Imagine this. You’ve just spent five days driving through deep sand and dry grass in search of elephants. Scratch that. In Botswana, you’ll find them around every bend in the road. The country is home to more than 130,000. So, you’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands, and as you make your way by car to the next destination, the driver says…’an elephant has been killed in a nearby village, do you want to go see?’ I didn’t. 

The elephant in question had become a nuisance, rampaging through the village, destroying property and putting lives in danger. There was nothing that could be done. I was sad. Elephants already suffer so much at the hands of human kind. But this wasn’t a poacher. It was preservation for the people who live on the edge of the protected lands where elephants thrive.

It was just a few minutes out of our way and the majority wanted to go. So, we went. He parked our van at the edge of a large gathering. People were still arriving. The mood was light. Friends hugged. Kids chased one another, laughing. It was like rolling up to a community picnic. Except for the elephant.

He was hard to see. There were so many people. But as the crowd shifted, a foot became visible. Grey. Rough. Wrinkled. Still. Conservation officers had already removed the tusks to ensure that this elephant didn’t contribute to Africa’s black market ivory trade. But that wasn’t the draw. A regrettable death brought the community together – for meat. 

You’re making an ‘ewww’ face. Trust me. So did I. But that’s why we travel. To see the world through the eyes of the people who inhabit it and open our minds to every experience. It was here that I failed. I was afraid of what I’d see. I was afraid of how I’d feel. I stayed in the van and looked out the window. 

The ones who went were easy to spot. Obviously, tourists. Carrying cameras. And moving together, eyes wide. A man stepped up onto the carcass and raised his arms. The flash of the axe was brief, and then down it came. It was the same scene all around. Not angry. Determined. People passed pieces down the line, filling plastic bags. Off to one side, a toddler sat on a picnic blanket, a length of trunk lying beside her. 

J gestured to his lens. Did they mind? No. He snapped a few pictures. A man turned and sliced off a piece, offering it up. Would anyone like to try? They didn’t. Maybe a step too far. But they stayed. Took it all in. Felt the connection between these people and the environment around them. This elephant was lost, but no part would go to waste. He would be celebrated.

It was quick work. Largely over by the time we left. Men and women walked along the road, carrying bags. They waved. We smiled. And then, we were gone. Back on the highway headed to an airport for a flight across the continent. Over the next two weeks, we’d visit watering holes where lions lounged in the sun, squat on a roadside buying bracelets made of plastic pipe from the Himba, and hike through the dunes to visit scorched remains of trees that died almost seven hundred years ago. 

Africa changed me. It taught me to acknowledge my fears and push through them. To go places where I don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs. To see every way of life as unique. Not right, not wrong. To learn. To get beyond the ‘insta-tractions’ and experience something new. Something real. To really travel.