The Eye of the Elephant: Life and Death in an African Wilderness

The Eye of the Elephant: Life and Death in an African Wilderness

by Mark Owens

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780395423813
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
Publication date: 09/15/1992
Pages: 320

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CHAPTER 1

Flight to Deception

MARK

Every time that I have gone up in an aeroplane and looking down have realized that I was free of the ground, I have had the consciousness of a great new discovery. "I see," I have thought. "This was the idea. And now I understand everything."

— ISAK DINESEN

Airborne over the kalahari for the first time in years, I felt as though I was meeting an old friend again in some secret corner of the earth known only to the two of us. During our seven years in this vast wilderness, I had got Kalahari sand in my shoes, and civilization with its fine hotels, its restaurants, its hot baths and other conveniences, had not been able to shake it out. The farther north I flew, the farther into the desert. Seeing the familiar pans, the fossil river valleys, the vast, undulating bush savannas with giraffes browsing flat-topped Acacia tortillas trees, I knew I was going back where I belonged. It was early April 1985.

While planning the flight to Botswana, I had been anxious that the sixyear drought might have so changed the Kalahari's features that I would be unable to find our old camp. I was supposed to have met Delia there two days ago, but last-minute problems with the plane in Johannesburg had delayed me. During her long drive into the Kalahari by truck, and even after she reached camp, there was no way to alert her. If I didn't show up soon, she would think I had been forced down somewhere.

Scanning the plane's instruments, my eyes locked onto the gauge for my right tank. Halfway to Deception, its needle was already nudging the red. I was losing fuel — fast. I straightened up in my seat, looked along each wing for any sign of a leak, then checked my carburetor mixture again. Nothing wrong there. Wiping my forearm across my eyes, I tried to stay calm.

My right tank was virtually dry while the left one read completely full, but I had set the fuel selector to draw equally from both. The line from the left tank to the engine must be blocked. If so, I would run out of gas within the next few minutes. I had to land immediately.

I looked out of the window and down 4500 feet. Six years of drought had flayed the Kalahari, the dry, hot winds searing all signs of life until the terrain looked like ground zero at the Nevada nuclear test flats: sterile, forbidding, unfamiliar. I swallowed hard, leaned forward in my seat, and began urgently looking for a place to make a precautionary landing. If I flew on, the engine might quit over bush savanna or woodlands, where a forced landing would end in an outright crash. No one would ever find me.

A perfectly round, brilliantly white salt pan appeared off to the left about fifteen miles away. I banked left and headed straight for it, pulling back the throttle to conserve avgas (aviation gasoline). The gauge for the right tank was now rock solid red, and several times the engine seemed to miss strokes. When the pan was finally below me, I took a breath and began setting up the plane for a landing.

But at 500 feet above the ground I noticed deep animal tracks in the surface. If I put the plane down here, its wheels would sink into the salt and powder. Even if I could find and fix the fuel problem, I would never get airborne again.

It occurred to me that I couldn't be positive that the left tank was blocked until the right one was diy. I would switch to the right tank and deliberately run it out of fuel while circling over the pan. If the engine quit I could land there safely, even if I was not able to take off again.

I circled overhead, waiting for the engine to die. It never did. The left tank began feeding fuel, its gauge slowly drawing down. Later I would learn that the plane's mechanics had cross-connected the lines from the fuel tanks to the fuel selector console. "Right" drew from the left tank; "Left" was drawing from the right. Worse, higher air pressure from a bad vent in the right tank was forcing its avgas into the left tank, bloating it. The excess was being pumped out through a leaky fuel cap on top of the left wing, where I couldn't see it. It took forty precious minutes of flying — and fuel — to figure all this out. Now even if I made a beeline for camp, I might not make it.

