“I moved forward to the edge of the wall. I needed to get closer. I was now standing between Cleopatra’s tusks. Cleopatra furled her trunk slightly to make space for me, and I leant forward so that I was lying along the base of her trunk with my arms slightly folded on either side of her broad forehead. It was not enough. I turned my head to the side laying my cheek flat against Cleopatra’s forehead, my lips were slightly apart, my hair falling loose. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Cleopatra’s skin was rough and leathery but soft at the same time. It smelled of soil and grass and leaves and the tiny bristles tickled my skin.”
Cleopatra is an elephant and matriarch. The journey is her endeavour to keep her precious family alive against enormous odds.
Even though this is a work of fiction, most of the events described in this book are true. The human characters are also based on real people. It begins with the first cull of elephant in the Luangwa Valley in 1965 and ends in 1994, a tumultuous period for the southern African region. The most tragic event was the demise of the rhino due to commercial poaching. The same people who killed the rhino went on to kill the elephant.
Cleopatra’s story of survival weaves in and out of these events. Amanda Stockdale is an ecologist collecting data for a report which will decide the fate of thousands of elephant, in particular Cleopatra, her favourite. Mwenda Mbao is a traditional hunter turned poacher who cannot reconcile his strong traditional beliefs with the demands of commercial poaching. Ben Phiri is his stepson who has no such qualms. Johnnie Pascoe is Amanda’s friend and protector. He is a professional hunter who dislikes hunting.
Cleopatra’s nine-hundred-mile journey leads her from the South Luangwa National Park, Zambia, to the Kasungu National Park, Malawi, then on to Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe, and finally to the Chobe National Park, Botswana.