Africa Part III: The magic of elephants

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]  [Part II: Into the Okavango]

“We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits: empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behavior.” –Graydon Carter

The upside of being on a tour is that they fit as much as they can into your limited days. They also, if you’re lucky, find unique accommodation. Case in point, the bush huts in Ghanzi…and tonight’s stay at Elephant Sands, a rustic-ish bush camp set around a non-fenced watering hole. Botswana, I’m realising, is something of a massive game park. Fences, merely a suggestion. Our room here is a large tent on a raised platform with a birds-eye view of the watering hole and the lodge. The warnings abound as we check in: Do not go down to the watering hole. Do not walk into the bush. Do not walk between the tents (and/or into the bush). Stay on the path, bring a flashlight, do not lock your door (in case someone is running from something with sharp teeth and needs to enter quickly), do not feed the animals (this last one I made up, but I think it goes without saying).

We arrive and there are no fewer than 8 elephants of all sizes at the watering hole. While it seems they are used to people (they’re busy ignoring us, that is), these are still wild animals and we are in their domain. Mutual respect is granted. So it appears this evening, since a broken door on the bus cost us a couple of hours this morning and we’ve arrived too late for the afternoon safari, the game drive has come to us instead of the other way around!

As cool as this is (I can think of no better adjective, sitting here mere metres away from a 3-metre tall beast), it feels somewhat canned. I’ve got no complaints, tho; they are magical to watch. As enormous as these eles are, they are enchantingly silent at the same time. Their feet are padded and look like suede (I see this in close proximity as one of the large bulls near me shuffles his feet). Large looming shadows appear from the bush in the periphery, silently – but heavily – these morph into massive and simultaneously graceful beings, small buildings with proboscis(es?), brimming with personality. Coming and going, socialising at the watering hole, as if nobody is watching. And we do watch, until the African sun drops below the horizon and the stars blaze in the sky. Unfazed, the eles frolic until our bedtime, then one by one return to the bush to do whatever it is they do at night (scientists say they only sleep 2 or 4 hours a day), leaving it to our imaginations what might come overnight.

Alas, all is mostly quiet, save for some wandering antelope and rustling in the bush behind the tent. I wake early and catch the sunrise over the quiet watering hole, hoping to catch sight of an early morning critter or two. Just some hornbills, African starlings and some wading birds make appearances before we’re off to where the animal adventure really begins: a river safari on the Chobe River.


I’ve travelled to some extraordinary places in my life, each special one leaving a bit of itself inside me; and, as I leave, I shed a bit of my old self, like dead skin or bits not-needed anymore, to make room for the new. In no particular order: India. Belize. Sardinia. Saba. Istanbul. Nantucket…

And so, after that first real bush walk, after a glimpse of wild but not-so-wild elephants up close, I realise Botswana has made its way to this list even before I spy my first truly wild elephant. I’m not at all surprised.


The thing you hear about Africa quite often is “the light is amazing.” What they don’t tell you is that “amazing” is an understatement. It’s sparsely-populated here; that, combined with these vast open spaces creates for fantastic-seeming air quality (at least this time of year). The sub-equatorial light is spellbinding as it streams through these clear skies at dusk, pinks and golds against the savannah.

cropped-d72_5247.jpgThis is the point at which the photos – and through them, the animals – begin to do much of the talking, speaking thousands and thousands of words while mostly what is heard is birdsong. In Chobe National Park, late afternoon is the time the elephants migrate towards the river to socialize and play and bathe and eat – in droves. The park contains an estimated 50,000 elephants, possibly the largest concentration of these magical beasts in the world. So, at dusk this day, we see easily 150 elephants on little Sedudu Island, once a hotly-contested piece of marshy land that sits between Botswana and Namibia in the Chobe River, annexed to Chobe National Park after an International Tribunal ruling in The Hague in 1999 (the Botswana flag now proudly flies here). Just downriver from us, four countries (Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia) meet as the river continues towards the Zimbabwe/Zambia border, spilling into the Zambezi River and then over Victoria Falls. It is said that fighting in this part of Namibia kept the elephants on the Botswana side of the river, contributing to the increase in their numbers in Chobe. Now that the fighting has subsided, the elephants are once again roaming into Namibian territory. Botswana has some of the strictest anti-poaching regulations (shoot first, ask questions later) in Africa. Let’s hope the eles fare as well across the border.

