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Sarah Britten

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

4 Elephants and 5 Litres of Petrol (Part III)

We explain our situation. He nods, says he’ll organize 5 litres of petrol from the farm on the other side of the road. A warm and pleasant sensation of relief wells up from my solar plexus. Oh glory be, I made the right decision. I was stupid and didn’t pay attention when I should have, but yet again I’ve been lucky. (My ex-husband always used to complain that despite my carelessness and lack of organization, I always got away with it. For a moment or two I hear an echo of his voice, lecturing me on my sloppiness and bemoaning the fact that, yet again, I have failed to learn my lesson.)

Kevin calls the others to tell them we’ve managed to get help after all. Our rescuer explains that he is one of the managers here. Joburg boy, worked in the bush all his life, he says. He’s chatty in that way that white South African men of a certain age are chatty, affability layered over aggression. He tells us that the farm is 6,000 hectares and home to a herd of elephants rescued from the North-West. He likens the tame elephants being ridden trunk to tail by their mahouts to dolphins kept in captivity. “It’s not ideal,” he says, but this kind of thing is necessary to educate the public. We learn that he’s very opposed to elephant culling. I decide to keep my opinions on the issue to myself.

Kevin flicks his cigarette butt to the ground. “No,” says Clint Eastwood, and bends down to pick it up. “Do you know that it will take 20 years for this to biodegrade?” he says evenly, holding up the offending item. Kevin apologises. I’m pleased that he’s been picked out: the incontinence of smokers, their casual thoughtlessness, is one of my pet hates.

It turns out that not only are there tame elephants, there’s also a Bengal tiger breeding programme. The Bengal tiger will be extinct in the wild by the end of 2010, says our rescuer – a thought, that this is an exaggeration, it’s more like 2015, flickers through my mind – and so these tigers are being bred to deepen the gene pool, with the ultimate aim of releasing them into the wild. “Carte Blanche was here this week,” he says. They breed lions too. Oh really? I say. Lion breeding is another of my pet hates. No, these are pure Kalaharis, he explains, whose genes are tracked through a studbook. Not like other lions, which have been bred for canned hunting.

This is all quite fascinating, and I am thrilled to have found this place. The irony is striking: if I hadn’t neglected to put in petrol in Grahamstown, we would never have landed up here, having a mini adventure. Ever the journalist, Kevin asks if he can quote our rescuer, but he shakes his head. He is adamant: he will say nothing officially. I’m aware again of the lark, the sweet notes of its call thin in the afternoon breeze. In the distance, the elephant convoy floats over the horizon.

The 5 litres of petrol arrives. Kevin hoists up the container and begins to pour it into the Jazz. Half of the petrol ends up soaking into the Eastern Cape soil until Clint Eastwood comes up with a solution involving a 500ml plastic Coke bottle, which he uses as a funnel. The precious liquid gurgles into the depths. “It’ll be enough to get you to Colchester,” he says.

Finally, we are ready to leave. At this rate we’ll make the function at the Walmer Park Exclusive Books – just. We say our thank yous, offering assurances that we’ll tell everyone about this place, we’ll spread the word. I ask Clint Eastwood his name. “Uh, Steve,” he says, reluctantly, as if the word is being forced from him, and I wonder whether he isn’t using a pseudonym. I hand him one of my business cards. On the back is a painting of a Bateleur eagle, my favourite bird. “It’s called the short-tailed snake eagle now,” he says.
“Terathopius ecaudatus,” I recite. “The Bateleur. They can’t call it anything else.”

The Bateleur: French for acrobat, and described in 1781 by Francois Le Vaillant who first spotted it at the Keurbooms River Mouth some 200km from here, just outside Plett. Le Vaillant named the eagle for its characteristic flight, rocking from side to side like a trapeze artist balancing on a wire. The balancing act with the possibility of immanent disaster, something I have come to know well over these past couple of years. I’ve been performing a version of it all afternoon. For sure, there have been tense moments – but I haven’t fallen, and it looks like, once again, I will reach the other side, after all.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    December 23rd, 2010 @00:38 #

    At last! Have been waiting to hear how this adventure worked out. I cannot bear that our greedy stupid race has knocked the Bengal tiger on the head, though.


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