Saturday, February 12, 2011

It's Wild - A Short Story

Here's another short story I wrote for the Wilderness Challenge at Hurog, Patricia Briggs' board.

It's Wild
by Pia Newman

Based on true events.

   We were up and waiting by the gate before the crack of dawn. The rangers said the most interesting things to see, like leopards and wild dogs, were at dawn and dusk. Since the camp gates were closed for protection during the night, we wanted to get the earliest start possible at the break of dawn.
   I was sitting at the steering wheel of the rented car, a black Nissan Tida. I would have preferred a Jeep like the Rangers had; that would’ve been something else, for city boys like us. But we couldn’t afford the extra cost. 
   We could also have gone in a Jeep with a Ranger, but we didn’t want a Ranger along. We didn’t need a baby sitter.
   Ranger Ryan came up to us and leaned against the door on my side.
   “You’re really eager to head out, aren’t you?” he asked. “Just a few more minutes, now. Where are you headed?”
   “We thought we’d try the waterhole to the west,” I told him. “Your colleague told us it’s possible we’ll see a leopard there, apparently there’s one that likes to water there. Have you seen it?”
   “Yes,” Ranger Ryan said. “There’s a little spring which feeds the waterhole, and that leopard likes to drink directly from the fresh water.”
   “Sounds perfect,” Scott said from the passenger seat beside me, his video camera on his lap ready and waiting. Jared, in the back, also had his digital camera poised for action, with his biggest object lens hooked up to it. Ranger Ryan saw the cameras, of course. He also caught the hunger for adventure in our eyes.
   “Just remember: stay on the roads, don’t get out of the vehicle, keep the windows rolled up,” he admonished us again. He’d told us the same three days ago; everybody going on safari in Kruger Park was notified of the basic rules.
   “We know the rules,” I said, rather impatiently. “How much longer?”
   “Until we see a gray haze above the gates,” the ranger said. Both the gates and the wall encasing the camp were made of high wooden poles bound tightly together. The poles were sharpened at the top, making them look like a row of pencils.
   To our relief, the gray haze soon appeared; the ranger opened the gates, and I put my foot on the gas and drove into the early morning wilderness.
  We headed straight for the waterhole, following the dirt track that would get us there fastest. When we were almost there, a herd of impalas crossed the path before us in a rush of leaping bodies and slender legs. It was still too dark for filming or taking pictures without a tripod, so we just sat back and enjoyed the spectacle.
   “They’re probably just done drinking,” Jared mused. “They’re coming from the waterhole.”
   “Maybe the leopard spooked them,” Scott said. “They were in quite a hurry.”
   We carried on, our anticipation heightened by this possibility. We couldn’t wait to lay eyes on a leopard. We’d already seen several lionesses with their cubs, as well as male lions with their shaggy manes. And yesterday we’d watched a pair of cheetahs prowling around a herd of wildebeest not too far from the road.
   We’d also seen zebras, giraffes, and an elephant; snakes, warthogs and hyenas; hippos, crocodiles and even a rhino. All that was missing was that leopard.
   We’d been told that there was a spot along the road, on a ridge above the waterhole, where we could park the car and see the whole thing without getting out. When we finally reached it, we could indeed see the waterhole – but it was larger than we’d expected, and the herd of elephants on the other side looked small even through our binoculars. Also, the spring where the leopard liked to drink was mostly hidden behind shrubbery.
   “The ground’s dry,” Jared said. “The car won’t get stuck.” He pointed to our right, down the ridge. “If we drive down towards the waterhole there, we can see the spring better.”
   “If we get too close, we might spook him,” Scott said.
   “Well, even if we do, we’re not going to see him from here,” Jared scoffed. “Just drive down there, Dan,” Jared repeated, pointing again.
   I drove. The poor Tida bucked over the uneven ground like a bronco, but as Jared had said, the dirt was too hard for it to get stuck. We soon reached the spot Jared had pointed out. By now there was enough light to take pictures and film; both Jared and Scott had their cameras at the ready. I stopped the car, facing the waterhole.
