It was Philipp’s idea; take her to the park, show her a good time; she more than deserves it, man. I liked his idea. We could both take her out with us, split the costs. She did a lot for both of us after all. For everyone in the place, really.
What I wasn’t really sure about though, was whether she would like the idea; whether she would say yes. But what the hell, I thought. “Next time I see her, I’ll ask.” I said, before adding “I think we have to ask Piet if she can come with us too. He is the driver, after all.”
She was a tough little lady; a cancer survivor, one hell of a cleaner, a woman, an HIV positive; Kalape had been through it all. At first glance she looked around 60, maybe even mid-fifties on a good day — when she worked the veggie garden under the brilliant African sun and laughed her booming, crackling laughter readily, as if everything was right in the world, or at least in hers —.
On a lesser day though, her dark charcoal skin looked dusted and ancient on her, the tendons stretching and pulling under the layers of a burdened life. But even on those grey days, she had this thing — like an aura — about her which made you believe she could make it through almost anything. As if life herself had tired of battling her and granted her — grudgingly — the secret to immortality.
She came dressed for the occasion. A colorful skirt with the patterns and symbols of a thousand ancient tribes, a matching headwear woven tight around her forehead, and a smile more radiant than ever. She had never been to a National Park, but she knew a lot of the animals, in her native Zulu at least. Izimpala was an impala, umgankla a kudu and that tall one an indlulamithi or a giraffe.
The look on her face as we drove past the bold male nyalas and skittish baby impalas was that of a woman who was seeing things she knew existed but had never thought she would nor felt the urge to see.
“How are you liking it, Kalape?” We would ask her and she would throw her hands up in the air, chattering excitedly in a mix of English and Zulu.
Late in the afternoon, as we weaved through the sleepy acacia trees and thorn bush, a low, deep rumbling suddenly shook the world and pulled us out of our reverie. Branches buckled and cracked, the brush hissed and shivered, and an aged, magnificent bull elephant emerged — seemingly out of nowhere — on the dirt road right before us.
For a long few moments, it stood with his back to us, absorbed in a world accessible only to him. Kalape was beside herself, clearly shaken. Then the behemoth turned, as if he had had a sudden change of mind, and lifted its trunk, sniffing the hot air.
Kalape let out a small shriek, covering her mouth. I whipped out my camera and leaned out of the window. He flared his ears. Kalape looked at Piet as if asking him to save us all. I zoomed in on the old beast as he kicked a cloud of dust carelessly and swung his massive head sideways. Time to retreat. Piet shoved the gear stick to reverse and we began to back off.
We all sat silent for a while, still in awe of what we had just witnessed. But there had been something exceptionally warm, — almost reassuring — about Kalape’s raw reaction. It was reassuring because it reminded me that the African elephant — or perhaps the African bush itself — had that same magical effect on a tough South African woman, who had seen more than her fair share of life, as the rest of us.
It had been reassuring because Kalape, for a moment, had been all that humanity used to once be; fearful, respectful, and fully alive in the presence of that most astounding of sights; life itself.