It wasn’t an empty threat.
Most of my friends know that I fell in love with the elephant when I lived in Kenya several years ago, and I’ve been promising to tell elephant stories since our return from the big safari last summer.
While we went to do other things, I’m not shy about admitting that my focus was on the elephant. My friend Jerry is a serious bird watcher, and Kenya is reputed to be the best country in all of Africa for bird-watching, so Jerry was a happy man. Andrew is known among his Africa friends as Bwana Punda milia, since the zebra is his favorite African animal (Charles is Bwana Simba, for the same reason). And, as reported here some months ago, I’m called Bwana Tembo, after a barely – but sweetly – mentioned character in Isak Denison’s Out of Africa.
So it goes. And as you can imagine, there are lots of elephant (bird) (zebra) (lion) stories, and I would be writing too much if I tried to tell them all. And others on the safari all have their own stories – and favorite animals – so while there will probably be more elephant stories, I’m happy to start with this one.
Among our more exciting adventures was our safari into Tsavo East, one of the largest of the national parks in Kenya and one of two or three most hospitable for the elephant. As a result, Tsavo East is managed by Kenya’s National Wildlife Service to ensure that visitors get to spend as much time as they like with the animals, and especially with elephants (spend time, that is, from a distance – these are animals in the wild).
As it was not too long after the birthing season when we were at Tsavo East, there were plenty of large elephant families wandering about, both in the forest and along the open fields.
Our lodge, the Voi Safari Lodge, was beautifully positioned high on a hill, and we could look down on the savannah and see the elephants. We were amazed at the spectacle, both from our room in the lodge and from the dining room. On arrival in our room, about noon, I stepped out on the balcony and looked down and couldn’t believe the number of elephants. The savannah was huge, with forest very far away (several miles across from us), and elephants were everywhere. Just for fun, I started counting and quit when I got to 140! Amazing!
Being on such a high spot, overlooking so much space, the developers of the lodge had created a path (pretty steep, but with secure railings) and guests can walk down toward the elephant water hole. About half-way down, there’s a sign posted, urging – in several languages – silence, as the wild animals would be frightened from too much human noise. Next to the sign you enter through a gate in a concrete wall and proceed down a solid stairwell, well carpeted (again for the quiet). You enter a bunker, standing below ground with openings for viewing the animals, exactly at the level of the elephants’ water hole.
From within the bunker, we could observe the elephants more closely than I ever could have imagined possible. We could sense how they were communicating with one other – or with the group. Sometimes one of them would roughly push this one or that one out of the way, and once in a while there would be a typical “elephant” call, as the animals vied with one another for attention or had this or that message to communicate. Or simply wanted to get closer to the edge of the water hole (and sometimes stepping down into it, not at all reluctant to do so).
There was also a considerable amount of very gentle touching and a sort of soft nudging and rubbing between some of the elephants, of all ages and sizes, and among groups of them. Oftentimes it would be clear that there was a big bull or a matriarch in charge, but most of the time all the interactions between the animals was very soft and sweet, and they clearly respect one another.
After we had watched a while, about an hour, we sensed that some of the elephants were moving away from the water hole, not surprising since it was getting late, nearing sunset, and we kind of suspected that the elephants would move off after dark. We were very quiet in the bunker, and while we could see out very well, we had no idea of how well the elephants could see inside the dark bunker (it wasn’t lit, and elephants aren’t known to have very good eyesight). On the other hand, every once in a while one of the elephants would walk along in front of us, and we thought we noticed a glance or two in our direction but we were pretty sure they could not see us.
Or could they? As it began to get later, we noticed a great huge dark grey lady elephant come along, around the water hole, waddling over toward our side of the water hole, where we were in the bunker.
Oh, she was huge. And she was old. We could tell because of the way she moved, the way she had no tusks (I had been told that sometimes really old elephants lose their tusks, just like old humans sometimes lose their teeth), the way her breasts hung down loosely. We figured she must be really old, possibly as old as 70 or 75 years of age.
And this was what was so amazing. The old-lady elephant ambled on around the water hole, coming over to our side (the bunker side) from our left. Andrew was snapping photos like crazy. I was leaning on the frame of the opening, resting my chin on my hands, my elbows on the frame. As she moved forward – I’m not making this up – she walked right up in our direction. She got closer, looked through the opening right at me, right into my eyes, and she slowed down. She was less than ten feet away, and she stopped walking altogether. And then she leaned over a little, resting against the big “scratching rock” just outside the opening where we were standing.
And she would not stop looking at me. After a minute or two, she raised her trunk and rested it on the rock and continued looking at me. And continued looking. I looked back, not moving a muscle, not saying anything. Just looking into her eyes as she was looking into mine. We were obviously caught up in some sort of communication with each other, some sort of bonding. I found it hard to believe what I was experiencing.
And so did Andrew, who was so moved by watching her and me that he had to move away, over to the other side of the bunker. And when he came back and stood beside me, the incredible bonding continued, for what we later estimated was another 25 minutes or so.
But we had to go. Darkness had started to fall, and despite the fact that she continued to look at me, I knew I had to start back up to the lodge.
So I said something innocuous to her, speaking very quietly. I thanked her for coming to find me, said a few more soft phrases, and then I started toward the stairs. I turned around to look, for one last look, and she was still there, watching through the opening, watching something, feeling something.
An experience I’ll never forget.
[Other photos (with captions) of our time with the elephants at Tsavo East can be seen here. Most of these were taken by Andrew, as I was too busy communing with the elephants.]