How Does an Elephant Talk to a Crocodile?

     CAN an elephant talk to a crocodile? The answer is yes, as I discovered one day while sitting on the patio of our family ‘donor’ home in Kruger Park, South Africa. Previous to that day, I had spent many hours on that patio, under the shade of its huge spreading tree, reading books, watching the wide languid Sabie river flow past, and listening to the sounds of Africa. Crocodiles basked on the opposite shore and elephants and grunting hippos abounded.     Normally, I was out there with my step-son Henry who has since passed away. He and I would talk for hours about every subject under the sun. His curiosity was constant and so was his sense of humor. Invariably, as we sat together overlooking the slow moving Sabie, and I was engrossed in a book, he would break the silence by asking, “How much would I have to pay you to swim across that river?” It was a running joke between us. I would look up and scan the far bank, see a dozen large crocodiles laying like logs and say, “For a dollar I would throw you in the river,” and then the negotiations would begin. Eventually, the negotiations would reach $10 million dollars and the use of a marksman with a high-powered rifle and Henry would question my manhood. But I always wondered how deep the river was.

    One day as I sat on the patio, I found my answer. An elephant came close to the house and began to walk ever so slowly across the seventy-five meter wide river. To my surprise, at its deepest point, the water didn’t even reach his stomach – at most it was about four feet deep. It turned out I wouldn’t have to swim at all! But as I watched, the biggest crocodile I had ever seen surfaced slowly into view and fell in behind the elephant. The croc was a good fifteen feet long and stayed about a body-length away, his speed matching that of his enormous target. What was the croc thinking? Surely he wasn’t stupid enough to attack the elephant! I watched.

     Though he hadn’t turned his head, you could tell by the agitated flapping of his ears that the elephant was immediately aware of the crocodile. But the croc continued to follow. The elephant stopped. The crocodile stopped. The elephant continued. The croc followed. The elephant stopped again and let out a resounding angry trumpet. The croc stopped too but then continued when the elephant resumed his walk. After a few more steps the elephant turned and faced the crocodile. The big croc held his ground. For the next thirty seconds, the elephant proceeded to furiously beat and thrash the water in front of the crocodile with every ounce of his strength. His tusks, head, and trunk churned the water into a boiling white froth, the water leaping high into the air. I stood up and leaned over the wooden rail that separated me from the electric fence that lined our property on the river side, fascinated by this enormous display of power.

     When the elephant was finished, he turned slowly away and continued his patient journey to the far bank. The crocodile, having gotten the message, peeled slowly off and eventually disappeared under the rippling water. Elephants can talk to crocodiles. In fact, they can be quite eloquent. 

     The pictures below were all taken from the patio of the house in Kruger. The second picture is of Kim, my wife, and my step son Henry. The third picture isn’t showing a log in the river, but a crocodile. Despite obvious similarites, hairy chest, prehensile tail, etc., the fourth picture is not of me scampering on the wood railing around the property.

         Reminder: someday soon I will be moving this blog to my official website:  www.jimhaberkorn.com
 
Best regards, 
 
Jim 
 
Zurich    
    
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Back in Zurich

     I’m back in Zurich now after working from South Africa for six weeks. We landed at the Zurich Flughafen about six in the morning after an eleven hour flight where we’d been unexpectedly upgraded by Swiss airlines to Business Class. I do believe the sweetest words in any language are, “Excuse me, sir, you’ve been upgraded” just as you are about to board an airplane for a long flight. After we landed, we left the plane briskly, walked along the moving walkways, took one minute to clear customs, and arrived at baggage claim to find our luggage had already beaten us there. Zurich and Swiss efficiency – you gotta love it!  But I must say that Johannesburg and the new Durban International airport gave Zurich a run for its money in the speedy luggage department this trip. We hardly had to wait at all in either place. 

     Speaking of South Africa: in my last post, I mentioned the shooting of the striking miners at the Lonmin platinum mine north of Johannesburg. Here’s the rest of the story. Things settled down after forty-four people had been killed, and now the miners have tossed out their unions and are negotiating directly with the mine owners. The miners are striking for more pay. They want an increase from 5,500 rand per month to 12,500. Well, it turns out they already are making 11,000 rand per month, but didn’t realize it. Somehow it never registered that money was taken out of their monthly paychecks for taxes, medical insurance, pension, and room and board (apparently they live in dormitories). Sad. Maybe the average miner didn’t realize what their true salaries were, but their leaders certainly did, and now the South African authorities are charging hundreds of the strikers with murder – presumably the leaders – for inciting the miners to attack the police. 

