I meet Henk off the plane. We’ve been speaking by email but I’m disappointed to meet him in person. He’s he’s
older than I hoped. He won’t make a good photograph, too plain. I was hoping for khaki shorts and a hat of some kind, but he’s in jeans.
“A bit wet out there today I’m afraid.” he says. “ Going to be cold later.” I travel half way across the world and we’re still talking about the weather.
“It was warmer at home.” I joke, though it’s obvious really, it being summer over there and winter here.
He drives me though the streets. It’s not a Landrover but a car with roll bars and a gun rack in the back. I try not to look disappointed. There’s an inch of water everywhere, that doesn’t seem to go anywhere, just
swish around as cars surf through.
“The drainage.” he says. “Not like yours.” I nod, though don’t know what he’s talking about.
There’s a roaring trade in umbrella sales going on in the streets. Everyone runs around carrying the lurid orange and greens they’re selling. There’s no individual umbrella’s at all, like no one in the whole place owned an umbrella before today. It’s all rather pretty. I try to take a picture but he’s driving too fast, and you can’t take good pictures though wet glass.
“At least it’ll wash the snow away.” he says reflectively. I nod. “I remember when I was a child it used to be so hot during the day, when it got cold like this at night, everyone would come out into the streets and drink watermelon.”
“Surely it’s still like that in summer?” I say.
“True. I just remember it being a touch warmer. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia of youth. I remember my father always saying the same thing. Just like he used to say the young generation was much worse than his. Now I
say the same thing, I wonder if it’s just something we think as we get older.”
“I hope it’s not raining when we get there.” I say.
“Don’t worry.” he says. “The canopy will cover the rain.”
I don’t know what he means until arrive there. The plains, it seems, is more of a jungle. I always imagined it to be stretches of open land, but there’s a lot of it under cover of trees or large rock formations.
“I’d like to go on alone.” I say. “I think it will be better that way. More intimate.”
He doesn’t sneer or nod approvingly, he just says; ‘Of course’, as if journalists come down here everyday to capture the last moments of a dying species.
“I’ll wait in the hut.” he says, directing my attention to a small shack with some tables outside. “Follow the path, down the valley. Don’t get out of the car until you reach the bottom of the valley. There’s a sign saying ‘Elephant’s beware’. You can get out from there. The other animals don’t come that far.”
“Out of respect?” I ask. He walks away without comment.
The path is a muddy track. The ground is sticky and hard to drive through, like elephant dung. I didn’t tell the groundsman that I don’t really know how to drive. There’s no point in England anymore with all the traffic, but I manage anyway. I’ve played enough Micro games to know how it works.
It’s all one way anyway, I just wheel spin along the valley towards the dark walls of the rock that hides the Elephant Graveyard.
I stop the car just by the opening. I want to take a picture of the exact moment when I first see it, so others can experience what I’ve seen in this place with my own eyes. I slot the camera together, fitting it into the rain sleeve. Still, if rain gets on the front of the lens it would be disastrous for the shot.
I step slowly forward, the camera poised at my eye and take a shot, the camera’s auto focus working quicker than my eye. Then I focus it myself and take another shot, focusing on the line of tusks in the front.
The place is massive, like a scrap yard. Skeletons of giant carcasses lay haphazardly, like after all of the effort to get here the elephant’s didn’t even care enough to find themselves a nice spot. Most still have their tusks attached. I wonder if they’ll now reverse the anti-ivory laws. Since the last elephant is about to die, a law to protect them seems pointless. It seems a waste now, all those beautiful ornaments that were burned in the
thirties. It didn’t change anything. To be honest, though the scene is a shocking testament to the death of a species, it looks just like it does on TV. I don’t feel overwhelmed, as I imagined I would. But still, that won’t come across in my pictures.
There isn’t a moment when I suddenly see her, just a movement near the rock and then I notice her watching me, as if she’s always been here. She’s enormous. Much bigger than she seems in pictures. Her skin is leathery and weathered but it adds to her air of wisdom. Like she’s seen everything. She looks almost bored as she stares
at me, perhaps not really seeing me at all. The elephant sucks on a mulchy piece of grass as she strains towards, me as if curious or shortsighted.
She looks into my eyes, and for a moment there’s a connection, like recognition.
I slowly bring up my camera, without breaking eye contact. I wonder if I should just point the camera in her direction and hope for the best. I don’t want to risk her looking away.
The camera lens whirs slowly into focus and there’s an almost imperceptible snap as the picture is taken.
The elephant doesn’t seem to register the click, but from some other inclination begins to walk towards me. I try to appear calm, so that she’ll know that we are alike, and that I intend to help make her death meaningful. She comes on faster. I smile benevolently towards her, but begin to wonder if she understands.
She snorts, as if dislodging something from her trunk and a gush of hot breath comes out like steam into the cold air. She begins to run towards me, huffing. I step back, taking a quick picture. I think I should get back in the car. I could come back later, stand on the top of the rocks and look downwards, perhaps. She seems almost angry, but maybe I’m projecting human emotions on the animal. I get back into the car, and turn the key, but it won’t start. I don’t understand it. It has petrol.
She stampedes towards the car, looking straight into my eyes with a kind of madness or anger. Surely she could not crush the car. I do not know what will happen and it scares me, so I take the gun from the back seat and aim it though the windscreen. She doesn’t stop running and is so close now that momentum will carry her onwards
even if intention does not.
An angry gash appears along the top of her head but she does not register it. I am horrified but fire
again. There’s blood, but I don’t know where I’ve hit her, so I fire again and again, shouting in despair as I do.
She slows but does not stop. There’s blood on her ears and on the ground but she’s still dragging herself towards me. I don’t think she’s ever going to stop until one of us is dead. I fumble with the door handle. Falling out of the car I run towards the graveyard of bones. I’m shouting – I don’t know what. I want her to follow me. I know she will.
I dive under the bones of one of her ancestors. The tusks stick out in front of me like the arms of a protecting
angel. I know she will follow me anyway. I have to do this, she will not rest. She must see the tusks but tumbles
towards me anyway. Impaling herself.
She lays still, huffing at me angrily as I crawl away from her, but I see fear too in her eyes, or maybe sorrow. I think about climbing up the rocks and signaling for someone to come and help her, maybe save her. But I
also know I must set off now on foot, to find the hut before dark. To linger any longer would be suicide. She’ll surely die now anyway, what would be the point?
As I walk away I hear the scamper of animals running behind me. I do not need to look back to know that I am doomed.