Thursday, March 28, 2013

Elephant Week

 Last week was amazing. I witnessed so many things. Most (but not all) involved elephants.   

Our guide for the week was an expert on elephants. I like to believe that he’s one of the elephant whisperers, although he doesn’t whisper to the elephants. He talks to them in booming voice. And he knows where to find them. Somehow on Monday he guided us to an entire herd of elephants that was marching toward one of the water holes. He parked the Land Rover right in the path of the herd, and they marched right by us. He did it again. And again. They were on a mission, and they didn't really care that we were there. Some completely ignored us, some glanced at us, some gave us a warning flair of their huge ears. They just kept marching and we kept clicking our cameras. It was an extraordinary experience. 

I had never seen elephants at a waterhole before, so this was another first for me. The elephants all stood at the edge of the water and sucked in water with their trunks. Then they tucked their trunks into their mouths and spurted water. Different elephants had different styles. Some were messy with water gushing all over; some were very elegant and didn't waste a drop of water. I noticed some youngsters were helping the littlest calves, guiding them to the water. The herd is extremely close. They all help each other and protect the little ones. It occurred to me that many human families could take a lesson or two from this herd.

On Tuesday evening, we found the herd again. This time, we witnessed many fights among the male elephants. From what I learned, the males fight to practice, to assert their power, to establish their position in the herd or simply to have fun. It's hard to explain how huge these animals are. The fights almost seem to be in slow motion because the combatants are so big. I could literally hear their tusks clashing with each other so you know the fight was intense and loud. Our guide had to move the Land Rover out of the way a few times to be sure we wouldn't get squashed by nearby elephant fights.

On Wednesday evening, our elephant whisperer tried his hardest to track down the herd once again, but the herd outsmarted us, walking into thicker bushes and trees. We tried to follow them, which was pretty rough on the tires of the Land Rover. Eventually, one of the tires got poked in the wrong place by a pointy branch. We had a flat tire right in the middle of the wild!  We knew there were elephants nearby in the thick bushes because the hearing people in the vehicle could hear them moving around. We just couldn’t see the elephants. That was pretty nerve-racking for me since I couldn’t really hear the elephants but I knew they were there!!! Fortunately, we managed to change tire before it got too dark.  Once again, the elephants were much less interested in us than we were in them and they gave us no trouble.  

Thursday evening, we found the male elephants in a more accessible area. Let me tell you, this was probably one of the best drives I have ever had because we had front row seats for a very dramatic elephant fight. A youngster named Sawubona is one of my favorite elephants. He is different from the other elephants because he is very curious about the Land Rover. On Thursday, I was sitting in the passenger seat beside the driver.  Sawubona was walking on my side of the vehicle. He was walking closer and closer so that he could almost touch the Land Rover with the end of his stretched trunk. He even sniffed me out and I really wondered if he was going to try and touch me or grab me! I had never seen a wild elephant in an extreme close-up, and it was awe-inspiring.

Sawubona also loves to to pick fights with other bigger males. On Thursday, he was having a bad day. He was trying so hard to win a fight against any of the big males. He fought with two of the larger males and eventually admitted defeat by falling to the ground in frustration. We watched all of this from what was literally the best seat in the world. Then Sawubona did something that shocked all of us. I guess he figured that if he couldn't beat one of the elephants, he would take on the Land Rover. Suddenly, he was on his feet and charging straight at us!   Luckily our elephant whisperer started the engine. The noise scared Sawubona, and our guide moved the vehicle forward a bit to show him that we were ready to fight. Of course, we were in an open vehicle, so we were pretty vulnerable, but Sawubona didn’t know that. He stopped and walked away from us.  

All of these elephant encounters made this a pretty amazing week but there was more to come. Friday early morning, I finally got to see a leopard! Leopards are in one of the most elusive animals in Thanda. They don't like attention, and they are extremely good at camouflage. After seven weeks of being here, I was so happy to finally see a beautiful big cat with its amazingly clean coat and its rosette spots. We first caught sight of the leopard walking down the road. As soon as it heard the engine of the Land Rover, it moved quickly went into the thick bushes and crouched down low. Luckily our guide was able to see where it went. He parked right beside the bushes and turned off the engine.

Leopards blend in so well with the landscape that we couldn't see him even though we knew he was there. We had to wait patiently for the leopard to make a movement so we could find him. After a while, our guide decided to move off the road and closer the bushes. Suddenly, I saw the leopard moving off to another area of bush. We waited and waited. I was in the back of the Land Rover, so I was keeping a very keen eye out to make sure we didn’t miss him crossing the road behind us. Sure enough, the leopard tried to slip across the road and into the bushes on the other side. I told the guide where he was going and kept an eye on the leopard while the guide backed up so we could see him more clearly. It was almost impossible to get a good photo of him because he was moving and hiding in the thick bushes. It made me realizes that we probably pass leopards all the time and don't see them because they are so good at hiding or simply laying low in the tall grass. Seeing a leopard is always an incredible experience, even if you get nothing more than a glimpse. All together in my life, I've seen leopards three times and it is always a thrill.  

I could go on and on about last week. We got lucky with a rare sighting of two honey badgers. I held a blind snake. I had another reunion with a familiar face from my first trip. I always feel that every day at Thanda is an adventure, but last week was over the top. I've said it before, but I'll say it again. This is an amazing place, and I am so grateful to be here!!!

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