    Final note: South Africa has an unofficial unemployment rate of over 40%. You can’t really see it where we are in the beach community of Umhlanga, but in Durban, or if you move inland into the townships of Ndlovu and Kwamashu, crime is very high and things are very desperate. Young men without jobs have nothing to lose. Without a job they have no prospects of getting married or having a life. In South Africa there is an ironclad tradition among the Zulus of grooms paying a ‘lobola’ to the father of the bride – usually about 11 cows at 4,000 rand per cow – an impossible sum for a man without a job. Hence, crime and desperation are high. 

 
Best regards, 

 
Jim 

Zurich, Switzerland    

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The Price of Corruption

     I’m in South Africa right now and am very worried about the violence at the platinum mines northwest of Johannesburg. You might have read about it in the papers. It looks like the police were attacked by armed, striking miners and then in self-defense fired into the crowd killing thirty people. The miners are striking for higher pay but also there is friction between two unions. There is a new union stealing members from the older union by promising to triple their salary. To make matters worse, the older union is accused of being in collusion with the mining company and deliberately negotiating for lower wages. But perhaps fueling the flames the worst is the growing sense in the country that people are sick and tired of the broken promises and the rich fat cats flaunting their corruptly obtained wealth while the average person continues to live in poverty. 

     While I was here, I took the opportunity to visit an American multi-national company in Johannesburg and found out a little tidbit that relates indirectly to the violence at the mines. Back in the late ‘90s, when Thabo Mbeki was the president of South Africa, the government pushed through a law under the banner of Black Economic Empowerment that required every white company to give 20% of its wealth to black shareholders. Originally, when the powers that be came to this American company, worth about $100 billion at the time, they expected it to turn over $20 billion to people in the South African government. Notice I said ‘turn over to people’ not ‘turn over to the government’. Obviously, this company refused but then negotiated instead to put $millions into a job training program for disadvantaged black people.
     But, for the privilege of continuing to operate in South Africa, many companies did simply hand over stock to ‘people’ in the South African government, and those people and their friends became instant millionaires and in some cases billionaires. They didn’t use the money for job training or low-cost housing. They used the money for huge homes and BMWs for themselves and lavish shopping sprees for their wives in Zurich and London. In the meantime, the average South African black person continued on with 40% unemployment, very high crime, poor housing, and other social inequalities. Oh, and promises, lots of promises from the ANC, the black political party that spearheaded the struggle against the apartheid government. 

     And so now the ANC-led government is shooting strikers, reminiscent of the days when the apartheid government shot down demonstrators during the decades before it turned over power to Nelson Mandela. Will this miners’ strike be the spark that sets the country afire? I sincerely hope not; South Africa is a jewel of a country. But this much inequality is a powder keg waiting to explode.  
 
Best regards,
 
Jim
Umhlanga, South Africa
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The Big Five and Mozambique Spitting Cobras

