Uganda: Songs for elephants

The winner of our Travel Writing Competition 2018, Dom discovers that on the outskirts of Queen Elizabeth National Park, nightly symphonies are a novel way of keeping elephants at bay

By Dom Tulett
Published 30 Aug 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 09:53 BST
Uganda: Songs for elephants
Photograph by Getty Images

Nelson plays the drums by firelight. Isaac sits on a tree trunk bench and swings a bell with unending vigour. They carry no tune and I hear no rhythm, but still I join in, screaming my lyric: "Mouse!"

A similar stuttered symphony had kept me awake the previous night at my camp on the fringes of Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park. At breakfast, I asked the waiter, Barnabus, if there had been a party.

"No, sir. That night music was for the elephants, to scare them from the fields."

"Could I see that?"

"If the elephants are there tonight, we will go."

Our torches shine a trail through stony scrub, down to the village of Kikorongo. In the distance, Lake George glimmers under the moonlight, its shoreline marked with dots of golden light. The land around it is dark; safari plains that stretch to a star-lined horizon.

I'm introduced to Nelson. He's farmed this land for 22 years. His tired, bloodshot eyes flick from me to the fields, scanning for movement, as he tells me how months of drought have forced the elephants to extend their range, roaming out of the park in search of food.

I want to help, but have no instrument.

"You can shout," says Nelson.

"What should I shout?"

"Anything to scare the elephants."

We advance across patchwork fields of cassava, sweet potato and corn. The villagers blow whistles, beat sticks together. I see tracks through the dry earth, clumsy and wide, where the plants have been trampled and lost. The tough conditions affect every species — this harvest is more important than most. Nelson resumes his drum beat and I shout the most intimidating cry that comes to mind: "Mouse! Mouse!"

Urgent chatter tells us elephants are close. We increase our tempo, raise our volume. Animal numbers are recovering after rampant poaching in the Idi Amin years; the villagers know large wildlife populations attract tourists, boosting the local economy. They wish no harm on the elephants. Night music is the best deterrent.

Children pass around bunches of tiny bananas. A woman carries a flaming torch, and by its light I can see our audience, their hulking bodies lumbering towards the fields. Nelson ups the intensity of his drumming. Isaac's bell-ringing reaches a frenzy. Whistles and sticks. The chorus swells — accelerando! Forte! "Mouse!"

We stay until dawn drives a wedge under the eastern night and news comes that the elephants have retreated to the park. Nelson shakes my hand. His eyes are brighter now. He laughs as we part, "Goodnight, Mouse."

On my final night at Kikorongo, I hear the night music again. I think of Nelson, his challenges, his solutions, and silently wish him well before drifting off to sleep.

In the morning, I see Barnabus again. "More elephants last night?" I ask.

"No, sir. Last night there were no elephants. They have moved to a different area." He straightens my coffee cup, fills it to the brim and grins. "We had a party to celebrate."

Judges' verdict
Pat Riddell, editor of National Geographic Traveller, said: "Dom's entry stood out for the immediacy of his prose. We're swiftly drawn into the moment with an element of mystery. Dom then deftly maintains a sense of place and the narrative arc without wasting any words. The subject itself is unusual and interesting, and although the story is a simple one, it leaves a lasting impression."

The prize
Courtesy of G Adventures, Dom will join a small group of like-minded travellers to hike through forests and rice paddies, cycle through remote community villages, and experience Thailand's intriguing combination of culture and the great outdoors. As well as kayaking the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea, and discovering white-sand beaches and coral coves perfect for snorkelling, you'll also have a guide on hand to offer the lowdown on the local language and customs. Highlights include cycling around Bangkok, an overnight stay in a raft house and a three-day trek to a rural community. 

Travel Writing Competition 2018 winner, announced in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 


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