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Adventure Creative Nonfiction

WHERE ELEPHANTS TREAD

My wife, Mame and I were dining with Reggie, a Director of Carson’s who looked after the tea and rubber estates in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. One of the foremost hunters in the country and head of a well known family, he lived in a fine old colonial house with his family and a retinue of ancient retainers; both he and his wife Yvonne were well known for their hospitality.

As an agriculturist Reggie had considerable knowledge of the island's soil and climate, the ingredients of the meal we were eating came from the farm that he had carved out of the middle of the jungle. Midway through the meal Reggie asked

“How would you and Mame like to spend a few days on the farm?”

“Reggie, we'd be delighted to accept, when do we go?”

“We could get off tomorrow morning, I will bring my driver round to your hotel, would 8.00 am be OK?'”

“Yep, we'll sling a few things in the grip and really look forward to it.”

Reggie used to take me hunting with him; the first trip was to Yala which was at the southern end of the island. We hunted with cameras, not guns; we were both members of the Wildlife Association of Ceylon and in any case, most animals were categorised as a protected species. To photo leopard you had to be in position by 4.00 am, elephants would come to your tree house in the evening. I remembered getting out of the jeep once to photograph a crocodile beside the river, I moved closer and closer to the croc but he seemed to be asleep.

When I was a couple of feet away, with no movement from the crocodile, a very relaxed voice came from Reggie who was still in the jeep.

“I would come back very slowly, he can run a damn sight faster than you.”

Never taking my eyes off the croc, very gingerly I slid backwards towards the jeep. Reggie always let you know when the animal could move faster than you. Of course, this was always after you were in position, never before!

I only found one animal slower than me – a Python. As a child I had always marvelled at a photo of my father in Australia, he had a Python round his neck. Ever since seeing this I had always wanted a photo of myself with a Python around my neck and one day in Sri Lanka the opportunity arose.

There by the roadside was a man with a huge python. A squeal of brakes and in no time at all the python was around my neck. He, or maybe she, weighed a ton. In my haste I had forgotten the camera so I yelled to Mame who found the camera but was not too sure of the settings. More shouted instructions from me but a look of concern appeared on the face of the man who had put the snake around my neck. He was worried in case the reptile was disturbed or frightened as he would then constrict. He need not have worried; I have, or thought I had, an affinity with animals.

I felt no constrictions at all, no tightening around the chest. I was wearing my immaculate white tropical suit. I wanted this photograph like no other. The python did not tighten it’s grip but simply relieved itself all over me. Not a very good picture. I could have sworn the python smiled.

Reggie appeared at the hotel the following morning with his driver, dead on time as usual and we were off. One thing you never did was to drive yourself, it wasn’t just the bullock carts, the animals, the bicycles or the people; it was the roads. You were never able to drive in a straight line because of the pot holes, so any journey could be tripled both in time and length. The journey went on and on and on.

“We must be getting there soon,”

said Mame, looking forward to that wonderful evening meal with the comfy beds and relaxing time to follow. The jungle became thicker and thicker, more creepers, less light, with the road petering out into a really doubtful, rutted, overgrown, mud track. At last we came to a clearing, bright sunlight again, paddy fields beautifully laid out.

When you first enter a tea or rubber estate the road runs for miles before you hit any buildings so we wondered how far we would have to go before we saw the farmhouse. How large would it be? Would there be the usual carefully tended gardens? The jeep came to an abrupt halt.

“Now we are arrived, please welcome to my farm,” said Reggie.

“Where is it Reggie?”

“You are right underneath it.” he said

“Underneath it” I queried?

I looked upward. Above me was a tree house built out of galvanized iron sheets, it reminded me of an Anderson shelter gone nuts. Somewhat bemused we climbed a shaky, home made ladder. One large room, four beds with mosquito nets, one wooden table and the air conditioning was two sides open to the elements so that the wind could blow straight through. Not quite as we had imagined it.

“First we must get the food for dinner,” said Reggie. “Can you use a.. .303?”

“Yes, but why?” Having been in the army a. .303 was second nature but why did we need one

“we have to go out to shoot our dinner, there are no shops in the middle of the jungle. We'll bag a few peahen, better than peacock. It will be dark soon, Mame can stay in the jeep with the driver, we'll need someone to shine the headlights on the game.”

So much for the eight course dinner.

“OK Reggie, how many rifles have we got?”

“Just the one but the safety catch is broken. You are the guest of honour so you can have the rifle.”

