I woke up with an elephant at the foot of my bed.
I heard him before I saw him, rummaging for breakfast of leaves and grass just outside my tent in the Macatoo camp in Botswana's Okavango Delta.
As my eyes adjusted to the still-dark sky, lit only by the gas lantern hanging just on the other side of the mesh wall that separated me from nature, I could see his shadow stretching across the low brush. The huge bull lumbered into view, and I watched in awe as he used the narrow tree a few feet from my tent's opening as a scratching post--first one side, then the other, then his rear. I wasn't afraid as I lay in bed tucked under a mountain of wool blankets, watching him for about an hour.
I must have dozed off again because I heard the camp's interim manager Kim call my name. "Stacey? Are you awake? Sorry we can't bring you tea in bed this morning. We have an elephant in camp." I wondered how one shoos an elephant. Very carefully, I suppose. I never did ask how. As Matt, one of the staff members, likes to say: "T.I.A.--This is Africa." Be flexible, and expect the unexpected. This was one of those times.
After breakfast, my chaperone Paul, fellow guest Hannah and I walked the short distance to the stable and mounted up. I was on Salous, the sweet Thoroughbred I'd ridden the previous evening. Lead guide Sekongo slid his rifle into the brown leather scabbard attached to his saddle, and we headed out.
Kudu (large antelope with spiral horns), impala (small antelope) and zebra dotted the landscape as we rode deep into the bush. Sometimes we'd travel along or cross a narrow sand trail, but mostly Sekongo would lead us through dense Mopani bushes, the favorite food of elephants, or Acacia trees with their 3-inch needle-like thorns. There were no signs, no markers; we only knew what direction we were heading based on the position of the sun. I'd asked one of the guides how he know where to go, and he told me that it's usually based on landmarks, such as a tree with a peculiarly shaped branch or some other natural feature.
The horses we rode rivaled Olympic event horses in terms of fitness. Salous marched through hock-deep water for a solid mile without breaking a sweat. He made me smile as he grabbed mouthfuls of marsh grass as he went.
At the halfway point of our four-hour morning ride, we stopped near a gigantic baobab tree to sip from the water bottles hung from our saddles and snacks that had been packed in the guides' waterproof saddlebags. The baobab is often called the "upside-down tree" because it looks like someone pulled it out of the ground, turned it over and stuffed it back into the hole. The bark is very fibrous and can be used for clothing or rope. Sekongo used his knife to peel back a small area of the bark and remove the long, natural-colored fibers. He began twisting and soon it became a rope bracelet for Hannah, then he made one for me. He tied it on my wrist and told me that the fibers would become very strong when it dried. That was probably my favorite souvenir of the trip.
Hannah went exploring nearby and found an elephant tusk. She brought it back to the tree and gave it to me to hold. It was much heavier than I expected--probably weighing nearly 20 pounds. We had fun posing with it next to the tree for pictures, then set it against the baobab as we remounted to head home.
A few miles from the stables Sekongo gave the signal for a final canter and Salous sprung to attention without much extra prompting from me. The flat, sandy path scattered with low scrub soon became knee-deep water. Sekongo picked up the pace a little bit, and a little voice in my head told me to bring my shoulders back "just in case." Thankfully I listened because a few seconds later I witnessed Sekongo's horse disappear out from underneath him with Sekongo shooting out in front as if he were launched from a canon. As Sekongo's horse went down, Salous made a sharp right turn to avoid trampling him, nearly sending me over his left shoulder into an Acacia tree. If I hadn't had my shoulders back, I would have been picking those 3-inch spikes out of my breeches! The horse scrambled to his feet, and Sekongo emerged from the water like a swamp thing, water pouring off the oilskin hat that was still on his head and a very surprised look on his face.
Everyone pulled up within seconds of the swimming lesson and stood staring in shock to see if Sekongo or his horse was hurt. A big smile emerged and we breathed a collective sigh of relief, then roared with laughter as he stood up. His first concern was that his rifle was OK--he pulled it out of the scabbard, inspected it and returned it to the leather case. Then he mounted up as water poured from his clothing, soaked from top to toe. We teased him that he was testing the water or perhaps looking for crocodiles. Laughter would die down, then a stray giggle would get it rippling through the group again.
After lunch, a nap and some dry clothes for Sekongo, we reconvened around the fire pit for tea and to meet the newest guests who had arrived that afternoon. Brenda was visiting from Calgary with her friend Michelle from Ohio. It was always exciting to get new guests in camp; the near blackout of contact with the outside world meant that any new visitor could fill us in on what was happening in the world. We got the latest on the volcanic eruption in Iceland and heard about the bombing attempt in Times Square. It wasn't much and certainly not happy news, but it was good to feel somewhat connected again.
During the afternoon ride, I got to know my new mount, another Thoroughbred, this time a chestnut with a blaze and four white legs. (I am at a loss for his name--I even had trouble remembering it while I was riding!) We spotted a large bull elephant on the other side of the swamp and made our way toward him, the cold water seeping into my boots and up my legs, even as I tried to avoid it by lifting my legs jockey style or stretching them out in front of the saddle flaps. The group stopped about 50 feet away, and I began to take photos. Without much warning, he let out a trumpet, flapped his ears as if he were going to fly away and started charging toward us. My horse spun to the right as I clicked away with my camera in my right hand. Once we'd retreated to a safe distance (as judged by the elephant), he stopped and we watched him for a while before he turned and went one way while we headed in the other direction.
That wasn't the last elephant I'd see that day. As I walked to the common area for dinner, I could hear one in the bush moving around and trumpeting. During dinner, we caught a slight movement in the dark; our flashlights revealed a mother and calf. And finally we heard another by the water behind the pool. It was both chilling and magical to be so close to these animals.
More Journal Entries
Part 1: Bush Magic | Part 2: Big Cats | Part 3: Delta Dreaming | Part 5: Hidden in the Trees | Packing and Contact Lists