I just got back from an awesome trip to Southern Africa – touring Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. Several friends have asked me to describe the highlights of our adventure. This is problematic. I’m sure it will take me many days, weeks, even months to process all that I saw, heard, smelled, touched and learned over the twenty-one days I spent with my spouse, twelve fellow travelers, one Zimbabwean guide, several local on-the-ground guides and the staff in four bush camps, two villages and three cities on the African continent. And yet, there are moments that return to me again and again, especially those words I heard myself say in the in the middle of the bush which I know I will never repeat here in Seattle. For example, “Are you awake? Do you hear that elephant ripping the bark off the tree RIGHT OUTSIDE OUR WINDOW?” Or, “Maybe we should not move any closer to those two leopards!” And, possibly my favorite, “Could you please light the elephant dung?”
So I’ll start with the Elephants. Elephants were definitely a highlight — we saw huge numbers of them during our twelve days in the bush. This is not surprising since, according to our guide, 50,000-65,000 elephants live in each of the countries we visited. And elephants are extremely powerful — not much gets in their way. Just outside of Chobe National Park in Botswana, we saw a ten foot high brick fence knocked down in several places where elephants walked in and out again during their foraging. Turns out elephants not only eat the fresh shoots and leaves off of trees, they eat whole branches, strip the bark off the tree trunks (like the guy outside our cabin that night) and sometimes knock over entire trees in order to reach the new leaves higher up. We saw areas of the bush that looked like there’d been a fire, or a clear cut. Instead, the landscape had simply been devastated by relentless elephant grazing.So it was with this knowledge that I lie awake that night wondering just when the large elephant outside my window was going to move on. Don’t elephants sleep? And please, may he choose to walk around my cabin and not through it. The next morning I asked the camp manager whether elephants ever destroyed the cabins or tents. She smiled and said “No. Space and respect — if you give the animals those things, they will do the same.” Okay. I tried to hold onto that thought when I fell asleep the next night listening for the swishing sound of elephant trunks sweeping the ground nearby. And I remembered that comment too when we came uncomfortably close to elephants on game drives. Were we too close? But I learned to watch our guides. If they were calm, there was nothing to worry about.
Only once did our guide switch from cool composure to swift action. We were out on a late afternoon game drive when we spotted a parade of elephants crossing the road in front of us, something that we’d encountered many times. We never tired of watching them so our guide cut the engine and we all reached for our cameras. But the parade had stopped and we weren’t sure why until we noticed a large female elephant who’d crossed in front of us stop and look back across the road where a young elephant stood still, apparently scared that we had gotten between her and her mother. Baby let out a cry and in response the mother let out a hair-raising bellow, ears flapping and feet stomping. Our guide gunned the engine and sped off just as the large elephant charged across the road toward her young one in the spot where our land rover had been seconds before. Whew.
We saw herds of elephants in the Okavango Delta swimming across a river from an island to the mainland where they would spend the night. We watched more than fifty elephants drinking and splashing in a large watering hole at sundown. We were frequently surprised by parades of elephants popping out of the bush where it seemed impossible for such giant creatures to stay so well hidden in the camouflage of their surroundings. And, another favorite, we watched as elephants drank from the small plunge pool at our camp in Hwange, Zimbabwe. At our camp in Zambia, we were told to be aware that an elephant might be attracted to our shower – roofless as it was in that spot. And that if we saw a trunk reaching toward the water, we should simply turn off the shower and back out of the stall. You can bet I showered with one eye open after that.
When, toward the end of our trip, we had an opportunity to really get up close and personal with the “gentle giants,” riding a trained elephant on a brief safari through the bush outside of Victoria Falls, we had a great time. Our elephant, a thirteen year old male named Decca, was quiet and slow, walking in a parade with the other elephants in his group, as we sat in the saddle behind the trainer and learned that the first elephants here had been rescued from some disaster – a fire I believe. Park service animal rescuers took them in, fed them and then tried to release them into the wild. But they kept coming back. Since it takes a lot of resources to feed and protect these animals, they decided to train them and charge tourists for rides. The elephants roam free during the day in the bush where they forage for food but at night they are brought in behind an electrified fence to keep them safe from predators. Along the trail, from high atop the elephant, we saw warthogs, impala and a variety of birds. Once we got back to the camp, we were given special elephant cookies, filled with protein and vitamins, to offer Decca by the handful. His vacuum-like trunk tickled my palm as he sucked up the cookies with gusto. He didn’t mind me patting his tough bristly hide or petting the soft, velvety skin behind his enormous ears. Lovely.
Did you know that elephant dung is a useful source of food for other animals in the bush? Baboons and birds pick through the mounds searching for seeds to eat. As our guide told us more than once, “Nothing is wasted in Africa. Everything is used again and again.” In Zambia, where we were told we would come to know the tsetse fly (and we did), we also discovered another excellent use for elephant dung. There, the land rovers have something like cup holders mounted to the front of the vehicle, just next to the windshield. Turns out, when the tsetse flies are really bad – late in the morning and through the heat of the day – the guides would stop, pick up a hunk of elephant dung, place it in the dung holders and light it. The smoke keeps the flies away and the tourists happy. It seemed fairly disgusting at first but after a while, given the choice of biting tsetse flies or smoky elephant dung, I chose elephant dung every time. Which brings me to the title of this post: “Please light the elephant dung” was something I heard myself say more than once in Zambia. Our guide would laugh and warn that tourists have been known to become addicted to elephant dung. But not to worry, he said. If we found ourselves needing it when back in the U.S., we could just write and ask him to send some along—the supply will never run out. I haven’t sent a written request yet, but I do miss the sights and smells of Africa already.