NOTE: This post is incomplete. Lots more pix coming but rushing to get it up before we take off at 7AM.
We will see other game, and we have here and there, but Tarangire Park where we’ve spent our first two days, is all about elephants. This Tanzanian park has the greatest concentration of elephants per square kilometer than anywhere else on Earth. Did I mention that it’s an Elephant World out here and you can just visit it? Today brought a sharp reminder that these elephants are not those docile Indian elephants that obligingly carry tourists and move freight in places like Thailand. These are completely wild untamable elephants. And they are really, really, really big.
Heading out early, we saw elephants and elephants and elephants. But toward the end of the day, we caught the trifecta of elephant action. First we saw a large lone male with the longest tusks we’d yet seen. We proceeded in the Land Rover very slowly by him as he gave us an annoyed glance.
There had been a few rains several weeks ago and the large, wide and shallow river to the left of the road had become wetter and muddier. Just down a few hundred years down the road, our guide, Sam spotted a group of a ten or so elephants giving themselves and their babies mud baths. We headed slowly toward them. After watching them for about 20 minutes, our guide pointed to a ridge about half a mile to the right of us on the other side of the road. Along it was walking a huge procession of elephants — certainly more than fifty. The river looked big enough for both groups of elephants, but Sam explained that elephants are great respecters of seniority and, if the new larger group of elephants outranks them, the currently bathing group will move out of the way and give them room. We sat up through the open roof of the Land Rover watching the two elephant groups converge. Sure enough, the small bathing group spotted the larger group and began hustling their babies out of the mud and onto the road just in front of us. In the meantime, the descending group of elephants was reworking its formation and moving swiftly down to the same road crossing, again just in front of us.
We’ve learned that elephants move in matriarchal groups — composed only of adult females and babies. The senior ranking female — with a collection of sisters, aunts and other close relatives — guard and lead the troop. In urban American terms, imagine a very large group of Mommies trying to move a playgroup of kids through a somewhat sketchy neighborhood. Now imagine all those Mommies are very large, very fit and ready to take preemptive action should you even look funny at one of those kids. That’s how our Elephant Mommies shepherded their kids down off that ridge. One group of females rounded up the little one with their trunks, keeping them together and forming a protective line of defense around them. Several of the larger Mommies broke off in a wider circle around the group — scanning the air with their upraised trunks. Our guide explained that they probably couldn’t see us very well, but they could certainly smell us. Since we smelled of massive amounts of DEET and sunscreen, you can understand their concern.
With two herds of elephants now moving at equal speeds — one group up from the river and the other group down from the ridge — and headed to converge right in front of us, our guide said we should just wait quietly and watch. You know intellectually that the African elephant is the largest land mammal. You don’t really appreciate it until nearly one hundred are thundering in a line about 50 yards in front of you.
After watching the scene for half an hour, we turned back along the road we came. That took us past the extremely large lone male we’d passed earlier. Apparently, the males travel separately, either in small groups or alone, on the periphery of the matriarchal herds. When they are ready for love, they send out certain signals hoping a female will leave her group for bit for a romantic interlude. While we’d been watching the elephant herds, our large male had gotten himself ready. And was not happy to see a Land Rover — which, for all he knew, was a particularly misshapen and homely elephant — getting between him and all those females. He moved up to our car pushing out his tusks and giving us the elephant stink-eye. Sam inched the Rover past him to show him we were conceding the ground. He followed and circled us. Sam instructed us to sit back down and be very quiet. But I couldn’t help noticing that I was on the elephant side of the car and that those tusks could break through the window and skewer both me and Mom. Sam helpfully informed us that such an elephant could easily roll over the Land Rover with one push. Then he assured us that everything would be okay. But that’s what Tom Siebel’s guide said before an elephant gored the Silicon Valley executive and he was airlifted out of the country with only 40% of his blood left.
Luckily, our lone male decided we were no threat and that we’d cried “Uncle”. He let us pass. But from a safe distance away, we watched holding our breath as he completed the same routine with each of the other two Land Rovers in our party.
More than a little shaken, we were headed back to camp for a cocktail party. Just before we reached it, we were given another example of how elephants rule here. Just about a mile from our accommodations, Kikoti Safari Camp has built a pond which stays filled with water year ‘round. That measure was necessary because elephants were routinely overrunning the camp during the dry season, digging up pipes and knocking over the water tower to get a drink. The pond keeps them happy and the guests stay untrampled.
Did I mention that it’s an elephant world out here and we can just visit it?
And here are two non-elephant related interesting events today.
Our cocktail party was to be held at a vista point overlooking a large valley through which we would see the Masai herding their cattle home for the evening. We were given the choice of being driven or walking the mile or so to the spot.
I should pause here to say that Isak Dineson — especially her Out of Africa — is proving remarkably insightful on this part of Africa and the character of the people. She notes that East Africans have a highly developed sense of the humor in the absurd — especially if the joke is on you, but will laugh just as heartily if the joke is on them. Our tracker guide, Thomas, perfectly illustrated that observation. And the joke was on me.
Tom lead our walk to the vista point carrying a rifle in case we met a water buffalo. A Masai guarded the rear of our column. After my elephant encounter, I decided I’d walk right behind Thomas and his rifle. I wasn’t cutting an impressive figure in the heat and 80% humidity as we trudged along and Thomas kept politely inquiring how I was doing. Finally, when it seemed we’d walked more than the mile we’d been told the trip would be, I asked him how much further. He stopped and with great drama studied the ground, squinted at the sun, and said in a quiet voice: “Five more kilometers.” I knew I couldn’t make another three miles in the heat and begged him to flag down the Land Rover that was just heading our way bringing the non-walkers. He just waved to the car, let it pass, and said, “You walk. You walk.”
Three steps later (which I was sure were the last three steps I’d be able to take) we rounded a corner and there was the thatched hut at the vista point. I turned to Thomas who was doubled up in laughter. “Five kilometers. Five kilometers. You thought it was five more kilometers.”
He must have thought it was a particularly good joke. As all during the cocktail hour, whenever he caught my eye, he’d break into fits of laughter and say, “Ha ha, Lisa, it is five kilometers.”
He must have thought is was a really really good joke because he told all the Masai who guard the camp and who we are required to have escort us after dark from the main area to our huts. As I walked the compound, every time I passed one of the normally silent Masai leaning on his spear, each of them would break into laughter and say, “Lisa. Lisa. Five kilometers. Five kilometers.”
So I seem to have achieved a certain of fame among the Masai.
I should mention that while I was on this hot steamy walk, several of the West Pointers walking behind me were discussing how it felt just like patrol in Viet Nam. They were sharing some particularly harrowing recollections of that time. So in retrospect, I should have soldiered on. Sure it was hot and humid, but no one was shooting mortars and lobbing grenades at me.