“You know, they say an elephant never forgets. But what they don’t tell you is that you never forget an elephant.” – Bill Murray in the film, Larger Than Life
I remember the elephant’s ears, waving outward to make him seem much larger than he was. Although, let’s not beat around the bush (that’s an elephant’s job), he was large, very large. Frighteningly so. The dust beneath him even tried to flee his gait. As he stamped the earth it rose up around him and fluttered to freedom on the back of the wind. It was the game vehicle that carried us away, quickly, but not too quickly. We were here for him, after all.
This was Chobe in Botswana, home to more elephants than anywhere else in the world. Moments like this, flapping elephant ears and trumpeting trunks and flying dust are all part of the landscape – as are the calmer moments. I remember these moments best.
The languid amble of the herd through the low waters of Botswana’s Selinda spillway during a trip to Zarafa Camp. Their tiny eyes giving us a once over but not for long. We were perhaps not as interesting to them as they were to us.
Their grand arrival at the banks of the Zambezi River at Royal Chundu one late afternoon, their swims in the shallow stretches late into the night. I had to remind myself to breathe. Between steadying the camera and the stream of question marks taking over my consciousness. Do elephants breathe through their trunks or mouths? I wondered. Can they see me? Do they see colours? Can they hear me? Do they hear the same sounds I hear?
I remember their games. Their light hearts in spite of their heavy bodies. Their Samurai stick shows half-submerged in the waterhole at Camp Jabulani – how much they reminded me of the the herd in Madikwe, at Morkuru Family. I remember how they carried my own body across the wilderness of Kapama. I remember the sensation of rocking back and forth as though in the arms of my mother. How do they not rock themselves to sleep?
I remember nothing but elephants as we took the Landrover out one morning at Londolozi in the Sabi Sand of South Africa. The air was still cold and you could see the steam escape our breath as we greeted them. Hello! We exclaimed, at maybe fifteen or twenty of them, as they continued breakfasting on bushveld. For how else do you greet an elephant? Silence, perhaps. You listen and you feel. I tried silence and I listened and I felt. And I never forgot.
I remember their different faces, their moods, their homes, how they made me feel. Because time spent with elephants is never neutral. It is never the fragment of an experience left out of your memory as the brain tries to prioritise what it holds onto.
They say an elephant never forgets. But what they don’t tell you is that you never forget an elephant.