20170727_171917My inner elephant is doing backflips as outer-me marvels at the monstrous bulls swishing reeds back and forth to remove sand and stones that grind down their aging teeth. With a child-like grin, I’m watching the elephant families playing and grazing in this safe haven. A matron escorts a pair of calves across the river and then goes back to wait for her mate, making sure the rest of the family crosses in safety. Adolescents frolic in the water, spraying and dunking each other, play-fighting in the shallows. The boat pauses as the rest of the family crosses.

Elephants aside (though I could stay here watching them all day), we observe another of the Big Five, the African cape buffalo, with its silly swooping horns that look a bit like something out of the Flintstones. We see more prehistoric-looking creatures: Nile crocodiles basking in the afternoon sun; hippos frolicking as gracefully as, say, a refrigerator; we even see a chance monitor lizard hunting for its dinner. Along with the hippo warnings, we are cautioned about swimming in these waters: there are thousands of crocs here and even Aquaman has a next-to-zero chance of out-swimming one.

As I internally pinch myself to make sure this is indeed real, I am truly awe-struck at the vibrancy of this place; of the quantity and the quality of wildlife; of the sheer pristine beauty of this scene, the vivid African sun setting over the Chobe River. We haven’t even been inside Chobe National Park yet.

Ancient legend (and Terry Pratchett) tells of the World Elephant, the mighty mythical beast(s) that support the world while riding the back of the World Turtle (hence the saying, “it’s turtles all the way down”)… there is little wonder how the early sages were awe-struck upon seeing these magical animals.

[Stay tuned for the finale: this girl’s first safari, one of the 7 wonders of the natural world, and one last day of epic animal encounters.]

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]  [Part II: Into the Okavango]  [Africa Finale]

Kalahari before the safari

The terrestrial part of the trip starts unexpectedly badly, with a raging migraine and a feeling of “why did I sign up for a tour?” as we meet the others with whom we’ll share a bus and myriad adventures for the next 8 days. I’m in Windhoek, Namibia, the starting point of this bus-and-bush trip across Botswana, travelling with a friend I met on my trip to India. The ghastly first dinner helps the migraine not at all; I hate vomiting in unfamiliar surrounds. But with optimistic hats on, we are determined to make the most of the days and experiences ahead.

 

Doha.

To get to Africa, I’ve first bounced for 9 hours on one continent – Asia – where a long layover afforded me a state-sponsored city tour of the weird city of Doha, an uber-riche oasis in the Arabian desert. Surrounded on 3 sides by the Persian Gulf and one by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, they say, is the richest country in the world. Oil, oil and more oil… Elaborate is the first word that comes to mind of the airport here, as the Adhan (call to prayer) resonates throughout the cavernous modern space. One stop on the city tour is the man-made gated island, The Pearl (called this because oil displaced pearl diving for its #1 industry), for Qatari residents only – the workers are accommodated in single-room worker housing and paid $300/month for labour on the massive amount of construction going on here, least of which is FIFA World Cup 2022. The Pearl, in obnoxious contrast, boasts exquisite waterfront housing and a mini-mall replete with Ferrari and Rolls Royce shops, flanked by Hermès, Gucci and other designer boutiques. Regrettably, we only have 10 minutes at this stop so I won’t even have time to choose the colour of my Ferrari. We don’t get a tour of the worker residences, but we are allowed an hour or so to wander the Souq Wakif, their enormous traditional market where I wend my way to the spice section, past all manner of vendors. A small treat in advance of my 10-hour flight to Windhoek.

 

Welcome to Namibia.

Having spent many long flights beside over- and under-perfumed humans, large and small, awkward and fidgety, I was delighted to be seated next to a charming and adorable bush-pilot-turned-private-jet-captain, returning home after a 3-week globetrotting stint. We struck up conversation immediately; books and travel and world views. Pas mal, as they say.

Still chatting away, we step off the plane and into the silky Namibian air. It has a texture I can’t place; clean and pure as if it has magical properties. The sky is a cloudless, crystalline blue. The temperature, a perfect 20°C; the morning chill lingering for now.

My seat-mate issues my first “Welcome to Namibia.” This is the 2nd stranger from a plane I’ve sat next to (the first was a lovely woman from Joburg on the Boston-to-Doha leg) who’s insisted on connecting on WhatsApp just in case I need help while in their homeland. I think: we don’t do that enough where I’m from. One of the amazing things about solo travel is the ability to remove walls and preconceptions…there is an immediacy about the interactions you have, where the minutiae around what you do for a living and other small talk has no place because the connection and the conversation is time-blocked. There is simply no room for fluff.

