Swish Swish

Charleine Sell

© Copyright 2020 by Charleine Sell

Photo of an elephant.
My husband slept with elephants. I didnít.

I am not a great lover of camping, but of all the camping adventures I have experienced (from a family vacation at Hammonasset State Park in Connecticut in the 1960s, the Everglades in 1973, to trout fishing on Lake Hihium in British Columbia in 1977), the most challenging one was with Jack, in 1972 at Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania.

From Dar es Salaam, we flew on a small plane to Kilimanjaro International Airport in northern Tanzania. We were pleasantly surprised to find a small modern airport, less than a year old, built in the middle of nowhere between the small town of Arusha and Mount Kilimanjaro. It was an airport for tourists who wanted to visit destinations such as Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti, Lake Manyara and Mount Kilimanjaro by providing direct flights from Europe. It offered a closer alternative to these sites than flying into Dar es Salaam or Nairobi. The air-conditioned bus to Arusha was shiny and new, and we sat among tourists from Europe and Tanzanians in local dress. Grabbing our gear, we stepped off the cool bus into hot sunshine and, after asking around, were directed to a campsite located on grass next to the local city hall. A few campers had already pitched their tents near a stream at the bottom of the hill below city hall, mostly young people like us. We had a small pup tent and started putting it up near the group.

Before we finished, a security guard scrambled down the grassy bank toward all of us, waving his arms and pointing at us and then to the top of the hill near the building. He was speaking Swahili, but Jack was able to figure out that he wanted everyone to move back up the hill where a bright light illuminated the building and its surroundings. Because the watchman was hired to guard city hall, he said he could not protect us if we camped down at the bottom of the hill where it was dark. Thieves would come during the night, he warned, slit our tents and steal our belongings.

Everyone packed up and moved to the top of the hill under the floodlight. We were now back in the good graces of the night watchman.

We spent one uneventful night at the Arusha campsite, and the next morning, hoping to hitch a ride, we set out walking the road that led to Ngorongoro Crater Game Park. The distance was about 96 miles, but we were undeterred. Peace Corps volunteers on vacation from jobs in Swaziland at the time (1970 to 1973) didnít have much money, of course.

It wasnít long before I started to get annoyed with Jack. He insisted on walking fast with long strides, and I couldnít keep up with him. As usual, he was soon down the road and way out in front of me. After a while, he finally stopped, came back to me and took my backpack. Keeping his brown canvas rucksack on his back with our orange pup tent fastened across the top, he hoisted my red, aluminum-framed backpack across his chest and started off again! The morning sun beat down on me, and even without my heavy backpack, the distance between us once again began to stretch until two Brits in an old beater Volvo took pity on us, stopped and asked where we were headed.

After telling them Ngorongoro Crater, probably the most famous game park in east Africa, they asked if we would rather go with them to Lake Manyara Game Park. I guess we didnít really care where we went, we just wanted to see some African game. We knew Ngorongoro Park, which followed the Rift Valley escarpment, was the most popular game park and attracted large numbers of tourists. Always preferring to get off the beaten path, we hopped in their car and off we went. Both guys in the car started up a friendly chat. They quickly let us know they had decided on a whim earlier that morning to drive to a game park and camp for a couple of nights. They were brothers, and Roger, the older one, lived and worked in Nairobi, while Andrew had come to visit him from England.

The park, famous for its lions in trees, seemed empty of people. We never saw another soul the two days we were there. Certainly, we were the only ones dumb enough to camp. There was no entrance gate, just a dusty road, so for company and safety, we decided to tent together in a small clearing around a campfire. Late in the afternoon, while Jack pitched our tent, I wandered off looking for extra wood for our campfire. I didnít go far, because the park was known not only for lions, but also for herds of elephants. Although there were official boundaries of this park noted on maps, no visible boundaries existed. The animals roamed back and forth out of the park, into nearby fields to eat maize and back into the park.

I hadnít gotten very far before I stopped dead in my tracks. Not more than 50 yards away was a group of elephants, about 15; huge ones and little 200 lb Ďbabyí ones, busy feeding among the scrub trees and bushes. On hearing my approach, the larger ones swung their vast heads around, like large Sherman tanks, and stared ominously. I didnít move a muscle or blink an eye; afraid they would decide I should not be there. After a few tense moments and hoping they would not charge, I turned and ran back to tell the guys how close to us the elephants were. Even though they listened to my details, they pooh-poohed my concern.

That night, as Jack was snoring away in our miniscule tent, I was startled awake by odd swishing sounds. I thought immediately it might be those elephants I had seen earlier. I woke up Jack, but all we heard were the night sounds of chatter, whistles, and whoops plus the roar of a lion in the distance. He dismissed me as being a bit overly excited about nothing and fell back asleep.

Swish, swish. There it was again. I was sure I could hear the movement of elephant ears creating a soft swishing sound like mainsails in the breeze! Swish, swish. I lay there and thought, we are two people lying in a tent that is no more than 3 feet high, and even though it is a bright orange tent, I have no idea if they can see us! I wondered if elephants were color-blind. Would they even notice the tent? I lay there not moving a muscle, barely breathing, my body tense. I wondered how many there were. Their trunks made soft snuffling sounds as they searched the ground around them. I could hear their tree-trunk size legs dragging through the brush making crackling sounds as they destroyed whatever was beneath them. I knew those huge elephants could step right on us and crush us Ė even by accident! Needless to say, I did not sleep that night.

 The next morning, Jack got up first and crawled out of our tent. Oh my, did he ever yell when he almost stepped in a giant pile of fresh, steaming elephant poop right next to our tent! I was not only vindicated, but that evening all three guys built a giant campfire and took turns keeping it going all night long.

I slept like a baby.

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