Elephant! Elephant! Someone shouted behind us. We couldn’t discern who. Everyone was running to the edge of the banks, metres from where a low fence of branches had been erected around the little bay leading up to the Malombo village. Branches that acted as a shield from crocodiles when kids played in the water or men and women went down to the great Zambezi alongside their home to collect water.
The commotion grew and in between the shouts I realised it wasn’t all excitement as we watched these great animals swimming and rolling and jostling about in the water in the distance. “They’re going to come across,” Edith said. Concerned.
I remembered how beautiful elephants can be from afar, but how dangerous and destructive to a village they can be up close. But the elephants stayed in their lane and we bid farewell to Edith and the children, climbed back into our boat and headed over to the Zimbabwe side. The Matetsi National Park where the elephants had disembarked from.
The sight of a whole herd swimming in the Zambezi is one of the most remarkable you’ll see in Africa. Like in the Chobe or Selinda, you realise what water babies they are. They are as at home swimming across the fourth longest river in Africa as they are wandering along its banks and through the dry bush.
Like great nomads, they understand that “real travel requires a maximum of unscheduled wandering, for there is no other way of discovering surprises and marvels, which, as I see it, is the only good reason for not staying at home,” as Alan Watts put it.
Living beside them isn’t always easy. But the river creates a space for them to play and for us to watch them in safety, away from the homes of our neighbours, our team and their families on the banks.
As we sat in the boat watching them, they seemed to see us too and waved, in a joyous greeting, with their trunks flapping in the air. The spirit of community finds us wherever we go on this great river.
Later in the day, we sat beside the herd as they foraged on a sandbank in the middle of the river, with a baby, as small as a child, ambling beside the great stature of the rest of his herd, never far from their protection or company. Man or elephant, we’re all just trying to keep our loved ones safe and fed, we thought quietly.
The little one had, we hoped, many years of wandering along this river ahead of him. We looked at him and promised we’d be here to welcome him whenever he returned. It’s the Zambian way.
This is your home as much as it is ours, little guy. And what a beautiful home it is. A home for man and elephant alike.