   Jared and I searched the banks through our binoculars while Scott looked through the view finder of his camera, ready to squeeze the button should the leopard come in sight. I saw several birds, and another group of impalas, but apart from them and the herd of elephants nothing else moved.
   As yesterday with the cheetahs, we were really patient. The sun rose fully, beating down on us from a clear blue sky. We opened the windows to let in fresh air – there was nothing dangerous here anyway. Well, except for the mosquitoes that swarmed in like a hungry cloud. We were soon itching and sweating all over, despite bug-repellent and open windows, and I wished for nothing more than a shower. Twice Scott washed his hands with the liquid soap we’d brought, because he didn’t want to touch his video camera with sweaty hands; he was a stickler when it came to that camera.
   There were no other people close by. We were alone in this wilderness that stretched out around us with its brightly glaring light and animal sounds on the air. We watched and listened to it, but it cared none for our presence. We might as well have been invisible. This country was magnificent, majestic. It was also harsh. And lonely.
   After over an hour of waiting and straining our eyes we finally gave up. I was disappointed, Scott was tired and Jared was plain pissed. The herd of elephants was still there by the water and had in fact gotten considerably closer, but like everything else, they ignored us.
   “Let’s get out of here,” Jared snarled.
   “Maybe he’ll be here tomorrow,” I said.
   Scott yawned widely.
   “I’m not sitting around here for another two hours again!” Jared said, crossing his arms in front of him.
   “We’ll ask around the camp tonight, maybe he was spotted somewhere else,” I suggested.
   “Yeah, sure. Whatever,” Jared said. I decided to let it lie. There was no point in talking to him when he was in one of his moods.
   “Would you just get going,” he snapped at me when I didn’t reply. That proved too much for my own temper, though. I turned around to him and said in not very nice tones: “We’re all disappointed! No need to talk to us like that!”
   “I can talk to you however I want!” he growled, leaning towards me.
   “Oh, shut up,” I snarled back, and would have gone on to say more, if Scott hadn’t interrupted us with a shout.
   “Guys, stop, take a look at this!”
   There was something in his voice that made us both look at him, even though we were really ready to tear each other apart at that moment. He sounded excited, but at the same time afraid. He was looking out of the windshield, and pointing directly ahead of us.
   We looked forward to where he pointed – and I almost scrambled into the back seat in sudden shock. Standing right in front of the car, one thick sturdy leg only inches away from the hood, was an elephant!
   It towered above us like a wall; a gray wall with huge ears, a trunk, and long white tusks that marked it as a bull. Those tusks hovered above the hood, close to the windshield, and the trunk was nosing its way over the front of the car.
   “Holy cow,” Jared whispered from the back; our argument was forgotten. He picked up his video camera again and started filming. Scott already had his Canon at the ready and was taking one picture after another.
   I could do nothing but stare in awe, as the trunk moved on, touching, testing, tasting. It was amazingly flexible, that trunk, the skin at its tip very smooth and light compared to the darker, tougher hide on the rest of it.
   The great elephant bull flapped his ears several times, blocking the sun. We could smell him through the open windows, a scent of mud and dried dung, very pungent but not completely unpleasant. He was also not exactly quiet; every now and again he let bursts of air escape through his nostrils.
   I was so enthralled by this display of massive muscle and delicate touch that I didn’t hear the car door open behind me. Only when he appeared next to my window did I realize that Jared had gotten out of the car. He was slowly walking up to the elephant, his video camera in front of his face, filming the animal as it examined our vehicle.
   The bull saw him at the same time I did. I saw its small eyes shift to my friend standing before him.
   “Oh my God,” Scott whispered, and cowered down in his seat. For once his camera was forgotten, and his eyes darted back and forth between Jared and the elephant which was now lifting its trunk off the hood and swinging it towards Jared.
   “Jared,” I hissed. “Get back in the car! Now!”
   He turned the camera down to me for a brief moment. “If we can’t see the leopard, we can at least get this on film properly,” he said, and winked. Then he trained the camera on the bull again and stepped even closer.
