. We watched in rapt silence.

Etosha 1


The ritual lasted for several minutes until all the older elephants had visited the youngster. Then, with one final angry mock charge towards the lions,they trumpeted again and charged back into the bush.


We started the engine, and in silence drove away as well.


You see many things on safari. You may laugh, squirm, or even cry, but no one on that truck – not even the ‘sleepers’ – will ever forget that incredible experience in Etosha National Park.


Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008