     One of my favorite books when I was growing up was titled ‘Hunter’. It was written by a man named John Hunter who migrated to Africa from Scotland at the end of the nineteenth century when still a teenager, and spent the rest of his life as a big game hunter and park ranger. He wrote about his life and experiences – many of them harrowing – but also had a chapter on how he ranked the ‘Big Five’ in terms of how dangerous they were to hunt. The Big Five are the elephant, rhino, cape buffalo, lion, and leopard. Before you read on, you might try answering that question yourself: Which of those animals do you think is the most dangerous? I’ll give you his answer at the end of this blog post.  
    In one of his experiences John Hunter was walking through the Ituri forest in the Congo with a group of pygmies when suddenly one of them was spat in the eye by a spitting cobra. The pygmies saved their friend by urinating in his eye, but I digress.
     Well, while on vacation a few days ago in Kruger Park, South Africa we found a spitting cobra in our bathroom! We had no idea what kind of snake it was at the time, but in Africa it’s a good rule of thumb to assume everything that moves can kill you and a good deal of the plants as well. In any case, we blockaded the room so the snake couldn’t get out then called the rangers. It was eleven at night and one of them came over in his flip-flops, looked around for the snake, found it in the bedroom closet, and announced to us with a grave face that it was a Mozambique spitting cobra. Oh joy! They are extremely dangerous, he told us. They can spit accurately from up to ten feet away and after they’ve incapacitated their victims through blindness and pain they then bite it, kill it, and eat it. Note: Just a few days ago in South Africa a five year old girl was bitten by one and she had to have multiple skin grafts (its poison destroys tissue) and will be in the hospital for five weeks.
     Well, as you can imagine, we feel very lucky. And needless to say, for the next week, whenever we entered a room or opened a closet, it was with our eyes averted.
     Now, for the answer to the question: John Hunter ranked the animals exactly the way I listed them above with elephants being the least dangerous and leopards the most. During his lifetime, he had hunted all of them extensively and knew them very well. Elephants were such a big target that it made them hard to miss;  rhinos and buffalos were big and slow, lions were terrifying but would not always press home a charge if they were wounded. He thought leopards were the most dangerous because of their incredible quickness, ability to hide, and plus they do not turn away from a charge once they begin it – for any reason. Side note: The ranger who took away the snake told us he once saw a leopard leap entirely over the electric fence that surrounds the home we stayed at in Kruger. Again: Oh joy!
    Final note: Heard a story while I was at the park about a very old elephant that died a natural death in the park in the 1980s. After the elephant died, elephants came from miles around to walk circles around it and to lay branches on the dead body. Apparently it was a greatly respected leader among multiple elephant clans. How strange! Makes you wonder how much we humans really understand animals.
    If you ever get a chance to visit Kruger Park you should do it. The first time I went there, it felt like Jurassic Park. Now, I’m more used to it, but every day it shows me something I never imagined.
     Next week – something to do with writing. In April I’ll have the opportunity to teach creative writing to a class of New Zealand 7-8th graders. Maybe I’ll write about my preparations for that.
Best regards,
Jim
Umhlanga, South Africa
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South Africa and my Trusty Laptop

     These days everyone is talking about long-term plans. If you don’t have a long-term plan for the economy, the deficit, your life, your retirement, or the war against terror you’re just no fun at a party. With that in mind, I have come up with a long-term plan for my writing career. Here it is: When the time comes, my wife and I plan to retire to Umhlanga, South Africa where we have a charming apartment on the beach, and from there I hope to write, if not the great American novel, then at least one that will keep me and a few others entertained.
     My wife has suggested that I consider moving away from the adventures of Rulon and Yohaba and invent a new character – a black South African police detective who in the process of solving crimes becomes embroiled in the political and economic fabric of South Africa. It’s actually not a bad idea! – for South Africa is a most extraordinary place!
     South Africa defies description. Incredibly beautiful, wild and woolly, democracy with an African beat, almost incomprehensible, on the brink of something – not sure what…perhaps Zimbabwe…hopefully not…perhaps something really special, a rainbow nation, the hope of black Africa…if only…if only.
     Mysteries set in SA would have so many possibilities. First, there is the crime – brutal, unnecessarily violent, random, and all too frequent. Second, the customs – plural wives, muti (witchdoctors) and lebolas (the dowry of cows paid by the husband, usually about ten cows but more if the girl is college educated), the tribal system and the Zulu king. Third, the corruption, the rich black fat cats, soldiers of the revolution who sold out when given the keys to the economy.
     Fourth, the SAP – South African Police – fighting and dying by the hundreds every year, laying their lives on the line for a few hundred dollars per month, many of them knowing that if SA were ever to achieve its goals, it was up to them to hold the line. Fifth, the Africaners, most accepting the new order, but some still bitter. Sixth, the ANC – the African National Congress – Nelson Mandela’s party now threatening to be torn apart by a firebrand named Malema who likes to lead his young followers in singing a song titled, “Shoot the Boer”. Finally, the millions of increasingly dissatisfied poor. Wow! If you couldn’t make a good story out of all of that, well, you don’t deserve to be a thriller writer.
     My next post will be on the movie Master and Commander and how re-watching it has caused me to reflect on the nature of book and movie reviews.
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich
   
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