20170723_080535-1Now entering Botswana.

On most road trips, one expects to see a smattering (and, alas, the splattering) of animals along the sides of the highway; where I’m from it’s deer or red-tailed hawks or woodchucks. But we’re on the Trans-Kalahari Highway, and as such, in the first 20km of open road we begin to see a troop* of baboons and their infants**. We pass a sounder* of warthogs and their piglets**, some round ground birds (guinea fowl) that I later find out are nicknamed Chobe Chicken; an ostrich, yellow-billed hornbills, iridescent and shiny-breasted starlings…and this is just the small stuff. Note to self, as I gaze out at the Kalahari savannah rolling by the window: this moment is time-blocked as well. Fluff has no place here in the desert.

We cross the border into Botswana with little ado, and each of us receives a condom from the immigration folks; a sobering reminder of the fact that 25% of the adult population here has HIV/AIDS. 18 of us on the bus, and we let that sink in: our collective Western privilege acknowledged.

As we drive towards the bush huts in which we’ll sleep that evening, we begin to see more animals (in no particular order): zebras, giraffes, goats, sable, impala, more ostrich, oryx, dik dik (a very tiny antelope), kudu, lilac breasted roller (a gorgeous little bird), and – at last – an elephant (or twenty). We are not in Kansas anymore, although the terrain is just as flat. We’ve already driven something like 5 hours and I’m just starting to get my head around how big the Kalahari, and Africa, is.

The road to our bush camp is straight and flat; vast swaths of scrub brush as far as the eye can see. We’re on the upper edge of the Kalahari proper, tho the animals are not much aware of boundaries. The low scrub brush is interspersed with dusty green desert trees and random baobabs, their roots seeking moisture in the red earth carpeted in desert grass.

More stats: 84% of Botswana is covered in sand; and the Kalahari Desert comprises about 70% of its land. We’re entering a dry, sparsely-populated area (most of the population lives in or near the capital in the southern part of the country), home to the largest elephant population on the planet. The preview elephants we’ve seen so far have whet my appetite (not literally) for more.

 

Bushmen without a bush.

Our lodging for the night is a cache of bush huts on a tract of the Kalahari. Botswana residents are entitled to land from the government, but with it, they are required to do something of use: tourism, farming, etc., so we see roaming goats, cows, horses along the highway; not unlike India, I think, anything might cross the road at any time.

The camp is a swath of lump-looking pods with doors, each containing a couple of cots. Quaint, pseudo-authentic, rustic. Despite the 25° day, it will be 8 or 9° tonight, but at least we’ll have walls between us and the desert…and it’s too cold for snakes.

Our hosts have set up this mock bush camp to teach tourists about the ways of the bush. It’s sad, I think, that the San People (bushmen) need to put on a tourist show to keep their traditions alive; government regulations have all but made their lifestyle of hunting and gathering obsolete. Their language and way of life will die out within a generation or two. Indigenous people were pushed out of South Africa and more fertile lands towards the arid and impossible Kalahari, and so it is like a slow starvation made possible by Western colonization and modernization.

 

The first activity is a bush walk. It’s more a staged demonstration by a few San People, who have changed into traditional garb and driven in for the show. I feel a bit of a voyeur, watching them practice their gathering skills (hunting is prohibited here). The film The Gods Must Be Crazy was made almost 40 years ago and perhaps foreshadowed their brush with modern society. And as we walk with them along the quiet, dry path, I can’t help but wonder if the land was once teeming with animals. We’re encouraged to ask questions and take photos as a means of remembrance; historical preservation: spread the word lest we be forgotten. I oblige because the images are stunning, but I feel simultaneously patron and rich western foreigner taking advantage of the locals. Isn’t this what got them here in the first place? The day closes out with dinner and more of the San show: traditional singing and dancing by the fire.

Dawn.

As the new day greets us with its 5° chill, I dress quickly in the pitch blackness of a Kalahari morning. The African sun rises without fanfare as if it knows it’s in high demand this day. As quickly as the sun pops over the horizon, we’re on the road just after brekkie to see the Okavango Delta. Visions of Nat Geo specials dance in my head….

[Part II: Into the Okavango!]  [Part III: The magic of elephants]


*The full list of animal collective nouns

**The full list of animal baby names