It was the worst of times and the worst of places. I was in the tropics on the equator mired up to my thighs in impenetrable black mud. It was a rain forest in the rainy season in southern Sumatra and I was tired wet and hungry. But what really concerned me most was that I hadn't taken a single photo of the subjects I'd been assigned to cover. I'd walked thirty kilometres over three days wading through slime and tripping over fallen trees. The area resembled a war zone as much of the forest was being cleared for a government resettlement programme. In time, this land would produce neat rows of crops farmed by hardworking Indonesians escaping the overcrowded island of Java. But now all it offered was fallen trees, mud, erosion and one very disgruntled photographer.
It all began, as these things so often do, with a phone call at three o'clock in the morning from Paris. The fact that the world has been divided up into time zones and that Singapore, where I am based, is up to twelve hours ahead of New York or London, has somehow escaped the notice of most picture editors in the developed world. They often get around this oversight by trying to deny its existence.
"Oh, but it ees only 'hate o'clock 'ear in Paris."
A mumble from me and a curse from my wife who has answered the phone and who is now being strangled by the cord as I pull it to my side of the bed.
"Av you 'eard about ze 'helephants swimming from Sumatra to Java?"
Having woken from a deep sleep I was not really firing on all cylinders, but even with my brain working at a crawl this didn't sound like a sane person at the other end of the line. Java is, after all, separated from Sumatra by a fifty kilometre strait. I knew elephants could swim. I'd covered one who had crossed from Malaysia to Singapore but that was only a short distance and he unfortunately ended up on a live firing island run by the Singapore military and had to be taken back to the mainland on a troop carrier. Elephants swimming to Java was another thing entirely. And besides, I hadn't heard or read anything about this or any other elephant migration. Who was this crazed late night caller?
"I 'ham from SIPA Press in Paris and we would 'lak you to go and shoot ze elephants immediately."
Sure. Anything you say. Just let me get back to sleep. I'll deal with it in the morning.
The next day I would have passed the whole incident off as a bad dream except for the hastily written note I had scribbled that mentioned elephants but nothing else readable. A few phone calls later revealed a local Indonesian story about a military co-ordinated effort to move a herd of elephants who had been terrorising some new settlers in southern Sumatra. It was, after all, their rain forest until it was cut down to make way for new farms, so they figured any crops or food they found rightly belonged to them. The new owners objected to these two ton visitors walking over their fields and sometimes over their new homes, so the government had sent in a special task force to round them up and move them on to a reserve.
I envisioned the whole thing as a bunch of soldiers leading an elephant drive in jeeps, rounding up stragglers and roping babies, much the same way as Ben Cartwright would have done with cattle on his property in Bonanza. An elephant drive. Nothing to it. A day to fly in, a day or two to take the photos, and a day to get back to Singapore. Four days tops.
Four days turned out to be the travel time I needed to get in and out of the place. I'd overlooked the rain forest. It was vast, difficult to penetrate and certainly not near a major airport. No problem, I thought. Asia's my beat. I'll call friends, work contacts and somehow figure it out. It took three airplanes, each progressively smaller, to get to the town where I boarded a river boat, not unlike a dilapidated version of the African Queen, that finally chugged and belched its way up a river for 14 hours to get to the settlement. Forty eight sleepless hours after I left Singapore I finally arrived. Or at least I was told I had arrived because I didn't see anything that came even remotely close to my definition of a 'settlement'.
The boat had pulled up to a wooden shed, which I was later to find out was the local police post and military command centre. That was the 'settlement'. The new farmers in the transmigration program were out clearing their fields, burning tree stumps and living in hastily put together shacks that certainly didn't seem elephant proof. I was the second photographer to arrive. The first one had come two weeks earlier, had got his photos, sent them to Time magazine or wherever and was now probably sitting with a gin and tonic at the Foreign Correspondent's Club in Hong Kong for all I knew.
"Where were the elephants?" I was told they were spotted about a week ago when the other photographer was here, but had since gone deeper into the jungle and had not been seen since. They might be back in a week or two but the military who had been using a helicopter to spot them couldn't quite locate them at the moment either. A week or two!
"What about accommodation?" I was shown to a supply hut with no beds and old rice sacks for sheets. The roof leaked too.
"Food?" If I travelled another kilometre upriver there was a store. The only thing was that all they had to eat were instant noodles. This was certainly the frontier of civilisation and it was beginning to resemble Bonanza all right - but before Ben and the boys had built the Ponderosa.
Then it began to rain. Rain in the tropics is definitely not the little drops that playfully 'keep falling on your head' or that you click up your heals to and start singing and dancing in. It's great big power shower buckets of water coming down fast and furious. It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does, it makes up for all the other dry months of the year. People build their houses on stilts and stay indoors just to survive.