And my problems were just beginning. Within five minutes of leaving the pan, I realized I was lost. Nothing below me looked even vaguely familiar. Surely the drought could not have wiped out all my old landmarks. Where were the Khutse Pans, the "mitochondria" pans, the squiggles of fossil river that used to tell me my position in the desert? They were subtle, but four years ago I had known the Kalahari so well from the air that they were like road signs to me. Even though haze had cut my visibility to about two miles, it seemed impossible that I had flown past each of these features without seeing any of them. I tightened my grip on the controls and held my compass heading. Something familiar had to come along.

Forty-five minutes after leaving the pan, I was totally disoriented; and a stiff head wind had reduced my ground speed from 150 mph to 120. It would take even more fuel to get to camp. Desperate to see something — anything — recognizable, I spent precious avgas climbing to 9500 feet, where I hoped I could see farther over the desert. The result was the same. All below me was a whiteout of haze. I had to be miles off course, but which way I couldn't tell. The same mechanics who crossed the fuel lines had put a steel — rather than a nonmagnetic brass — screw in the compass housing. It was off by thirty degrees. But of course I didn't know it at the time.

I fought off the urge to leave my flight path to chase after smudges in the bleak landscape, hoping to find something familiar. I couldn't afford to gamble away the avgas. So I flew on, not daring to look at the gauges anymore.

An hour later I still had no idea where I was — and I knew for certain that I would run out of fuel before reaching camp. I could only hope that I would be near a Bushman village where I could get water, or at least some wild melons, to keep me alive. But I had seen none of the settlements that I knew from years ago. I must be many miles off course.

I switched the radio to 125.5, Botswana's civil air traffic frequency, and picked up the microphone. "Any aircraft listening on this frequency, this is Foxtrot Zulu Sierra. Do you read me?" There was no response. I repeated my sign several times, but the only answer was the hiss of static in my earphones.

I changed to 121.5, the emergency frequency, and called again: "Any aircraft, this is Foxtrot Zulu Sierra. I am lost over the Kalahari somewhere between Gaborone and the northern sector of the Central Reserve. My fuel is critical ... Repeat, fuel critical. Forced landing imminent. Does anyone read me?" No one answered. I suddenly felt as though I were the last survivor of some apocalypse on earth, calling into outer space with a one-in-a-billion chance of being heard and rescued by some intelligence.

My ETA for Deception Valley had come and gone. Still there was only an anonymous void below me. The left fuel gauge was faltering in the red; the right one was completely empty. I flew on, scanning ahead for a place where I could crash land with the least amount of damage to the plane and to myself.

I spotted a hint of white off to the right of my track about thirty degrees. Lake Xau! But as I flew closer, the depression taking shape in the windshield became too round, too white, to be the Lake Xau I remembered. Sure, Xau had been dry for a couple of years, but this looked too small, too much like a permanent salt pan. I couldn't see the lake bed or the Botetile River that flows into it.

If it wasn't Lake Xau, it could be Quelea Pan — in which case I was fifty miles off course to the west, deeper into the desert. It had to be one or the other. If it was Xau, I needed to turn west and fly sixty miles to get to Deception Valley; if it was Quelea, I should head east for fifty-five.

I glanced at my fuel gauges. Now both were dead red. I rolled my wings up and down and the left needle wiggled, but only slightly. There was barely enough avgas in the tank to slop around. I had to find camp or a suitable place to land immediately. I couldn't afford to waste my fuel flying closer to the pan to identify it. If I couldn't make it to camp, I wanted to get as close as possible.

If I turned west and it wasn't Xau, I would fly away from camp into a more remote part of the desert, where my chances of ever being found were nil.

There was no time left for agonizing. I turned the plane.

CHAPTER 2

Home to the Dunes

DELIA

What aimless dreaming! The drone of the plane, the steady sun, the long horizon, had all combined to make me forget for a while that time moved swifter than I.

— BERYL MARKHAM

Scanning the horizon, I wondered again why Mark hadn't flown out to look for me. I was two days late; if he'd made it safely to camp, he would have buzzed me by now. I searched once more for the white plane moving against the blue; but the Kalahari Desert sky, the largest sky on earth, was empty.

