It’s been about three years since I last fired a rifle so the shot that rang out nearly knocked me to the ground. From that point, the memory seems like an ancient film: silent, covered in a hazy glow, a romantic thriller that loops back on itself and leaves you bewildered.
My thoughts jumbled, I told myself not to forget. I memorized the trees, the look on Logan’s face, the brush like splinters snagging my pants, the dense heat rolling off our bodies into the calm cool of the approaching dusk. I thought of the people in the Land Cruiser waiting miles away wondering if the echoing shot had made it’s mark. The nyala dropped.
I approached the animal not expecting to find him alive. He breathed deeply and moments later, with one last wide-eyed gaze at this world I witnessed the moment life escaped him. A lung shot according to our tracker, our eyes met and with my hand on his shoulder he settled swiftly into the earth. I felt hyper-aware, the blood pounding in my ears, conscious of a heart that continued to beat on, hovering over another that never would again.
I am the twist you never anticipated, the hero and the villain. Kneeling in the deafening silence of the African bush, somewhere between pride and remorse, I discovered a deep respect for our mortal world.
Completely out of breath, our shoes overflowing with sand, our lungs burning we stood doubled over at the top of Dune 45. Without thought or discussion, we had sprinted to the peak of this five million year old accumulation of sand.
A few months ago I had been mesmerized by images of this exact spot, our friends were overlanding Africa and their adventures inspired equal parts raging jealousy and uninhibited desire. It is difficult to admit the chaotic emotion within an overlander when they’re forced to return home and live vicariously through their friends. Half of you wants to write them off, slam your laptop shut and forget the life you led before. The other, seemingly sadistic half, just can’t look away and it’s this part of ourselves we can’t deny that eventually leads us to one night throw out our last three months of planning and book two tickets to Africa.
There are few moments in life when we can look around and say “I dreamed of this and now it’s mine.” This was one such moment and neither of us were about to spoil it with words that could never hope to match our surroundings. United in this unspoken agreement we sat silently watching the sunset with only the sound of the sand whipping endlessly over the blurred edge of the dune.
There is nothing like a hot shower. When you’ve slept in a tent for a week, when you’ve made it an hourly practice to empty the sand from your shoes, when your toilet is a hole in the ground that you’ve dug yourself, when you start noticing the fresh scent of shampoo on total strangers, there is nothing like a hot shower.
I love Africa. I love studying the maps in an effort to keep my inner backseat-driver in check as we bump along this road-less land. I love glancing up just in time to see an enormous kudu prance across the road and leap into the bush. I even love Logan’s random diatribes, where he uses his professor voice to teach me something entirely out of the blue: “Do you know how four wheel drive works? Well…”
Emerging from the communal campground shower, scrubbed clean of negativity, I can appreciate these things again. Sometimes I get caught up thinking of the comforts of home, things like our pillow-top mattress and not having to keep a roll of toilet paper in the glove compartment at all times. The steaming water rinses away more than grime and muck, my bad attitude swirls down the drain as well. Wet flip flops smack my heels sending up plumes of red dirt and I’m startled by the beating hooves of a zebra herd racing through camp toward water. This ritual cleansing is a good reminder: no one ever got anywhere being perfectly comfortable.
The engine let out a deep roar before the tell-all high-pitched whine. Our mismatched tires spun, we felt the truck and our hearts swivel and sink. We were stuck and 200 massive elephant heads twitched in our direction. Surrounded by the herd, Logan gathered wood in the brush and shoveled sand at super-human speed. The elephants were agitated and never let their gaze wander from the spectacle we had created.
It has been said that modern man originated in Africa. And when a 12,000 pound elephant stares you down snorting and kicking up dust, the instinctual fear that pulses throughout your body feels like the most certain evidence of such a claim.
Our second attempt at escape was a flop, the engine squealed and sputtered, defeated. They made it clear, we had overstayed our welcome. Our latest vehicular eruption caused the nearest group of 15 elephants to charge. Exhaling expletives, we watched them gain speed and then unexpectedly turn, crossing the road just ahead of us. For a moment we believed we were safe. Until they rounded on us, in what appeared to be a well-practiced and exceedingly graceful surprise maneuver, they turned at the last moment and stopped to face us head on.
Previously, the safety of our Toyota Hilux felt certain, but now I knew I was trapped in a tin can of terror. Everyone had warned us to be careful. I pictured our friends and loved ones shaking their heads sadly at our double funeral, what a way to go, trampled by elephants. And later, whispered in confidence, “I heard they were drinking.” I voiced these and other mortal concerns to my ever calm and stalwart husband. He whispered, “Relax.”
Seemingly disgusted at our thumping hearts and immobile response, the leader raised his trunk and took a few menacing steps forward. He trumpeted, the threat echoed across the plains. We sat staring at each other for a few moments before the group retreated back to the herd. They had certainly made their point.
Seconds later we were digging with hands and shovels, still surrounded. Finally, swaying and bumping backwards, before gracelessly spinning the truck around, we were free and leaving certain death in the rear view. And wouldn’t you know it? We only got stuck twice more before reaching camp where we found the real test of our courage was just beginning.
While I pondered the best angle to capture this moment on film, Logan silently studied the water crossing ahead. He cut the engine and announced his decision, I would wade in to test the depth of this black-bottomed African lagoon. He was so perfectly nonchalant about the suggestion that I immediately jumped out of the truck and began rolling up my pants, a natural trooper. It took approximately two steps into the murky water to realize the absurdity into which I had willingly walked.
The sand went from fine tan silt to an all-encompassing black nothingness. As my toes sank noiselessly into the muck, my mind worked furiously to invent and embellish every terrifying lagoon monster known to man. Standing there in the sweltering heat wondering if they could smell the tantalizing aroma of my human flesh, I spat out the accusation in question form: “Tell me again, how did I get nominated for this job?!”
I had to immediately check my anger when he looked at me aghast, as if the answer was pathetically obvious. “Because, I’m wearing carhartts and you’re wearing zip off pants.” I’ll admit to the surface logic of this statement and sure, the lagoon was on the small side, probably containing no fearsome creatures, maybe just a croc or two. The point is, we’re all here today to tell the story because it only took me a few seconds to stomp back to the truck muttering about African gators. And just a few minutes more for Logan to find a simple route around this mess. Ta-da! The magic of marriage.
My husband is a man not easily impressed. For fun he climbs rugged peaks and walls of solid rock relying mainly on the strength of his fingertips to avoid the long drop of an early demise. He smokes cigars and drinks whiskey in a way that might lead some to believe they were all the fuel he needed. He once proclaimed, “I can fix anything.” And he can. Whether struggling with a busted suspension on the Bolivian altiplano or maneuvering us out of the fine silt sands of the Botswana wilderness, the strange situations we get ourselves into never seem to faze him.
Which is why I hope I never forget the one and only gasp, a sound of pure astonishment, he has ever evoked in my presence. Did we get a flat? Are we out of gas? Are we on the brink of catatsrophe? As I whipped my head around to see what could cause such an uncommon exclamation, there before us stood the most beautifully enormous creature I’d ever laid eyes on. Leaning gingerly over our truck and snacking on a tree, we sat motionless as the giraffe studied us with a mild curiosity. The silence after the gasp, the contemplative crunching of leaves above our heads, said more than any words either of us could procure.