'Oh my God, did you hear it?" The camp is abuzz, everyone wide-eyed with a mixture of terror and glee.
Something was in our camp last night. Something huge. It was right up next to our tents. It brushed past us, this mountain of wild animal mere centimetres away as we lay breathless and frightened in the dark. There was, without a shadow of a doubt, an elephant in our camp last night.
At least, that's the story. I was oblivious. As a heavy sleeper I was up there in my tent on the roof of the 4WD, pumping out zeds all night, dreaming of African escapades while the excitement was happening in real time around me. These tales of elephantine invaders are coming as a surprise.
Still, I can see from my perch up on the car roof, peering out of the zippered opening of the tent, that crates of food have been knocked over in the camp. Some of our supplies are strewn across the dirt clearing, bits of kitchen equipment and scraps of food. It's just after dawn but everyone's up and talking about the midnight intruder.
"Did you hear it?" one of the campers says. "It was so big!"
"It was going through our food," another says. "I could hear it breathing right beside my tent. So scary."
There's a suspicion that the intruder was Sebastian, a desert elephant that's well known here in Palmwag, in northern Namibia.
We'd spotted him yesterday, marauding through a riverbed next to the campsite, eyeing us dolefully as he munched grass and considered the possibility of maybe munching some more grass.
According to workers in the campsite, Sebastian can be found in that same spot on most days. He's a little cantankerous, but if you stay out of his way then he will generally stay out of yours.
Occasionally, however, he'll come into camp.
This has been our first brush with elephants. In two weeks so far in Namibia we've been yet to spot anything scarier than a zebra. Our 4WD safari has taken us to the south of the country, through desert dunes and seaside towns, and now we're getting off the beaten track up north.
There's nothing around here. Nothing. In one of the world's least populated countries, this is one of its least populated spots.
Palmwag, marked on our map as a town, is nothing more than a lonely service station. It's dusty and dry. People here have that distant look about them, as if nothing much happened here today, and nothing much will happen tomorrow, and that's just fine. Most of the action happens at the servo, where 4WDs pull in to access the only petrol pump for a few hundred kilometres.
This is what we've been craving, this entry into the wild.
This brush with an elephant isn't so much a shock as a confirmation that what we're doing here is serious business by the hardcore explorers that we truly are.
After all, this an adventure. You things like this to happen. Scary things. The sorts of things you can drop into a dinner conversation back home and have everyone shocked at your close encounter of the pachyderm kind.
That's why the fear of the campers this morning is mixed with equal parts glee. It might have been a scary experience, listening to a wild animal just metres away, but it was also kind of awesome.
An elephant! In our camp!
Pretty soon I've raised myself out of bed and am helping with the clean-up. Sebastian obviously spent a while here last night, turning over food containers and searching through supplies.
We've managed to right the camp and get some sausages going by the time one of the campsite staff turns up and we can give him the story of our midnight fright.
He raises his eyebrows. "An elephant? In the camp?"
We all nod, wide-eyed.
The staffer has a quick scout around the area, checking the dirt on the ground, before pushing up the brim of his hat and smiling at us. "I don't think you had an elephant, guys," he says, pointing at a print on the ground.
"Going by the footprints, you had an impala." He winks. "I'm sure it was a large one though, eh?"
Right. So that huge animal thumping through our camp last night was actually a small antelope.
The noise of an elephant breathing beside someone's tent was actually a figment of a keyed-up imagination.
Still, there's no point wasting a great story. As the camp staffer wanders off back to the reception area there's a sort of shared look of understanding between the rest of us crowded around the fire: There was, without a shadow of a doubt, an elephant in our camp last night.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Classic Safari Company.
- FFX Aus