Endless, barren plains — the wasted remains of Lake Xau on the edge of the Kalahari — surrounded me. For sue days I had been driving the old Toyota Land Cruiser, burdened with supplies, from Johannesburg, across the Kalahari toward our old camp in Deception Valley.

Mark and I had arranged to meet at camp on April 4, my birthday. If he wasn't there when I arrived, I was to radio to the village of Maun for an aerial search. On the other hand, if I wasn't in camp, he was to fly along the track looking for me. My trip across the tired scrubland had taken much longer than expected. That Mark had not flown to look for me meant only one thing: he had not made it to camp.

The track I was following twisted and turned across the southern tip of the dry lake bed. Driving back and forth, leaning over the steering wheel, I looked for signs of the old track that had for many years led us into the reserve. The plains looked so different now after years of drought; faint tracks wandered off in odd directions and then faded altogether in the dust and drifting sand.

I climbed to the roof of the truck for a better view, squinting against the glare. A hot wind blew steadily across the wasteland. Dust devils skipped and swirled. I couldn't find a trace of the old track; either it had faded from disuse or I was lost.

There was another way into the reserve: I could drive to the top of Kedia Hill and head due west along an old cutline. It was a longer but more certain route. I turned onto the track to the hill and pressed down hard on the accelerator.

As I reached the edge of the plains, I looked back. This was where, only four years ago, a quarter of a million wildebeests had trekked for water — and died. In one day we had counted fifteen thousand dead and watched hundreds of others dying. They had migrated for several hundred miles only to find that their Way to water was blocked by a great fence. For days they had plodded along the barrier until they had come to the lake plain, already overgrazed by too many starving cattle. Now it lay naked, empty, and abused. Not one wildebeest, not one cow, was in sight.

The conflict between domestic stock and wild animals had not been resolved, but we had submitted some ideas to the government that we hoped would benefit both people and wildlife. I was reminded of how much work there was yet to do to conserve the Central Kalahari. I left the plains and headed up Kedia Hill.

Ivory-colored sand, deeper than I had ever seen, was piled high along the track and in places had drifted across the path like powdered snow. The truck's canopy and heavy load of supplies made it top-heavy; it swayed along in the spoor, leaning drunkenly from side to side. I urged it up Kedia's rocky, forested slopes and easily found the old survey track. It had been made in the early '70s by our late friend Bergie Berghoffer, who had once saved us from the desert. I felt as though he was here now, showing me the way with his cutline, which pointed like an arrow straight into the Kalahari.

Several hours later I came to the sign we'd made from wildebeest horns to mark the boundary of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. I stepped out of the truck for a moment to be closer to the fingers of the grass and the face of the wind. Other than the sign there was nothing but weeds and thornscrub, but we had darted the lioness Sassy just over there, under those bushes. As we put the radio collar around her neck, her three small cubs had watched from a few feet away, eyes wide with curiosity. We had known Sassy herself as a cub. If she had survived the drought, the hunters, the poachers, and the ranchers, she would be twelve now, old for a Kalahari lion. "Where are you, Sas?"

I expected Mark to zoom over the truck at any moment. He would drop down low and fly by, the belly of the airplane just above my head — one of his favorite tricks. But there was no sign of the plane.

I drove on, the truck's wheels churning steadily through the deep sand. I was glad to see that the survey ribbons left by the mining prospectors were no longer hanging in the tree. They had been shredded by the sun and blown away by the wind. The Kalahari had won that round.

Seeing fresh brown hyena tracks in the sand, I jumped out and bent down to look at them. They had been made last night by an adult moving east. I was torn between savoring every detail of my return to the Kalahari and rushing on to camp to see about Mark.

