Kichwa Tembo – the head elephant
‘Kichwa Tembo’ is a wonderfully detailed pastel pencil drawing of an elephant’s eye, inspired by One Tusk, the head elephant.
The hyena den was bathed in that slanting sunlight of the golden hour before nightfall, and we felt at peace with life hanging out on the plains of Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya. Our Japanese hire car would talk and sing to us at every opportunity when the keys were engaged, and none of us knew how to mute it, so I had removed them from the ignition and dropped them in my lap. I turned to smile in shared contentment at my partner, Amy in the passenger seat, and to our friend Charlotte in the back.
The noses of little hyena pups flirted with the entrance to the den where mum sat keeping watch. Right behind us were two friends, and about fifty feet beyond their car was a docile bull elephant, minding his own business and becoming ever more silhouetted with each passing moment. This elephant had two tusks. That was a relief. As nice as it was to rejoice in an elephant having all his bits, at this point no rumour of the grumpy ‘One tusk’ had yet been confirmed.
Earlier that day at The Stables diner, we had engaged in a brief conversation with a safari group from Nairobi. They had regaled us with a story of a dangerous encounter with ‘One Tusk’ the elephant on their morning game drive. He had apparently charged at their car. One lady was audibly and theatrically miming the whole incident, waving her hands around with great enthusiasm.
“Beware of the ‘One tusk’, she said. We smiled and parted ways.
Back at the den the hyena pups had now all but emerged. Some were playing while others explored. One was quite persistently bothering mum, but she was patient. The sunlight bounced off her mane and shimmering gold particles were scattered back from whence they came. She was sphinx-like, as she guarded her babies and struggled to adjust her eyes to the changing light.
We had started checking our watches, but we were close enough to base and still had time. On the horizon an elephant appeared, cutting a 90-degree path towards the road up in front of us. Amy’s binoculars caught him in the scopes. As she adjusted the focus, she pulled a face like she was trying to divide 368 by 17.
“I think that elephant has One Tusk”, she said.
Well what do you know!
One Tusk continued walking towards the road, right up until the point that he reached it. Without a smidgen’s hesitation, he turned and started walking down the road directly towards us. Still, a fair distance away, there was no reason to feel alarmed. But he kept coming.
With a swagger fit for Michael Jordan, and keeping a steady pace, he walked on. The sunlight sculpted his face more and more with each step, and he looked glorious. That said, at this point, my mind was already fighting off anxiety ninjas and trying to think of every possible escape route. After all, he had, allegedly, already charged at people today, and it didn’t look as though he had any intention of slowing down.
I looked at the keys on my lap and wondered whether I should start the car, but the only way to go was forward. One Tusk was within ten meters now, and if anything was going to irk him it would be the sound of our talking car! Amy was cool as a cucumber. Unnervingly so. She looked at the keys on my lap and then looked at me, shaking her head, which I acknowledged with a nervous quiver. I put all my faith in her experience of having spent a field season working very closely to wild bull elephants, and just held my breath.
Admittedly, that was not a great idea. My heart was now pumping even faster. One Tusk was only three meters away when he stopped. And he just stood there. Slowly my eyes moved from my lap up to the enormous head of this incredible animal, who was eyeballing us right back. We didn’t dare speak. There was absolutely no question as to who was in charge here.
He stood there for what felt like an eternity, as I considered just how easily he could crush our car, and that a solitary tusk was easily enough to pierce it through, together with its occupants. With the briefest show of dominance, he put some of his immense weight to his left and then veered off to the right. As he walked past, we could pick out every wrinkle of skin.
That moment when you let out a deep breath and smile at the same time. We all had goofy faces as we turned to watch him walk away. Once he had passed both cars, he briefly picked up the pace and ushered the other bull away with such ease that it was clear One Tusk was this boss amongst elephants. He was the head elephant, the ‘Kichwa Tembo’
I hold my hands up to say that I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to hanging with wild animals, and I’m not ashamed of it. I have a very healthy respect that a number of them have the ability to totally destroy me, whether it be by trampling, scratching or death by poison. Unless it’s a dog I’m mostly happy for us to be apart. The reasons I do still get quite close to animals is that they are awesome and most of them won’t just kill you for the sake of it.
Turning on the ignition of our singing car, we drove slowly back to base as dusk formed around us. I smiled broadly as we relived the moment, knowing that the memory of our encounter with One Tusk will remain etched in my mind forever, and was vivid enough to translate into an etching or two of my own once my heartbeat had returned to normal again.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of DSWF.