The Elephant in the Shower | by Lin Barrie

A hot August day in Africa and there I was, in a tented shower on the edge of the steep bank of the Runde River, hoisted upon a carpet of gold flowers, under a Cordyla Africana tree in the wilderness of Gonarezhou, Zimbabwe.

This ‘place of the elephants’, the iconic Gonarezhou, is densely populated by elephants, and in a shower under a delicious flowering tree is probably not the wisest place to be when a hungry bull elephant wants to eat the multitude of fallen yellow Cordyla flowers….

This hot afternoon I was delightfully alone in camp, and had been sketching, ruminating and happily at peace. Everyone else except the camp staff had departed on a game drive, and the staff had wandered down to the river bed to wash and collect water for our camp. Relishing the thought of a refreshing bathe, I entered my shower, which was fully charged with lovely warm water by the camp staff, and happily soaked my hair and body.

In the back of my mind was a tingle of anticipation, the knowledge that perhaps the gentle bull we had seen yesterday eating fallen flowers at this same tree, would return to do the same this afternoon…so I was listening and was half-expecting the sound when it came.

Wet, and with hair just rinsed of shampoo, encased in the flimsy canvas of the shower cubicle, I suddenly heard a long drawn out sigh, a breathing-out of warm air down a long grey trunk. WHOOOOSH….I had company. No footfall had warned me, this quiet giant had arrived in silence, save for his breathing….

What to do? He was there, in my space and very real. I coughed once to let him know that the shower was not as empty as he perhaps presumed…and slowly peeped my head around the canvas edge to see what I was dealing with…

Oh my goodness, there he was, as looming, as close, and as immense as I had anticipated. He was frozen still, poised in mid-step, pondering my cough! My mind bounced- should I stay or retreat? Staying would not be clever, caught like a fly in a canvas fly trap…a flimsy canvas fly trap! But retreating was a challenge – he was so close upon me that no matter which way I exited the shower, I would be literally under his nose and might startle him into challenging the space between us.

Quick decision and I prepared my escape…wrapped my tiny towel around me, (forget spending precious moments trying to put clothes on) and crept out on the far side of the cubicle, keeping the canvas between him and me so he did not see my exit, and straight down the steep bank into the river bed I went, no shoes on so I could move more quietly and prepared all the way to throw my toilet bag behind me for him to stumble over if he came after me!

Not daring to look back, I tiptoed barefoot along the underside of the steep bank among the Datura flowers and the occasional stabbing thorn! It worked, I managed to disappear from his space without alerting or frightening him and when I climbed the bank again into our camp area and looked back he was still standing there, motionless and obviously thinking about my cough….

I felt remorseful when sitting relaxing on the bank later, watching those incredible Chilojo Cliffs in the late afternoon sun. He had disappeared, had politely trundled off, his sweet flower meal forgotten because of my intrusive presence, my cough, the smell of shampoo ….

I had had my shower but he did not get the meal he had probably been thinking about all morning. Sorry Mr. Nzhou! You were so polite and circumspect in your dealings with me, an intruder in your space…..

I have watched and enjoyed elephants all my adult life and have been living with them twenty years in the Save Valley Conservancy. There has never been a time when I can not remember being familiar with elephants, but they still never cease to amaze me, and each time I am with elephants I experience a fresh sense of awe, a sense of family…

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