The elephant, that most majestic of animals, slowly plods a path to the water. He doesn’t look around, he doesn’t waver, but he is in no rush. He has all evening with no agenda. His immense body is silhouetted against the floodlit water. The wind has picked up and the elephant has no fear: he may see little but he can smell and hear any enemies from miles around. He stands serene by the edge of the water, not drinking, not paddling his toes, but simply enjoying the cool midnight air. The ultimate in zen, he stands and absorbs, the breeze refreshing his taut, wizened skin. He may not do yoga, but he is a master of midnight meditation.
The rhino approaches, faster and more confidently. He too has nothing to fear. Unlike the elephant, he has a more pressing urgency and heads straight for the water’s edge. After drinking his fill, he slowly advances further into the water with a steady but determined stride, until he is almost entirely submerged. He is the old grandfather slowly wading into the water to cool his body and pretend he is swimming.
In the heat of the day, the smaller animals approach. First the dainty springbok, skittering through the scrub, their safety in numbers, head for the edge and drink at length, gradually manoeuvring themselves around the rim of the pool to accommodate the newcomers.
Next, the zebra announce their arrival from afar with the distant drumming of hooves, trotting steadily in a long snaking line, their leader confident that his comrades have his back in case of danger. The leader picks his spot at the water’s edge, and the others mill around him, pushing and shoving as they congregate beside him. Unlike the springbok, they move right into the water, though they don’t stray far from the edge just in case. The zebra are the young twenty-somethings at a summer party – they jostle and tease each other with good-natured bickering, intent on enjoying themselves. Occasionally they emit high-pitched shrieks of impatience and excitement, surely the most unlikely sounding noise to emerge from an ungulate’s mouth.
A sudden noise startles them, and they hustle out of the pool in alarm. As anyone who’s ever tried aqua aerobics knows, trying to run when submerged up to your knees in water is actually quite difficult, so progress is laborious. The frontrunners soon realise that it’s a false alarm, however, and sheepishly come to a halt, pretending that they knew all along there was nothing to fear.
All the while, the crack team of SAS reconnaissance giraffe has been cautiously approaching from afar, each one fifty yards behind the other, as if checking not only for predators but also land mines. Nervously, they eye the skittish behaviour of the zebra and springbok, with a slight air of disdain for their frivolous impetuosity, like mildly disapproving parents watching their children play. Any sign of trouble, however, and they definitely won’t be running to rescue the smaller animals. Every few steps, the giraffe halt and sniff the breeze, turning their heads to check for danger. A game of grandmother’s footsteps with an invisible grandmother.
When the leader reaches the water’s edge, he pauses yet again, for this is the moment of greatest vulnerability when he spreads his legs and bends his neck to drink. He doesn’t entirely trust his comrades to save him, or perhaps as the leader, it is his responsibility alone. The noise of the cavorting zebra will mask any advance audible warning of potential approaching predators, and the lolloping giraffe may be fast runners, but not for the sustained period needed.
An oryx approaches by stealth, and mingles with the springbok – not cavorting with them, but nevertheless using their safety in numbers as a protective shield as he goes to drink, prowling the edge of the pool and enjoying his anonymity.
An impala joins him, similarly alone in the crowd.
Each of the animal species has their place – not only physically around the waterhole, but in the moonlit ritual. Precisely orchestrated and yet simultaneously spontaneous, a majestic military manoeuvre.