Tales From The Dark Continent: The Elephant

I have photographed Africa, but no one has photographed Africa like Nick Brandt. His work is breath taking and awe inspiring, it is all of those adjectives people use to describe something exceptional.

About a year and half ago, in August, I was visiting the Open Shutter Gallery in Durango. The day before, I spent nine hours riding in an open air coach behind a steam engine. The train went to Silverton, where it was greeted by a cardboard cutout of Bigfoot. Bigfoot told everyone to eat at Handlebars Food & Saloon, so I did. I had a big plate of rainbow trout, the quintessential mountain fish, and then rode the train back to Durango. It was a long day and, at the end of it, all kinds of black shit, train people call it soot, was stuck in my hair and even after a shower I was still digging it out of my ears. That’s what I was doing while walking around the Open Shutter Gallery: I was digging black shit out of my ear with my pinkie finger. It kept me occupied until I found one of Nick Brandt’s books.

I honestly don’t know how he gets his shots. They seem impossible to execute. He shoots from angles and at proximity to wild animals that can and should eat him alive or trample him flat. Somehow though, he is still with us.

I was looking at Nick Brandt’s book, page after page of miraculous photography, when I had what some would refer to as a spiritual experience. The gallery went away, as did the black shit in my ear, and I was back on the Dark Continent in a time before man. A thundering heard of wildebeests crossed the plains in a seasonal migration and crocodiles waited for thirsty zebras to venture too close to the water. Lions watched the sunset and leopards carried disemboweled antelopes up into trees. Giraffes ate everything they could wrap their tongues around while elephants walked with their families and buried their dead.

I wasn’t expecting all that. It caught me off guard.

I stood in the Open Shutter Gallery and was surrounded by Africa, quite unexpectedly. The Dark Continent was alive and well and I knew that it was better off then, in the time before us. It made me sad: the realization that the Earth was happier once than it is now. My vision was disrupted by a little drop of something that fell into the book, it was followed by another and, well fuck it all, I’m having a breakdown in a public place. I pulled my shades down over my eyes, preferring to look like an asshole than a lunatic who cries over books in art galleries. There were lots of other people there, looking at pretty pictures. The gallery housed the world like flowers growing by candlelight.

There was once a rouge elephant wandering in exile through the Kalahari Desert. It was a bull elephant that just happened to have a book written on it. Wrinkled pages told the story of a long life with a sad ending. In the next to the last chapter, the old bull was excommunicated by it’s family and it strolled through the sand leaving a path of destruction in it’s wake. This is what we were told.

I traveled to South Africa with an American hunter who commissioned me to photograph his safari. We had been working together for years and I wanted to see the world. Some places bring out the worst in people. The beginning of the end was well underway.

All days on the Dark Continent start before dawn. We were 12 hours from the Kalahari Desert and wanted to get there in time to eat dinner, sleep well and start the next day before dawn. We set out at 6:00am, driving across the Dark Continent on the wrong side of road. Sometime around noon, we passed a chicken processioning plant called The Fat Chick, no one else seemed to think it was funny.

A surprising amount of traffic crowded the highway. Our van was new and swift and we flew down the road like a rocket ship, weaving in between the taxis like a mild annoyance. Our Afrikaner hosts informed us that the overstuffed VW buses are referred to as chocolate boxes. We decided then, that it was only appropriate to call our van a cracker box.

The Kalahari Desert is not a very nice place. It’s hot, like Africa hot, and it’s oh such a dry heat.

Our host was called Frickie. He was the outfitter who would host the elephant hunt. Frickie was tall and broad, a perfect Afrikaner specimen. He was loud and drunk and my employer hated him. Frickie cooked our dinner over his stone fire pit and we sat around a huge table trying to look calm.

Most people don’t know that my employer had made a previous trip to The Dark Continent for the purpose of hunting an elephant, but he lost his nerve and came home two days later. He was very worked up this time too and the adoring eyes of his mistress were not making him any calmer. During dinner, Frickie called my employer an American pussy boy and informed him that this was not Disney Land. We were all terrified of Frickie so when my employer stood up and left the table, it was very awkward.

The guest rooms at Frickie’s place looked so adorable, from the outside. Little cottages with thatched roofs were arranged in a semi-circle like a village for African smurfs. It is important not to take anything at face value in a foreign country. At bedtime we discovered that the cottages lacked both air conditioning and windows with screens, forcing all of us soft handed Americans to choose between stifling heat and a very exotic vacation. Decorative little bug nets hung around the beds like a practical joke. The bugs in the Kalahari desert are as big as rodents, fly like army helicopters, and feed on human flesh with such voracity that, in order to survive the darkness, one must sleep fully clothed in a puddle of DEET.

After a sweaty, bug filled night, our crew arose before dawn and discovered that there was no hot water. You would think with temperatures already reaching 100 degrees, that the water would be hot anyway. It wasn’t.

The sun rose and a van full of tired, flea bitten, sweaty Americans, and a few perfectly happy Afrikaners, set out in pursuit of the elephant. After stopping at yet another lodge to trade in our van on a pair of safari jeeps, we raced through the desert, desperate to find the elephant before it crossed the boarder into Botswana. A helicopter and trackers on horseback were sent ahead to scout. The Kalahari Desert is an awfully big place.

I was in charge of still photography which apparently made me expendable. The whole camera crew was relegated to the back of the jeeps, armed with only two hands apiece to hold our gear and keep ourselves from flying out of the vehicle while thorny tree branches whizzed past our heads and great clouds of dust covered our faces and lenses.

I did not want to see an elephant die, I really didn’t. At the last minute it was decided that most of the camera crew would stay on the truck and only one videographer would film the hunt. I was ok with that. Hunting an elephant is dangerous business and hunting one with a Pedersoli 45/70 rifle is akin to throwing snowballs at a school bus. Even the good ole’ boys were worried.

We waited, but not long. Rifle shots rang out, 5 of them, and news came over the radio that it was done.

I will tell you a few things about the last chapter of the elephant’s book, just to prove that I was there. The old man lay on his side and his upturned eye was open and wet. Long lashes stood up in the sun and the eye did not yet realize it was dead. Before the old bull fell, he stepped on a baby snake. There behind the back feet lay a pale ringlet, just the size of a necklace. The snake was belly up and had pink eyes. It wasn’t as squished as you might think because the sand had absorbed most of the impact. The elephant’s head did not happen to fall into the ideal position for the photographs. The great tusks were turned away from the camera but all the men there put together were not strong enough to lift and turn the mighty head. A fork lift was brought out for the task. I suppose my employer felt brave and manly, having taken down the biggest and most dangerous of the Big 5, I imagine he felt that way, but he wasn’t sayin’ much.

After the official photos were completed came the time for moving the carcass back to the tanning sheds. It certainly wasn’t going to move itself. A Ford F-150 pickup weighs 4685 pounds. An African Elephant bull weighs 13,000 pounds. So, you see the problem right? We waited around while a very big truck, with a very big trailer and a crane were sent out to find us. There is no graceful way to pick up and move 13,000 pounds of dead elephant so they just wrapped some chains around the legs and began to hoist. The feet came up and the head fell back. The trunk drew pictures in the sand. The crane engine sounded worried and, when the elephant did finally become airborne, the chains tore into the skin, peeling it from the bones and leaving thick grey flaps to tell us which way the wind blew.

The last page of the elephant’s book said only: The End

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