An hour later my heart began to race as I reached the crest of East Dune. I scrambled to the truck's roof and squinted under my hand, trying to see if the plane had landed at camp, nearly two miles away on the dry riverbed. The heat waves stretched and pulled the desert into distorted mirages, making it difficult to distinguish images. Even so, the broad white wings would have been visible against the sand — but the plane was not there.

Jumping to the ground, I flung open the door and drove furiously down the sand ridge. Oh God, what do I do? It had all sounded so easy to radio Maun if Mark was not here, but we had not radioed the village in four years. What if the radio didn't work? What if nobody answered?

The truck plowed on. The engine was overheating badly and complained with a deep rumbling noise — too much noise. If something was wrong with the truck, I was in bad trouble. The sound grew louder.

VAARRROOOOOM! A rush of air and thunder roared in from behind me and passed over my head. Instinctively I ducked, looking up. The belly of the plane filled the windshield as Mark skimmed ten feet above the truck. He zoomed down the dune slope and soared south toward camp. Stopping the truck, I leaned my head against the steering wheel with a rush of relief. Then I pounded it with my fists. "Damn! Where has he been? He always roars in at the last second." But I smiled. He was safe, and we were back in the Kalahari. Now I could enjoy my homecoming.

I climbed onto the roof again. I was standing in exactly the same spot from which we had first looked down on Deception Valley eleven years ago. At that time the ancient riverbed had been covered with thick, green grass and majestic herds of gemsbok and springbok. Now, stretching north and south between the dunes, the valley floor looked naked and gray, with only an occasional antelope standing in the heat. Then I noticed the faintest hint of green; only someone who had lived for years in the desert would call it green, but it was there. It had rained a few inches very recently, and the grass was struggling up through the sand. The Kalahari was neither dead nor tired, she was merely waiting for her moment to flower again.

Other people have neighborhoods that they come home to, streets with houses, familiar faces, jobs, and buildings. As I gazed down on Deception Valley, I saw my neighborhood, my home, my job, my identity, my purpose for living. Standing atop East Dune, I was looking down on my life.

Quickly I drove over the dune and across the riverbed. Mark had landed on our old strip and was rushing to greet me as I rounded Acacia Point several hundred yards from camp. I jumped out of the truck and hugged him.

"What happened? Why didn't you buzz me?" I asked.

"I almost didn't make it." Mark looked a little dazed as he recapped his flight. "... so I reached a point when I had to decide to go east or west. I turned west and after a few minutes recognized Hartebeest Pans. At least I knew where I was, but any second the engine was going to quit and it was still ten more minutes to the valley. When I finally landed at camp, I cut the engine and just rolled out of the cockpit onto the ground. It was a few minutes before I could even move." He had drained the tanks and measured the rest of the fuel; less than ten minutes of flying time had remained. I hugged him again and we turned toward the thorny thicket that had been our home. Camp — a lifetime in seven years. We walked back into it.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Eye of the Elephant"
by .
Copyright © 1992 Delia and Mark Owens.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Table of Contents,
Copyright,
Dedication,
Authors' Note,
Principal Characters,
Mpika Districk,
North Luangwa National Park,
PART ONE,
1. Flight to Deception,
2. Home to the Dunes,
3. Against the Wind,
4. Beyond Deception,
PART TWO,
5. Into the Rift,
6. Floods,
7. A Valley of Life,
8. The Heart of the Village,
9. Survivor's Seasons,
10. Eye of the Dragon,
11. The Second Ivory Coast,
12. A Zebra with No Stripes,
13. Chikilinti Juju,
14. The Eagle,
15. Moon Shadow,
16. One Tusk,
17. The Eye of the Storm,
18. Nyama Zamara,
19. Close Encounters,
20. The Last Season,
21. Cherry Bombs,
22. Scouts on the Prowl,
23. Mwamfushi Village,
24. Sharing the Same Season,
Epilogue,
Postscript,
Appendix A,
Appendix B,
Appendix C,
Notes,
Acknowledgments,
Index,
The Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation,
About the Authors,
Footnotes,

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