Yael scrambles to put on the new tea-colored hiking boots her parents sent, sliding her feet into the stiff leather. She switches off the air conditioner and opens the window for some fresh air. The windows are covered in worn mesh, thin protection against hungry insects and hungrier monkeys. Some of the corners are starting to peel and roll off the frame, but not enough for random insects to get through.
She locks the door to her room and runs after Nadine. Then circles back to get her camera. A meter away from Nadine, Yael can hear her speaking on the telephone.
“Yes, I mean now Sipho,” Nadine says. “Because I might not be so nice, that’s why.”
Yael sucks on her lower lip. She shoots Nadine a questioning look, but Nadine ignores her. Nadine’s traded her sandals for boots, no doubt another item she conjured out of her knapsack.
“Because I said so,” Nadine continues before she hangs up.
“Whoa?” Yael says. “What was that?”
“What are you talking about?” Nadine says. She widens her eyes and puts her hand on Yael’s shoulder. “Wait by the jeep for Sipho,” she continues. “Got to grab some supplies.”
“Supplies?” Yael asks. “And excuse me, but that sounded rough.”
“I can’t imagine what you mean,” Nadine says. “Is there a problem?”
“Not usually,” Yael answers. “But that was rude.”
“You have no idea what we were talking about and Sipho doesn’t need you to help him out,” Nadine says. “Going to grab some biltong, vodka, and orange juice for sundowners.”
Yael opens her mouth to say more, but shakes her head instead. Sipho doesn’t need her to defend him and she’s already gone over the line. Nadine could say Yael requested an off-trail drive; the director would never take Yael’s word over hers. Just the request would be enough to cast a dark cloud over her, get asked to leave. Safety rules are serious around here.
When Nadine returns, they head to the main camp gate and Yael slows with every step. She dislikes the Wonder Woman expression on her friend’s face, dislikes heading out of camp. Is Nadine taking her beyond the fence? A weariness thumps inside of her. They should turn back. This is illegal and for good reason. She’s been warned by the staff many times that the safety standards are a priority, that these are real wild animals, not cartoons. They provided enough examples of tourists who did not take the rules seriously. While millions of people pass through Kruger Park safely, it is the small minority who ignore the rules who risk themselves and others. Most injuries (and deaths) involving tourists and wild animals happen because of clumsily taught, inexperienced guides, guides who ignored their training and took needless risks.
Sipho is experienced and well-trained and wouldn’t do anything to disrespect an animal’s boundaries. Still, any encounter in nature is unpredictable and involves some risk. Nobody knows where they are and their journey is unapproved. This is so unlike the Sipho she knows. Nadine must be calling in a big favor to get him to comply—unless she has something on him. There’s no one for her to ask.
“Are we allowed to leave? Isn’t it dangerous?” Yael asks, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. She flexes her hands, mops the sweat at the back of her neck with a bandana.
“Don’t worry,” Nadine says. She reaches into her knapsack and takes out a pistol. “I’ve always been a great shot. If an animal gets too close. Bang.”
“Where’d you get that?”
“Just kidding,” says Nadine. “You make it like we’re walking. Sipho is fetching us at the gate.” She grins at Yael. One lip corner pulls up and back. “Clara’s armed to the teeth. You should see her private stash,” she continues.
Nadine laughs, but it’s not a laugh Yael likes. Still, she can’t pull her eyes away from the gun.
“Your gun is very cool,” Yael says. “Think I could learn?”
“Don’t see why not?” Nadine says. “There are shooting ranges on farms all around here.”
“Consider it on my list,” Yael says.
There is a paid African guard at the gate. In the daytime he opens the gate manually, recording the license plate of every car that leaves and enters the camp. At night, he raises the boom, locks the gate with a padlock and no one is allowed to drive in.
Sipho is parked at the gate when the girls approach. He is one of three African rangers aside from Clara, and Yael guesses he’s the oldest. He’s stooped at the shoulders, his hair curly black and gray, but there’s something about him Yael can only describe as humility. A quiet strength. This modest energy around him has drawn her to him from the beginning and she’s made a point of being in his group for all elephant feeding times.
