The elephant and the Marabou stork

The breadth of the Zambezi [river], where it runs through the narrow gorge of Kariba, in many places cannot be more than sixty yards – narrower than at any other place I had yet seen. It seemed to have worn a deep channel through the hard rock, through which it rushed with a strong current, full of whirlpools and eddies. From the high water marks, I should think that when in flood the Zambezi must here rise quite twenty feet above its lowest level.

Frederick Courteney Selous 1881

By 1959 the Rhodesians had built a dam across that gorge and the lake that formed behind it became the biggest man-made lake in the world. Many tales and legends have been told about the lake since then and the monsters that inhabit it; tales about the river-god Nyaminyami who was trapped below the wall and spends eternity trying to get past the barrier so he can be reunited with his wife, and tales of the giant fish Vundu, who lurks in the deepest parts of the lake and is big enough to swallow a grown man whole. The truth of it though, is that Nyaminyami is nothing more than an embellished story about a giant python made legend by the superstitious two-toed dagga smoking Tonga while the Vundu is nothing more frightening than a very large species of bottom-feeding catfish.

The Zambezi valley, before the dam was built, teemed with wildlife which had access to the fertile flood plain as well as riverine forest and the wooded hinterland but after the lake was created, all that was available was, in many cases, the wooded, rocky unproductive foothills and hilltops which lacked good grass and soil but suddenly became populated by wild animals – small and large. After the lake had reached capacity in 1963 there was a barren area where nothing would grow between high and low water levels and this made things even more difficult for the animals that had made their way to high ground to escape the floods. It was a worrying time where mass starvation was imminent but in 1967 a miracle occurred; an evergreen grass called Torpedo Grass (Panicum Repens)  began to grow in that band and within a few years was growing in abundance on all the shorelines, particularly in the game-rich Eastern areas. The grass is quite magical in that it can survive underwater for over a year (so is unaffected by the rise and fall of the water level), it reproduces so easily that a small stem broken off and dropped on moist soil will very quickly put out shoots and roots and grow into a new plant. It solved the starvation problem almost overnight and, to this day provides grazing for the herbivores around the lake shores.

In the shallows, which were once hilltops, the petrified remains of Mopane forests protrude from the waters. Their foliage is long gone and the grey skeletons are home to a multitude of creatures; bats, wasps, woodborers, insects and lizards. Cormorants are a common sight, perched on the branches with wet wings spread, and fish eagles build their nests at the tops of the larger sentinels.

Beneath the surface of the lake dwells a predatory fish known as a tigerfish and anglers from all over the world cannot resist the challenge of fishing for this magnificent creature. The introduction, by the northern Rhodesians, of a fresh water sardine known as kapenta, provided a miraculous boon for the predatory fish and guaranteed the species survival as well as providing a reprieve for the herbivorous fish such as tilapia and labeo, which could now thrive in the altered conditions.

(I’m not sure how to do this properly but I’d like to acknowledge Dale Kenmuir, someone whom I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting, and his book “A wilderness Called Kariba” from which I was able to get the FC Selous quote and learn many things about Kariba that I wasn’t previously aware of. If you want to know more about Kariba you can buy this excellent book online. Just click on the link) 

I love the wilderness of kariba and its shores and I was delighted to be invited to go on a fishing trip with my father-in-law (Peter) and brother-in-law (Gary) one December, which is when the story I am about to tell you took place.

The Elephant and the Marabou stork

We drove the 360km from Harare to Kariba and parked at Andora Harbour where Peter’s boat, fully fuelled, was waiting for us, then carried our supplies – enough for four days – down the slipway and stowed them. It didn’t take us long and within an hour we were underway, heading across the lake to the southern side and the Ume river.

The water up the river was high but murky because of recent heavy rains. Sometimes a lot of rain helps the fishing, particularly after the dry season when food such as drowned insects, spiders, worms, slugs and small mammals get washed into the rivers causing the fish to go into a feeding frenzy indiscriminately snapping at anything that floats past them. Sometimes it’s not so helpful though, because the silt makes the water murky and the fish don’t see your bait. We didn’t know what to expect.

