BUMI HILLS, Zimbabwe — "If the big fellow comes close in the night, you must dial 37 and shout: 'He's outside my door. . . . Come and get me!' "
That's what the receptionist told a British woman as he handed her a room key at this luxurious safari lodge overlooking Lake Kariba in northwestern Zimbabwe.
"What big fellow?" she asked in awe.
The receptionist meant a three-ton bull elephant "who eats the bougainvillea off your veranda." So if you open your door to find yourself looking up a six-foot shaft of ivory, "don't take a step in case he does."
A sign on the bulletin board next to the front desk advises guests: "Walking is not permitted in any areas adjacent to the lodge. Wild animals are dangerous, especially elephant and buffalo. (They're unpredictable.) Both species are resident and frequently encountered on the Bumi Peninsula."
Visitors to Africa do hear of charges by lions, hippos, elephants and the mean black rhinos. But few tourists are endangered on safari if they stay in their vehicles.
In reserves especially, animals are familiar with Land Rovers and cars and don't anticipate harm from them. But even in an open Land Cruiser on a night safari, our guide warned as we passed within 10 feet of a pair of seemingly lethargic, reclining lions: "Don't move or make a sound. They can spring in two seconds if alarmed!"
We were a bit bushy-eyed but Craig Dewar, assistant manager and guide, had urged us the night before, "You've got to go. . . . The whole world comes alive then." Dewar, who had picked us up on the veldt where our small plane from Kariba Airport landed, was talking about the safari that left at dawn.
'At Their Invitation'
"Remember," he said, "we're here at their invitation. If the animals don't want to see us, they don't come out."
But they do come out in the early morning, and at 6:37 a.m. we saw the other reason why Dewar had prodded us to rise at 5:45: a fabulous sunrise over the lake--waterbuck, elephants, duikers and baboons shared Kariba's cool water with guinea fowl, tiny green bee eaters and a lone fish eagle overhead as we drove along the shore.
A harem herd of breeding impalas, one male and about 80 does, wandered easily beside the lake. Elsewhere around the water and along the shore of neighboring Matusadona National Park roamed buffalo, white rhinos, lions, zebra, roan, kudus and eland, largest of the antelope.
The Land Rover, carrying a pair of British Airways flight attendants and us, was chugging over normally submerged red clay at less than 10 m.p.h. Our mustachioed driver/guide, who looked more like an English squire than a bush ranger, pointed to trees 60 feet away uphill. "Those are usually the high water mark," he said, "but the lake hasn't been that high in nearly four years because of the drought that much of Africa has been suffering."
Swinging toward a herd of sable antelope, the guide explained that they were all female with one dominant male antelope that called the tune on where they traveled and slept.
As we approached to within 35 feet, a male impala that was thrashing ("marking") a bush to stake out his territory, snorted, instructing the dozen members of his smaller harem to move on. "You have to be a pretty fit guy to keep that many women under control," commented the guide.
We slowed to photograph a lone bull elephant, the second we'd seen with part of his trunk cut away. Wire traps set by poachers seeking ivory catch and cut off their trunks in traps set for smaller animals. A pair of cattle egrets were flying above this bull waiting for him to flush out insects they could grab.
Slowly moving in on an elephant that was kicking up a dusty fuss and spreading his ears like a hang glider, another group was advised by their guide: "He won't turn the vehicle over if we don't upset him."
Ahead, two lilac-breasted rollers (named for their aerobatics) roamed the sky. Inland, a mopane tree had been bowled over the road. Elephants knock down the trees to eat the tender top leaves. Another tree, a wingpod, blocked us down the trail. Elephants scratch themselves on wingpods and lions sharpen their claws on them.
In the lowest of its 15 gears a Land Rover will go anywhere a tank will go, we sensed, as ours crashed through brush and dodged trees heading into the bush. But at Bumi Hills four wheels are not the only means of travel. Safaris are conducted in canoes, on foot and aboard motorized pontoon boats.
For our water safari we were awarded a quietly puttering pontoon craft that looked like a Huck Finn Mississippi River reject. Guide Andy Webb steered it with his feet, moving a pipe attached to the rudder.