He starts the engine when they are 30 meters away. The women climb in, Nadine in front as Yael slides into the back. The jeep has a soft, high roof. Yael doesn’t understand what Sipho says to the guard, who raises his hand more than waves as he lifts the boom. She notes the guard does not record the time and license plate number. Her tongue curls in her mouth. She senses danger and it will be no consolation to be right. She tells herself it’s the “terrorist effect.” The moment the firebomb struck the windows of the café where her brother stood in line, she became someone who is convinced danger is a well she cannot help but fall into. She must resist.
“Why’d you stop? This is a little private safari tour,” Nadine says.
“We’re taking a chance, Miss Nadine. If the director finds out… I need my job.”
“Come on, Sipho,” Nadine says. She leans towards him and a strand of hair falls out of place. “I’ll cover for you. She’s my aunt, remember? She’ll never know. A quick one. Let’s show Yael off-trail. It’s a once in a lifetime chance.”
“It’s OK,” Yael says. “I’m sure there’s an organized jeep ride coming up again soon.”
All Nadine’s bluster about adventure is beginning to drain away and Yael hugs her knees to her chest. Either she’s not cut out for real life in the bush or she’s allowing the terrorists who murdered her brother to curb her life, imprison her as the therapist discussed with her weekly for six months.
“We’ve done this before,” Nadine says. “You’ll thank me later.”
Nadine’s voice has changed to someone Yael doesn’t recognize. She was someone new when she introduced her to her boyfriend, David, and now Sipho. Or maybe it’s Yael who has a hard time grasping that people are multidimensional.
Sipho takes off his ranger hat, wipes the sweat off his forehead with a kerchief, and puts it back on his head. “Your aunt is a powerful woman, Miss Nadine. It’s not safe.”
Nadine lights a cigarette and whispers something in Sipho’s ear. He whispers back, just as softly. Their conversation continues as though Yael’s not present. Yael closes her eyes. Already the backs of her thighs are stuck to the jeep from sweat. She imagines David looking for her, though her phone is silent. He must still be sleeping. Nadine takes biltong out of her bag and splits it with Sipho. She already knows Yael has no stomach for the dry salty red meat. She passes Yael a box of chocolate chip cookies and Yael munches. She’s lost track of time. How long have they been out here? She left so fast she didn’t put on her watch. Nadine folds her arms across her chest and stares into the distance. Finally, Sipho presses the accelerator and they’re off. For a few minutes nobody speaks.
“Tell me the truth,” Nadine says, straining over the sound of the engine and rustling breeze in the open-side vehicle.
“Truth?” Yael answers.
“Why didn’t you come with mommy and daddy? You can do these programs anytime.”
“Extra university credit,” Yael answers on automatic. “In case they don’t accept all of my Canadian courses.”
“You’re here for a year. You could’ve easily got this credit during the school holiday period. It’s far to go without your parents. Must be a reason?” Nadine says. She tilts her head to one side.
Yael inhales deeply. She exhales. Closes her eyes for a minute. She wants to tell Nadine the facts without sounding like she’s really saying, “Pity me.”
“I have a brother. Had a brother,” Yael says. “Ezra. When I was 16, he was in a bombing in Montreal. A café. Terrorists. He was 17.”
Yael sees Sipho’s dark brown eyes flash in the rearview mirror
“Oh shit,” Nadine says. She lowers her head. Frowns. “I’m sorry… I didn’t think Canada had terrorists.”
“A separatist French para-military group.”
Nadine raises one eyebrow.
“French separatists from English Canada,” Yael explains. “He was waiting in line for a coffee. A firebomb came in through the window,” Yael says all in one breath. “I don’t even know if he knew, if he had a chance. I’m sure my parents hid the details.”
“Oh my God. Poor boy. That’s terrible,” Nadine says as she hugs the corner of her headrest. She’s turned towards Sipho, so she can speak with Yael head on.
“My parents didn’t want me there when they gave away his things, so they sent me ahead.” Yael deflates. There’s not enough air in all of Kruger Park.