I gently slid five rounds into the magazine slipping it in to the pocket of my jacket. At that stage I did not want to load the gun. That would have been tricky, not to say somewhat dangerous without a safety catch.

By now it was getting dark; I was getting quizzical looks from Mame so we jumped in the jeep with Reggie bellowing instructions to his driver. Most Sri Lankans are quite small but not Reggie. He must have stood at least six foot four, probably the same around his girth but a really splendid and imperious figure.

“If we can’t find any peahen, we'll try for pig,” said Reggie.

“They are quite easy to shoot, they will charge straight at you so you can get a good shot.”

Pig is actually wild boar with really wicked tusks that can make quite a mess of you if you miss. One rifle with a dickey safety catch. Some relaxing weekend and Mame was looking even more quizzical.

No peahen, no peacock not even pig. Suddenly a small, dark skinned Sri Lankan jumped out in front of the jeep. Wild gesticulating, quickly spoken with Reggie not bothering to translate. We were then surrounded by something like fifty to sixty villagers.

“What's going on Reggie?” queried Mame.

“The villagers have had trouble with some elephants trampling their crops and they want us to frighten them away.” he explained.

“You stay in the jeep with the driver and Peter and I will go with them to see what we can do.”

Maintaining the correct relationships with the villagers was essential. They are the life blood of the estates as they tend the fields and look after the crops, be it paddy (rice), tea, rubber or coconut. By now it was dark, off we set, me with the rifle, Reggie with a torch he had fished out of his glove compartment. We were accompanied by all the villagers in a happy little group around us, some ahead, some behind and some just beside us. We could not have gone more than eight hundred yards or so when, all of a sudden, the villagers were not there. They had dropped behind us, then disappeared.

“Where is everyone Reggie, one minute they were in front of us, now they've vanished.”

“That is because of the elephants.” he said.

Quite strange, I thought, especially as they wanted us to frighten them away. By now it was pitch black, two hundred yards on Reggie motioned me to slow down. Something was right up ahead of me. Slowly my eyes got used to dark. When you see an elephant in a Zoo it's quite large. When you confront one in the wild it seems considerably larger. Especially this one, a huge bull with ears flapping and trunk extended.

I tried to ram a round up the breach, it jammed.

“Shine the bloody torch Reggie.”

Out of the dark a muffled voice exclaimed

“It does not seem to work, the batteries must have failed.”

Eventually I managed to get a round up the breach.

“If it charges, which part do I aim for, is it that little spot in the centre of the forehead?” desperately trying to remember odd things that I had read in my youth.

“Never mind about that fellow in front of you there is an even bigger bugger right beside you.”

In these situations your mind works extremely fast. Nowadays its known as ‘learning on the job’.

“Reggie" I said "if l ever get out of this, I'm going to fire you; what the hell do I do now?”

“Drop your trousers.”

“What do you mean, drop your trousers? I'm in the jungle, right in the middle of a herd of wild elephants and you tell me to drop my trousers!”

“They can run a damn sight faster than you, if you drop your trousers they will go for the garment that has your smell on it but if that does not work then run like hell. Go in a zig zag because although they can run faster than you they cannot turn as quickly.”

Maybe it was that affinity with animals, maybe it was the fact that elephants are very intelligent and realised that we were probably harmless. Maybe they had never encountered an Englishman before. Whatever the reason they very slowly turned and sauntered off across the river. The whole herd disappeared just like the villagers.

One by one the villagers returned, they were ecstatic, we had driven off the elephants, no longer would they destroy the crops. I was not so sure, elephants, like all wild animals they are bent on survival, they do not attack when it is unnecessary. Likewise we would never have taken a shot at them except in an extreme emergency. I reckon they knew that we would not be there all the time and would probably come back later.

We finally made it back to Reggie’s tree house laden with fruit from the villagers. This was a marvellous accompaniment to the baked beans which are always the staple diet when nothing has been shot. Sitting around the table, high in the trees with the chatter of monkeys and the croak of frogs, there was one question still puzzling me.

“Reggie, why did the villagers disappear like that?”

“That is very simple,” he said “it wasn't just that the elephants had ruined their crops, they also killed four of the villagers. The last fellow got drunk and went to sleep on the path used by the elephants. They just trod on him.”.

“He should have known not to do that.” he added.

“Thank you Reggie” said Mame “We will always remember never to sleep where elephants tread!!!”

1955 words

April 16, 2021 17:02

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