This is really a recounting of a tale told to me. An amusing tale in its own right, but the real impact came from Ngema’s last word on it … making me realize it wasn’t just any tale but one that could genuinely happen to me if I lacked the balls to be there in the South African bush, which I fervently hoped was not the case.
Ngema was a grizzled-looking Zulu, wrinkling at the eyes, graying at his temples, one of the older and most experienced park rangers in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park (HiP), a Big 5 game park in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa. The rangers aren’t tourist guides; they patrol the park with weapons to deter poachers and apprehend them, even shoot them if necessary.
I came to HiP as a volunteer on a bi-yearly project to count herbivores within the park. The information is used for a variety of park management purposes. Each volunteer walked a different transect each day through the park (using a GPS), typically between six and ten kilometers, and was paired with one armed ranger for their protection from the dangerous animals.
Ngema, and in fact all the Zulus, quizzed us regularly: “Who is the king of the jungle? The lion?”
“No!” we soon learned to reply. “The elephant!” The elephant was the one animal that could thwart a transect. We walked right by lions no problem, dealt with rhinos and buffaloes, but elephants were game changers and could put an early end to a day.
One night after dinner at camp, Ngema came close to the enormous fire pit we were all gathered around. “Ngema wants to tell a story,” another ranger, Tembe, said to the volunteers. Ngema stood in the crackling light and looked directly at the volunteers. The spring solstice braided moonlight into our hair. Rainbirds had called out at sunset, and reports had come in that elephants were moving down the hills toward the river.
Tembe translated Ngema's Zulu into English. The story was about a volunteer he had accompanied several years ago. He acted out the scenes of his story with great animation as he spoke. It took a moment for Tembe to catch up with the translation, so the audience was rapt with suspense waiting to hear what Ngema was doing all crouched down with his hands holding his ankles.
He and the volunteer in his charge had been walking down a transect through the park when the volunteer said he needed to go to the bathroom. Not the peeing kind of bathroom. Ngema said, “OK, go over into those bushes.” But the volunteer was too scared to leave the ranger and go off by himself. So he simply pulled down his pants right there beside Ngema. As the volunteer was doing his business, a large bull elephant suddenly came around the corner of the bushes, trotting directly at them.
“Belago! Belago!” Ngema said to the volunteer. It was a Zulu word we’d all been trained to recognize. “Run!”
At this point in the story, Ngema now stretched out his arms while still crouching near the fire and fell forward on the ground. We laughed at the physical comedy and waited anxiously for the translation.
The volunteer, it turned out, was so frightened that he grabbed Ngema’s ankles and held on to them for dear life.
“Belago! We must run!” Ngema yelled at him.
But the volunteer refused to move, gripped by pitiable fear, and so Ngema tried to run for them both -- the volunteer with his pants down, frozen in a squatting position, hugging Ngema’s calves, expecting him to be able to move with magical strength and alacrity. Ngema reenacted for us his struggle to walk with a half naked man, mid-poop, gripping his legs with every adrenaline-soaked molecule of the poor American's suburban being.
Laughter rang through the clearing in the bush as we all secretly hoped we would be braver than that. Even Tembe giggled, his large white teeth like a half-moon in his face. But Ngema didn’t appear to find his own story terribly amusing. He suddenly straightened up and stood solemn for a moment. We blinked at the abruptness.
Outside the electrified strand of orange wire encircling our camp, another world breached our human thoughts. Two hyenas whooped back and forth, trying to intimidate each other. It was late spring and water was scarce. Just outside the wire, nyala and zebra were gathering at the water hole, breaking small twigs beneath their keratin feet. Somewhere, secretive, the resident leopard watched in silence. A troupe of baboons conducted a silent raid, climbing the ladder to a leak in the camp’s water tower.
Tembe, mimicking Ngema’s mood, now spoke softly, almost reluctantly, his voice barely surmounting the crackling noise of heat prying open wood, while a soft rustling of hoofs, paws, and simian hands filled the night air beyond. He told us that a week later, a field ranger was killed by that same elephant. Ngema then pointed a deliberate finger at each of us seated around the campfire, one by one.
“When I tell you to run,” he said, “you run.”
Read the complete memoir of this volunteer trip, "Walking With African Wildlife."