We slowly made our way up-stream, hugging the left bank and trying our luck at all sorts of things but mainly bream and tigerfish. We’d chug slowly along, keeping our eyes open for a likely spot then kill the motor and drift up to a dead Mopane tree where I, who sat on the nose of the boat, would tie up. Each time the motor sputtered into silence I was struck by a sense of stillness and tranquillity, accentuated by the slap slap slap of water against the fibreglass hull. While I waited for the fish, which had been scared off by the boat approaching, to return, I’d sit in the warmth of the sun and listen for those familiar sounds that heightened the sensation of being one with this wilderness. The uh uh uh uhhh uuhhhh uhhh uh uh of a bull hippo warning rivals to stay away from his territory or the mournful, haunting cry of a fish eagle were as common out there as the sounds of yapping dogs in the suburbs of Harare but much more comforting. The bark of a baboon in the hills would sometimes carry clearly across the water but always, unceasingly would be the sound of birds, near and far, their cries both loud and soft intermingled in a heavenly chorus.

The fishing was bad. The water was too murky and we’d arrived too late after the rains had started so the fish were engorged as well as blind. We didn’t mind though, simply being out there enjoying each other’s company and the serenity of our surroundings was enough. The situation didn’t improve at all on the opposite bank when, after two days, we turned around and started making our way back towards the mouth of the river and the open water but we were catching enough bream each day for our evening meal so we were content. Each night we would make our way into a bay and, depending on the circumstances, would either tie the nose of the boat to a tree and float, or pull the boat on shore and spent the night aground. When we were settled we’d cook whatever fish we’d caught that day and fall asleep to the sound of the African night coming alive.

So it was that in the late afternoon of our last day we found our way into a huge bay surrounded by low hills on three sides and sheltered by a large island to our east. The river had been quite choppy all day but as we entered the bay we were all struck by the contrasting calm. The water was so still its surface was like a mirror and it was clear and inviting so we killed the motor and drifted while we took turns lowering ourselves off the back of the boat into the cool water then standing on the transom and soaping ourselves down to wash off the filth of the past few days. After I’d bathed I put on a clean pair of shorts and went to sit once again on the front of the boat, relishing the way the slight breeze cooled my wet skin and gave me goosebumps. We pushed our way through a mat of water hyacinth, through the shallows beyond and beached on a short strip of sand beneath a large grassy mound where I jumped to the shore to tie the rope to a big, half-buried log.

I was done with fishing. I made myself comfortable on the bow of the boat and contented myself with basking in the serenity of the setting. Pete and Gary fetched themselves a drink from the cold box, lit up some smokes and settled themselves on the back of the boat to cast into the peaceful waters and talk quietly. Nothing stirred the surface except for, ironically, fish jumping out of the water way out of casting distance as if to mock our earlier failed attempts to catch them and the occasional, very light, puff of a breeze that succeeded in creating a tiny ripple. I watched a Marabou Stork walking slowly up and down the length of the shore on the other side of the bay. He reminded me of an elderly gentleman strolling along a beach with his hands in his pockets, stopping occasionally to bend down and look at something on the ground in front of him then looking up and solemnly resuming the careful measured steps of his mission.

A whisper of something inexplicable caused me to look over my shoulder at the shore and, to my astonishment I saw an elephant cow standing on the crest of the hill not more than twenty metres away. I shouldn’t have been taken aback considering we were invaders in her world but the sight of her still took me by surprise. I held my breath as I watched her lift her trunk and move the flared tip to sniff the air before taking a step and start down the hill towards me. Because Gary and Pete had talked all the time I knew the elephant was aware of our presence and I knew she wouldn’t be alarmed when I quietly said, “Hey guys, look at this”.

