The Kruger National Park, which lies less than twenty miles from White River, was known simply as ‘the game reserve’ and often visited. Lesley took us on day-trips into the park, usually in the company of guests from elsewhere who had come to see the reserve, or who needed to be amazed and entertained.
On these trips, I was always impressed by the harshness and scariness of the wild just beyond the windows of the car. Out there one could be eaten, and it was an occasion of great excitement to come upon predators enjoying a kill. The fact that the animals being eaten were almost invariably a lot bigger, faster and stronger than me did not escape my notice. Anything bigger than a bat-eared fox ought to be thought of as dangerous, for all of these animals had devised strategies to cope with living in this ruthless place – they had sharp horns, claws and teeth, hard hoofs, tusks, and a suspicious, aggressive nature. They gazed stolidly at the cars on the dusty roads and chewed their cuds, but I knew that were I to step from the car, I might be gored, kicked, tossed in the air, stomped on or devoured.
Crocodiles in particular seemed, to my timid eye, to concentrate malice in their still bodies, and were scarier than lions. But the scariest of all were the elephants.
Elephants are big. Jumbo, the most famous African elephant of the nineteenth century, whose name has become synonymous with the largest of anything, was acquired in 1865 by the London Zoo from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris (in exchange for a rhinoceros), and grew to a height of eleven feet and four inches, weighing some six point two tons. The elephants of the game reserve had an extra emotional charge not only because of their size but because they were intelligent, as the impressive dome of their skulls reminded me. But although elephants are intelligent, they are not reasonable, for they have no language.
Elephants loved to get drunk on fallen and fermented marula fruit. Then, in their inebriated state, they would cause mayhem in villages, ripping up fences and houses and uprooting or trampling entire fields of mielies. Every now and again, cars that had been damaged by elephants would appear on the forecourt of B and B Motors, the Shell garage in White River. One in par-ticular, a Mini which had been flattened down to a height of about eighteen inches, was much discussed at school. The driver of the car had provoked the elephants by throwing oranges at them, hoping for an action shot. When the irritated elephants approached, he dashed to the car, so the elephants attacked that instead, trampling and sitting on it, turning it over with powerful tusks. The entire event had been witnessed by people in other cars, who had discreetly driven away.
One day Lesley and I took a guest into the park, a Portuguese friend of our neighbours, the Lopes family. She and another woman whom I don’t recall were in the back seat of the Ford Consul, and my mother and I were in front, when we rounded a bend to be confronted by a lone bull elephant whose bulk occupied the entire road. Lesley stopped. The bull charged – bellowing, raising his trumpeting trunk, flapping his enormous ears like maps of Africa, and pounding his tree-trunk feet like a bull tearing up sods. The road was narrow and admitted no turning, so Lesley had to reverse, the slowest gear. At the same time, crisis erupted in the back seat: the guest peed herself in terror, and her companion in the back seat tried to assist her in directing the stream into a Coke bottle. Lesley, glancing forward at the elephant and backward at the road behind her as she strained the car’s gearbox to its maximum, still had the cool to instruct me not to look, and I understood that it was not the elephant she was talking about.