Under the sycamore tree
Imagine skin stripped from flesh. Imagine only the muscles and tendons and fascia beneath, sinewy and strong, revealing and raw. For a couple of metres from her roots up, that’s what she reminds me of: a body exposed to its essentials. For years, for decades, for as long as she has been able to withstand their weight, the sycamore tree under which I spend an afternoon has been on the receiving end of the love of elephants. They have rubbed themselves against her, marking their scents and scratching their itches, and peeling her of her outer layers in the process.
She stands, semi-nude, on the Botswanan banks of the waterless Shashe River, overlooking Zimbabwe. We pull up beside her in the early afternoon, her canopy sheltering us from the sun’s force. We hop from the vehicle with ease and I realise that, on only my second day in Botswana, I have already lost the fear that years of travelling in the South African Bushveld has instilled in me. That don’t-even-think-of-leaving-your-car-the-animals-will-eat-you fear. While the danger is no less here (in fact, with the game less familiar with humans, it might be more), the Botswanan approach to the bush is lax, and leaving our Landy to spend an afternoon experiencing this space first-hand feels as immediate as our rubbed-raw tree.
The kids run out onto the riverbed – or rather, the desert disguised as riverbed – and we unpack our picnic. A picnic to end all picnics. Bread, homemade in the fire and still warm, the base of the flat potjie pot it was baked in caked with ash. Camembert and Brie, jars of pickled figs, guacamole and hummus, strawberries and dark chocolate. Wine, gin and tonic with a scoop of granadilla (it turns out I’ve been drinking my G&Ts wrong for years), champagne for kicks.
“Come,” says Alek, calling me over. “Charge your glass, we’re walking to Zimbabwe.”
And we do – almost. All the kids and half the adults. The rest stay behind, their shoes discarded, their chairs slowly sinking into the sand. Two-thirds across, Willem calls it. “We better not go any further, Bob’s got guys patrolling this border and they’ll lock us up no problem.” We wander back, our tracks merging with those of the baboons, buck and other beasts that cross this stretch of no man’s land every day. We marvel at the surreality of the situation. I am all delight.
In the four game drives I go on during my three days in Botswana, the richest reward is not what I do see – elephants of every size, elephants in the distance, elephants right up close, elephants in the dark, lit by the the moon and the edges of spotlights and viewed with bated breath; giraffe in all their awkward elegance; five baby jackal pups; two African wild cats; a civet – but rather what I don’t see. People. Vehicles. None at all.
We are immensely alone. The solitude stuns me.
The camp we sleep in is miles from anywhere and virtually fenceless. What fences it does have are made of old wooden poles and weak wire a child could push over, let alone an elephant of several tonnes. This little collection of thatch huts and an entirely open-skied bathroom has no electricity at all, and has had its share of said elephants walk through it before – lion and hyena, too. We opt for tent over hut, and wake in the late night to the bush’s squawking and screeching and, in the morning, to an unbridled orange glow through the grass.
And, after our afternoon beneath the sycamore, we journey to watch the sunset from the tree closest to my heart: a baobab. One that lives with arms wide open.