“So sorry,” Nadine says again. She turns to face Sipho and instructs him to take the service road before the turn off to Skukuza Camp and head up towards Mathekanyane for sundown.
“The views from there are gorgeous. The sun sets straight ahead of you.”
“Is it much farther?” Yael asks through tight lips. She twists the ring David brought her in his suitcase on her finger. A gold halo with a zirconia cube in the center.
“Don’t worry. We’ll be back by stars-out. You’ll be dining with your man and no one will know we’ve been MIA.”
Yael forces her shoulders down and fiddles with her camera. Sipho takes a left at a sandy road with a No Entry sign reading Staff Only at the head. There’s space for only one car at a time and Yael can see the long straw grass is compressed in some areas on the sides of the road.
“Two cars met and one needed to make space for the other,” Sipho says without turning back to face her. He gives her the thumbs up in the rearview mirror and Yael returns the message by snapping a photo of him.
Sipho’s not fazed. He keeps to the 50-kilometer speed limit on the flat part of the road, but comes to a near stop when he negotiates a 110-degree right turn onto a narrower, rockier service road, more of a path. Now they are really off-road. He positions the wheels carefully through the gaps in the rock and sand created by erosion.
They pass a herd of two dozen zebra standing alongside buffalo (Nadine calls them blue-bulls) and harems of slender, long-legged antelope, their long horns curved backward. South Africans call them springbok from the Afrikaans word spring or jump combined with bok, which means goat or antelope.
“Rhino,” Sipho indicates a few minutes later. He idles the jeep and points to the right, about 100 meters into the bush. The rhino graze, huge heads down. Yael is amazed by their sheer muscle and curved horns. She snaps a few photos.
“They’ll be filling up for the night now that the heat of the day is behind them,” Sipho says.
“Are they aggressive? Sure they won’t charge at us?” Yael asks.
“They can tell the difference between staff and private cars, I think. Can’t say for sure,” he says. “Poachers also drive jeeps.”
“Poachers,” Yael says. Her eyes look left and right.
“If they were to charge, they would run around 40 kilometers an hour, but not for long. Long enough to stick one of those horns through the metal of this vehicle if they felt they needed to.”
Yael swallows and looks at Nadine, but she has her head in her knapsack. Whatever she came to see, it’s not rhino. She pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights one, fiddling with the onyx around her neck with her free hand.
Sipho glances upwards and spots two circling vultures in the sky.
“Maybe a kill,” he says, a trace of excitement in his voice. He puts the jeep into gear. “In our direction.”
He drives away without asking if they’ve seen enough.
“Brilliant. You must see a kill,” Nadine says. Nadine bounces in her seat. “It’s larger than life.” She brings her hands together. “Told you you’d thank me.” Yael watches as Nadine chews on a strip of biltong, passing a square to Sipho, who accepts.
“Kill must be recent,” Sipho says, after he swallows. He points to another scavenger in the sky with his chin.
“Estimating the off-road land location by the 60-meter aerial view of circling vultures takes more skill than you’d think,” Nadine says to Yael, turning at the waist to face her again. “Sipho’s the best.”
It doesn’t surprise Yael that Sipho would be good at estimating distances, given how talented his drawings are. She keeps a close eye on him as he aligns the car with the spot he believes is the location of the kill. He stands in his seat, strains to see something.
“Go on in,” Nadine says.
“Not a good idea. We aren’t on a registered drive. Better to leave it,” Sipho says.
“This may be her only chance to see a kill, Sipho. We’ve come this far.”
For a minute Sipho and Nadine eat silently and Nadine passes Yael a bottle of water.
“Come on,” Nadine urges. Sipho edges the jeep towards the lowest grass on the horizon. There are no paths anymore, just clearing between trees. He strains to idle the car slowly, to avoid spooking the animals feeding on their kill. Yael realizes she’s holding her breath and inhales. She presses her knees together and clutches her camera to her chest.
A hyena darts from the long grass. The muscles in Yael’s neck and shoulders tense and she nearly cries out. Her heart pounds. Sipho said they shouldn’t be here and that’s enough for her.
