Tea with elephants

Submitted into Contest #50 in response to: Write a story about a summer afternoon spent in a treehouse.... view prompt



We unpacked the wicker basket containing our thermos flasks, one held our hot drink and the other our own homemade ice cold lemonade, we placed the flasks and our mugs onto the tabletop of the small rustic table of uneven planks set against the wall at the end of the hide. Next to it was a long bench, crudely made but adequately serving the purpose for which it was intended. The long bench extended the full length of the hide facing an expansive open window which also ran the full length of the bench. The window was shoulder height so when sitting on the bench you could lean your arms on the sill of the window and comfortably look out at the panoramic view of the bushveld and the waterhole below. The treehouse was built onto the lower branches of a black ironwood tree which judging by its enormous size was several hundred years old. The spread of the lower branches had enabled the building of a platform around fifteen metres long and on three sides a wall of bamboo had enclosed the hide back and side and for the roof timber poles carried the thatched roof. The entrance to the treehouse hide was from the back with a set of steps zig zagging up to the entrance five metres above ground level.

It was early afternoon and the blonde grass of the bushveld barely moved in the lazy breeze, siesta time in the bush as animals rested in the shade of the trees. A lone hornbill with its bright yellow beak and black and white feathers settled on a branch looking at us quizzically head on one side no doubt waiting to see if we were generous enough to give at a snack. The homemade lemonade was a blessing in the warm heat as we kept our vigilance of the hazy bush around us. Probably a little early for any action just yet.

Our cameras were set and ready on the sill in front of us as we allowed the lazy summer afternoon of the African bush to embrace us. Cicada’s humming, the cooing of turtle doves and hundreds of swifts swooping, diving, and crossing this way and that scooping up their meal as the warm afternoon released small insects into the air. The heat was easing off and down below the tentative and cautious approach of a bachelor herd of impala coming to the waterhole to drink. Two impala sentries’ small tails busy flicking side to side as they faced away from the herd ready to alert the others to any danger whilst they awaited their turn. In the distance a sudden dust cloud as a group of more than 20 feisty Zebra playfully joust with each other as some walked and others trotted to the waterhole for their drink, lining up at the water, necks bent and heads down showing their black and white stripes looking like the keyboard of a piano.

From our grandstand view we now had sight of first one and then more distinctive heads above the height of the distant trees, they amble along, some barely discernible in their brown and tan camouflage as they move in and out of the shadows, stopping now and then to pick fresh shoots from the top of the trees. In time they loom larger as they cautiously approach the waterhole. Two arrive first, the others lingering in the Acacia trees twisting branches with their strong necks as they strip them of succulent leaves. Moving long spindly front legs wider the two arrivals at the waterhole bend their knees pushing their rear legs apart and back for balance and then awkwardly stretch their long necks forward to the water, using their lips as a valve they suck the water into their mouth and by a small miracle of nature they pump the water into their bodies and when raising their heads gravity enables the life giving liquid to enter the stomach.

We poured our tea, green tea laced with honey, and dipped into the box of home-made cookies each choosing our favourite. As we sipped our tea and munched a cookie the cerulean sky was giving way to strokes of yellow and orange as the sun dropped to the horizon casting long shadows across the bushveld, like an artist applying brushstrokes the colours blended and the darker hues emerged turning a flaming red and silhouetting the Mopani trees next to the waterhole. The animals that were there earlier had now all returned to the surrounding bush. In the distance spiralling vultures pointed to a kill and the distant cackling of hyena was carried on the cooling evening breeze.  

As the last traces of red sky folded into darkness movement in the distant shadows, hard to discern at first, the shadows kept the secret for a little longer and then like a mirage emerging soundlessly from the shadows a small family of elephant in single file. The single spotlight at the waterhole providing ambient light. A young calf is in the lead swaggering and waving his trunk this way and that like an excited child going to the beach and anxious to get there first, another calf breaks from the line and runs up beside him, the adults look on in a seemingly paternalistic way as the two calves now run as the waterhole comes into sight, both of them loping and racing to reach the muddy waterhole. They slide into the water on the slippery mud bank and frolic in the water splashing with their trunks that have seemingly taken on a life of their own as they curl and wave from side to side.

From another direction another small herd emerge from the shadows and one can detect a soundless language here as they mingle and move in and out of the light some of them brushing by each other. Another group unfold from the shadows, soon followed by more groups until the waterhole is surrounded by as many as a hundred elephant. There is a cacophony of loud trumpeting and rumbling as the crowding prompts the larger animals to assert their dominance.

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They all drink siphoning up massive quantities of water, some of them squirting water over their backs and others wallowing in the mud. The single source of illumination turns the splashing water into thousands of flying shiny crystals as they catch the light. The joy after a long hot day is palpable as young and old delight in the waterhole as they wallow in the mud and continuously fill themselves with the lifegiving elixir. Sometime later the stillness of the early evening returns only interrupted with soft satisfying rumbling and the sound of splashing water. As if by a silent signal family groups now begin to gather in the shadows younger ones are nudged by the elders as they search for their family group. The rumbling is no more, and the splashing of the water has stopped as the last elephant leaves the water, the only sound now is that of chirping crickets and the croaking of frogs. Some of the groups stand in silence, trunks swinging slowly like a pendulum and giant ears flapping slowly. Others arrange themselves in a single file formation, large adults front and back and small ones tucked in between. They stand like large blocks of granite, seven separate groups around the waterhole waiting and unmoved.

Two young bull elephants silently walk to the hide so that they are at our eye level but prevented from getting too close by the fence protecting the tree house hide. They raise their trunks toward us, they are almost within touching distance, they wave their trunks around in front of us and then up in the air. They stand like this for several minutes looking directly at us, we are not sure what they see as we are in almost complete darkness but we see the folds of wrinkles cascading down their foreheads onto their trunks, their small brown eyes and long lashes set either side of the top of their trunks and as they raise their trunks we can see into their large red mouths. The others behind them are motionless silhouettes. One of the young bulls eventually turns and faces his companion, trunk moving like a giant flexible hose. His companion turns silently and faces the others. There is now movement as the nearest family start to slowly amble in single file toward the surrounding bushveld. As soundlessly as they arrived, they now all depart one group after another, they are so close as they pass by, we can almost touch them. The soft cushioned padded feet give them a soundless exit and soon they are all enclosed behind the curtain of the dark tangled bush. The language of elephants is not fully understood by humans, it is known that elephants can communicate sub sonically over great distances and it is also known that they communicate by touch. That night at the waterhole we experienced an uncanny connection with these magnificent creatures, to our ear they communicated soundlessly, but there was an order and discipline which they all seemed to obey, we didn’t hear them communicate but we felt their language that night in the treehouse hide and the thick silence of the African bush.


(1565 words)

Chris D Holland

July 15, 2020 06:35

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