But I had come to 'shoot ze elephants' so for the next three days I plunged into the black mud, followed up rumours, went out with military trackers, pleaded with the commander to take me up in their helicopter and finally just couldn't stand it any longer. I'm not sure if it was the constant diet of instant noodles or sleeping in the rice sacks or the fact that all of my clothes were always wet that finally got to me. Perhaps it was the thought that I could keep on like this for three more weeks and not see the elephants that finally did it.
It hurts to admit failure as a photographer because I pride myself on getting the job done, no matter what it takes. I'm also painfully aware that I'm always judged on my last assignment but in this case I hadn't even taken a single photo. My patience and my guarantee had run out though, and I rationalised that perhaps one failure wouldn't sink my career, so I made the two day journey back to Singapore and sent my excuses and apologies to Sipa in Paris.
Six weeks later at 2.30 in the morning the call came again.
"Zay are back."
"Who is back and who is this?"
"Ze elephants have been spotted and zay are really being rounded up zis time."
I didn't want to mention that I hated the place, loathed the terrible journey there and feared the rain, the hunger and the lack of sleep. I'd failed the first time so this was a matter of pride and honour. I had to go back although it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. Besides, perhaps I could redeem myself with a big coverage in major magazines all around the world. I would endure this for fame and the benefit of humanity - but certainly not because I wanted to.
This time Paris got it right. After the two day journey in, I was surprised to see a new military command post complete with maps and coloured pins and running the operation was a strutting, moustached colonel packing a sidearm. I headed for my supply shed accommodation and found two other photographers cleaning their equipment. I was grateful to find companions but also a little worried that I now had competition. What was more unnerving though was that neither of them had yet to see the elephants. I was assured that the military were slowly moving the elephants towards us and if nothing else, at least the rain had ceased.
It was on the second day in the jungle that I finally came face to face with my subject. We'd walked a long way with an Indonesian tracker and although we were exhausted we'd kept going partly because we were scared and excited about coming across a wild elephant in the jungle and partly because we were three photographers who eyed each other warily and didn't want to show a lack of resolve in front of each other.
We were crashing through the undergrowth trying to keep up with the tracker when we heard what sounded like an elephant in anguish. A few minutes later, not fifty metres from us was an injured and angry elephant. He'd hurt himself on the drive through the forest and had lagged behind the rest of the herd. This was our elephant! Our story! After all the deprivation and sweat we all fired off a dozen unusable frames just to relieve our tension.
The wound to the elephant was an unexpected bonus. We could imagine the headline. "Heartless Military Pushes Endangered Species To The Breaking Point." We all wanted close-ups, and like city boys approaching an elephant in a zoo, we crept up closer and closer, hoping for that perfect shot. The elephant eyed us warily until we crossed an invisible line that caused him to bellow out in anger.
I froze. The elephant, like many other subjects before him didn't especially like nosey, intruding photographers. Unlike others, he intended to do something about it. He was as big as a small house but he knew this was his territory and he could move through it at will.
When the charge came I remember marvelling at how easily he could smash and crush small trees that got in his way. I had about two seconds to register this Wild Kingdom factoid before panic, adrenaline and fear sent me and the others running so quickly that we didn't look back for about five hundred metres. When we did, we realised the elephant had probably run only twenty metres in a typical mock charge but we were so happy to be alive and out of danger we didn't care. We were city boys who had encountered an injured and angry wild elephant and had lived to tell the tale!
When the actual round-up of the elephants came several days later it had all the elements of an epic war movie. The exhausted herd had been forced to move ten kilometres a day by the military who used a comical combination of techniques to get them to move in the right direction. The critical photo op would come when they had to be manoeuvred thorough an open space between two settlements allowing us to get our shots of the military and elephants together without them both being obscured by trees. The operation was carefully planned and we took up high positions on sawn off tree stumps, each vying for the best stump in the tradition of competing photographers covering a presidential press conference.
Having stubbornly maintained my position for about an hour on what I thought was the ideal tree stump, the silence of the forest was finally shattered by chain saws. Lots of them. Then gun shots. The military master plan was to force the elephants forward with noise. With the sound of a hundred loggers and a platoon of men firing their weapons in the air the elephants lumbered into the open, annoyed by all the commotion and proceeded to walk through at their own pace. They were buzzed by thwacking helicopters as the full "Apocalypse Now" scenario unfolded. Out of the jungle came the loggers brandishing their chain saws and the military firing their rounds into the air. The colonel in command even got into the spirit of things by taking out his sidearm and firing off a few pistol shots in a display of macho man over beast.
And then the elephants lumbered back in to the jungle on the other side and everything went silent again except for a few persistent chain saws in the distance.
We raced back to civilisation to get our photos to our respective publications, hoping that the pictures would make the cover and our careers. I'm not sure if it was fast breaking news or just that the photos were an anticlimax to the whole story, but in the end, my pictures and as far as I know those of the two other photographers, never ran.
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