“Maybe we should go,” Yael says. There’s a tremble in her voice.
“Don’t be silly,” Nadine says. She looks pointedly at Sipho’s rifle. Yael notices Nadine’s pistol is inches from her hand. “Ready your camera.”
“If there’s hyena,” he says. “The ground scavengers are here.”
The breeze blows from the west, cooling Yael’s neck and back and pushing any smell in the opposite direction. She was already using the knowledge she’d learned in the camp.
“Damn. An elephant!” Sipho says. He slaps his forehead with his hand.
“Where?” Yael whispers, half standing in the jeep. She searches around for more of a herd.
“No. There. In front of me. On the ground,” Sipho says.
He inches the jeep alongside the enormous gray lump on the ground as the last of the hyena take their positions at a distance. They need to size up any new competitors for their dinner.
Sipho continues millimeter by millimeter towards the gray heap positioned dead ahead. The rips into the hind are clear from where the hyenas were active. The thick leathery skin is broken, revealing the firm flesh and congealed blood.
“The hyenas have been busy for half an hour,” Sipho says. His voice is always low, but now it’s lower than usual.
Yael has her hand over her mouth. Slowly she realizes that this horror must be recorded. She reaches for her camera.
The vultures flutter in the adjacent trees, taking up a more defensive position now that the hyenas have been pushed away.
Yael snaps at everything her eyes land on.
“Did they kill this elephant?” she asks, her voice unsteady.
Sipho banks left to reveal the pool of dried blood and swarm of flies at the front of the murdered animal. Nadine gasps and covers her face and nose with a bandana. Yael only has a partial view from the back of the jeep, and for her the smell of death is still masked by the breeze. Over the low hum of the engine she hears the steady buzz of flies mobbing the carcass. The jeep creeps within ten meters of the animal’s head.
“Best you don’t look,” Sipho says. For the first time Nadine doesn’t argue with him. “But it’s critical we identify if the tusks are there.”
It becomes clear the tusks are gone, gored out of what was once a female elephant’s face.
“Poachers,” he says. “Bastards! They shot her in the head. At least two shots. Maybe more under the destruction of her face.”
“Oh my God.” Tears sting Yael’s eyes.
“They must have hidden in the bushes, downwind of this orphan elephant. Otherwise, she would have smelled danger and changed direction. Elephants don’t usually come this far south. They killed her in the last 24 hours. You can tell from the decay and the appetites of the hyenas.”
“But…,” Nadine murmurs. “They’re so close to the camp. Are there any elephants left?”
Yael’s camera is silent. In the past day murderers shot a defenseless elephant within 10 kilometers of her camp. Too close. Way too close.
“Don’t scream,” Nadine says. She moves to the back next to Yael and clamps her hand over Yael’s mouth.
“It’s a bad omen. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Yael nods. Her stomach turns.
“Sipho. Home now.”
Sipho drives, and Yael notices he doesn’t stop looking in all directions. He must be searching for the origin of the poachers. Yael thinks this, but doesn’t ask. She can’t speak. All she can do is see the massacred elephant.
“I would search more for the poachers, but there are too many hungry scavengers around,” Sipho says.
Nadine agrees. Yael notes the two exchanging wide-eyed glances all the way home. Sweat stings her eyes and she wipes them with her shirt. Something is going on and whatever it is, it’s too close. Sipho says the poachers were there 24 hours ago. They could have done this drive yesterday at the same time and heard them, seen them with their guns, the freshly killed elephant. She shudders.
It is only when they are behind the safety of the gate that Yael allows the full flood of her emotions to take her. She races to her room, turns on the shower, and presses her head to the cool wall, her tears mixing with the warm water.
After her shower, Yael dresses and reviews the photographs. Not all are steady, but enough are. The story is there. She got it. She looks at the business card she’d thrown into her suitcase after meeting Douglas in Johannesburg. Douglas Cole. Wildlife Photographer. Help Stop the Slaughter.
Header photo by Claire05, courtesy Pixabay.