   The great grey ears which had so far been lazily flapping back and forth, suddenly flared out beside the great head. The trunk now hung down, dangerously tranquil.
   Jared, the fool, took another step closer.
   All hell broke loose. The bull lifted its trunk again and let out a ringing trumpet call. It began tossing its head from side to side, the enormous tusks swiping through the air. Jared finally realized that this was not good, and took several large steps back. But he was too slow. Even as he scrambled for the car door, the bull began to move, coming around the car and right for him with amazing swiftness for so large an animal. The trunk was still raised, but coming down, the tusks likewise reaching for Jared.
   I grabbed the first thing I got my hands on, which was Scott’s present for his girlfriend. It was a leather pouch filled with artfully decorated coins made out of animal bones by some indigenous tribe. At least that’s what the black guy who’d sold it to Scott in Johannesburg had said. Right now it was just the right size for me to use to throw at the elephant and maybe turn its attention away from Jared.
   I hurled the pouch out of the open window, and it landed with a satisfying ‘thwack’ on the bull’s shoulder.
   It seemed to work. The bull slowed his charge, swinging his trunk to the spot on his hide where the pouch had hit. Jared wasted no time while the elephant was distracted; he scrambled around the car and ducked down behind it, out of the elephant’s sight. For a moment, it seemed as if the bull would calm down. He just stood there, at the front corner, the ears still flared, but the trunk swinging loosely and its eyes no longer on us.
   I was about to let out a shaky breath, when the huge head suddenly lifted and then came down with the speed of a charging shark. The tusks smashed down on the roof of the car right above me with a great crash and screech of metal, long cracks suddenly running through the windshield. Scott beside me screamed like a girl in a bad horror movie, and I about lost control over my bladder. The tusks came down again with another colossal crash.
   “Drive!” Scott yelled at me. But we couldn’t just drive off – Jared was outside somewhere!
   Instead, I leaned on the horn. The monotonous tone rang out loud and clear, filling my ears like a screeching banshee. The bull cared as little for it as I did; instead of running off though, as I’d hoped, he just got more mad.
   Another trumpet call burst from his trunk, and then that same flexible limb suddenly snaked its way in through the open window, grazing my face! It got hold of the steering wheel and yanked.
   The whole car lurched, and this time I screamed right along with Scott. I was still able to form words, though. Well, one word.
   “Out,” I yelled at Scott. “Out out out!” When he didn’t move, I reached over him and pulled the latch, then pushed against the door which swung open. I pushed Scott right after it, and he tumbled out with a dazed expression on his face.
   The trunk grazed my arm again, and I dived out after Scott, landing on top of him. Jared was suddenly there, grabbing our arms, hauling us to our feet, and then we sprinted away, to a clump of bushes fifty feet away behind which we collapsed. Jared at once scrambled round and trained his camera on the car again, which the bull apparently thought the worse enemy. We watched in horror, awe and shock as he slid his whole trunk inside the car, and then completely lifted its front end off the ground! When the bull pulled back, the car came down with a crash and a groan, the windshield shattering and the axis cracking. 
   By this time, the other elephants of the herd were crowding closer, curious, though they still kept a few feet distance. The bull trumpeted again, and banged his tusks against the car twice more. When it didn’t make any more noise, and didn’t move, he probably assumed it was dead. He turned from it and then strolled away, ears flapping lazily again. Within a few minutes, he had rounded up his herd and they were padding away at an unhurried pace. None of them looked back.
   The car was totaled, and Scott had a few scratches on his arm, and bruises on his side. Apart from that and our wounded pride, we were okay. We’d been very lucky.
   The whole incident left us with a video that became widely popular on youtube, and with a few lessons learned, which we never forgot.
   The first lesson was: Listen to those who know what they’re talking about.
   The second was: Don’t mess with what you meet in the wilderness – it’s wild!

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