They reeled in their lures, ready for a hasty departure if necessary, and the three of us sat quietly watching as this matriarch drew closer and closer and, without hesitating, stepped deliberately over the thick nylon rope I’d tied to the log half an hour before. At that point she was no more than ten metres away from me, close enough for me to smell the dust on her warm body and to count the individual lashes on her one visible eye. She continued for a few more metres then stopped and emitted a low rumble before moving on her way. Moments later another elephant appeared and, without hesitating, followed the path taken by the matriarch, then another and another until, all told, six elephants, comprising four females and two youngsters (one of them very small) had silently walked past us and made their way to the far side of the bay followed by an entourage of egrets. The stork, seemingly put out by the intrusion on his privacy, took to the air and flapped away.

None of us had been lucky enough to be close enough to wild elephants in similar circumstances before so we chatted casually about it and all agreed that it had been a magical moment. Pete and Gary returned to their fishing and I lay back and watched the elephants bathe before peeling away heading off, one at a time, into the trees at the top of the slope.

The larger of the two baby elephants had different ideas though. He told his mother he wasn’t ready to go yet; he wanted to hang out for a little while longer and he told his mother that he was big enough to look after himself. “You head on alone” he said, “and I’ll catch up with you later – when it suits me”.

So off she went and within no time at all her massive grey body disappeared into the dense foliage and the youngster, clearly a little more nervous than he was ready to admit, was left all alone on the shore.

As the small herd was starting to withdraw, old man Marabou had reappeared. He was high up, riding thermals, doing big wide circles, biding his time till peace and quiet returned to his tiny fiefdom. He circled a few more times after mother had left, getting lower and lower with every circuit, waiting for the youngster to leave too but when it became clear that he wasn’t going to, he quietly landed, put his hands in his pockets and resumed his sombre plodding.

The little elephant wasn’t paying attention to the stork; he was too focused on interesting things in his immediate vicinity; a stick here, a clump of grass there, a swish of dust or a sip of water and, all the time he was distracted, old man Marabou plodded closer and closer, minding his own business and just getting on with the serious business of being a scavenger. Old man Marabou was perhaps three feet behind the little elephant and was just leaning forward to pick something up in his beak when the little fellow turned around and saw him. He got such a fright that he screamed in alarm whilst the old undertaker was in turn sufficiently startled to squawk in alarm and flap into the air then land and rattle his bill angrily at the little pachyderm.

The display caused all three of us on the boat to burst out laughing – the sight of the little elephant getting a fright was too funny – but we stopped laughing immediately when mother, who’d obviously been waiting just below the ridge of the hill, (far enough away to give the little guy a sense of being alone but near enough to be useful in a crisis) burst out of the foliage on tip-toes and with her ears spread wide to signal her readiness to fight for her little boy if necessary. She had, naturally I suppose, assumed that it had been us who had caused her youngster’s distress. Fortunately her large brain very quickly took in all the facts as she came racing out of the bush and she could tell immediately that we were too far away to have posed any kind of threat. On the other hand, old man Marabou was still rattling his bill with indignation so she knew the scream had been a false alarm. She stopped her charge and turned towards the lad, who was now as embarrassed as a youngster can be when he’s made a fool of himself but she didn’t laugh at him or scold him; she reached out her trunk and rested it over his shoulder as if to say, “there there, it’s ok. You’re a brave lad”.

Then, they walked together up the slope and disappeared silently into the bush.

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  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading about our beautiful Kariba – very interesting. Also enjoyed the story about the elephant and the Marabou Stork. Very well written. Congrats DB!

    When the elephant cow came so close to the three of you, it must have been pretty frightening and yet, such an awesome experience!

    I’m terrible when it comes to fishing and camping. I hate the wriggly worms and will not touch them.
    I like my luxuries and cannot handle the creepy crawlies!

    1. Firstly I’m glad you enjoyed the story –
      it means a lot to me when someone comments, particularly when the comment is complimentary.

      Secondly, the experience with the cow was more exhilarating than frightening and yes, a totally awesome experience – something I shall never forget.

      Thirdly, you’re very precious aren’t you.

      Hope to see you here again soon.