While standing in the shade of my tent, I look out over a lagoon of bent grass to the trees at its far shoreline. A few of the stalks shiver and crosshatch in the lagoon as a mouse or grasshopper nibble at their stems. Otherwise, the grass is motionless.
I stick my hands in my pocket and scuff dust with the toe of my boot.
Something rustles in the underbrush. My sleepy senses come to full alert. It’s an ancient world out there - full of primitive memories storied at the bottom of our brains. i spot one of the honorary camp staff, a francolin, scratching around a clump of buffalo grass.
We are all afraid of something. Thembi gets in a tizzy over bees. (Imagine bees up your nose!) Eggshells horrify Jabu. For Morula, it’s the fear of not belonging.
Are elephants afraid of mice? No, but quick small things moving around their feet startle them. I consider that a prudent reaction in a world full of snakes.
My fears are primitive, hard-wired into the base of my brain from the time when humans were prey to huge fanged predators – cats as large as grizzlies, bears as large as elephants. My primitive brain is not comfortable when there are carnivores around, especially when I can’t see them.
Just last night a lion’s roar ripped me awake from a deep sleep: WAAA-AH-UNGHHH UNGH UNGH UNGH ungh ungh. . . .It ended with those deep grunts lions cough up from their bellies.
A lion’s roar can be heard for five miles. This one was incredibly loud and incredibly close, right at the edge of camp.
A cold set of fingers wrapped around my heart. In the darkness my heart threw itself repeatedly against my ribs, then slowly backed into a corner of my chest. Wary, it waited there for another roar, which never came. I knew I was safe – no lion has ever dragged someone out of a zippered tent in Botswana. But tell that to my primitive brain.
Four days ago, as I waited for Doug to pick me up from Stanley’s Camp, I had enough time before his arrival to join an evening game drive. A young couple on their first trip to Africa climbed into the tier of seats behind me in the Landcruiser and held hands. They were on their honeymoon. John, our driver and guide, explained that two other vehicles from camp had found a pride of lions on the other side of the reserve – but it was too far away for us to join them and be back before dinner.
So we headed off in the opposite direction. The young couple happily snapped photographs of zebras and impalas and baboons, giddy with the realization they were in the midst of their dream vacation. A male kudu with magnificent horns kept us in one place for nearly a half hour as the couple peppered John with questions and marveled over the graceful curl of the kudu’s horns.
At dusk John parked at the top of a knoll. With open grassland all around us it was safe to descend from the vehicle. He prepared traditional sundowners – gin and tonics – and handed them around.
As I take my first sip a lion roared in the near distance. “That’s not very far,” I said and looked at John.
“We could get lucky,” he looked at the couple with us.
They nodded, so we dashed our drinks on the ground, stashed our glasses back in their basket, and scrambled back into the Landcruiser.
Just down the road, where we’d been half an hour earlier, four large males lounged in the tall grass alongside our tracks. One lifted his chin and roared, loud enough to rattle our hearts: WAAUNNNNNNGH, UNGH, UNGH, ungh, ungh, ungh.
John sent a radio message to the other vehicles. They will detour to join us on their way back to Stanley’s.
As we watched the four males, light faded from the sky and disappeared. Blue became purple, then black. Stars appeared, each one of them a cold clear diamond.
John switched on a spotlight. A male sat in front of us, looking to our right, listening.
Spotlight off. The couple behind me murmured to each other and tried to become small blobs, rather than humans with discernable arms and legs and heads.
A distant contact roar from one of the lions on the other side of the reserve.
Spotlight on. The male in front of us headed to a wall of brush and trees, disappeared.
Spotlight off. Shallow breaths through my open mouth. A commotion to our left.
Spotlight on. Another male, who was sitting off to our right, had moved across the road and was now rubbing the side of his face against the lion inert in the grass. When he couldn’t get his companion to rise, he also slid into the bush. A fourth lion, just up the road, ghostly in the spotlight’s shadow, followed the first two, disappeared.
Spotlight off. Silence.
Then a faint roar, in the distance again.
The hair on my arm rose before I even thought about it, as I realized that next to me the grass hissed, hisss zissh, hisss zissh, as something large walked by.
“He’s right beside me,” I whisper without moving my lips.
The inert lion was gone. John twisted his hand over his shoulder and the light caught the back of a lion just passing the front tire on my side of the vehicle. His great head swung back and forth as he walked hisss zissh, hisss zissh through the tall grass. The lion had walked around the back end of the vehicle without us hearing him until he was right next to me. The skin on the back of my neck tried to crawl up to the top of my head.
The lion turned his head toward the light. The pupils in his yellow eyes shrank to pinpoints.
He was that close. I saw his pupils shrink to pinpoints.
He huffed and swung around to follow his three brothers into the bush. I exhaled. Had I been holding my breath that long?
The two other vehicles appeared just in time to catch a glimpse of his back in waist-high grass. They followed him, bouncing through the brush, their headlights tapping the tops of trees.
John turned in his seat and looked at us. The spotlight in his lap illuminated his face and glinted from the eyes of the young couple, eyes that were now nearly the size of their open mouths.
“I think it is enough,” he said. “Let’s go to the hyena’s den before the others get there.”
Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, 1996
Parked at the lip of the waterhole, seven humans sit in a roof-less, side-less vehicle, eggs in a carton without a lid. Earlier, at dusk, giraffes reflected the setting sun, but now icy stars stare down at us with chilled, blue eyes. Somewhere, out there beyond this waterhole, hyenas will make short work of bones.
An elephant appears. And then another. Gray wave after gray wave surges out of the bush in small herds of twenty or less, flooding the huge hollow in front of us. Dust rises in the air, a potent blend of manure, dried grass and sand. The backwash swells in our direction. Soon a sea of elephants surrounds us.
Snorts, grumbles, trumpets, growling bellies, and gargantuan belches resound. Some of the vibrations are too low to hear, but I feel them as they pass through my body, reverberate in my chest cavity, squeeze my heart. Eye after eye inspects us as eddies of elephants swirl past.
An old world laps at the foot of our memories, extinguishes centuries of communal fires. The ropes that tether us loosen. We slip away from the familiar shore and set off. We look around with wild hearts. We have become part of the herd.
Behind us, close enough to touch with an outstretched arm, a huge female chuffs and huffs at regular intervals, locomotive-style. Hunched and folded, I turn my head slowly to look into her left eye. Her trunk periscopes into an s-shape, swivels, and tests the air in my direction. Her massive body blocks our only way out. She rocks back and forth, side to side, grows quiet. Small and cold, I drop my head, totally at her mercy, if she knows such a thing.
Suddenly, from a crush of rumbling bodies, a baby elephant squirts out and heads straight in our direction. Right behind is her mother. Even our guide quits breathing.
The baby elephant stops less than a foot from our left front wheel. Her mother looms over us, illuminated by our parking lights. With just one step she could snatch any of us right out of our seats.
A small, short elephant trunk reaches out, touches the tire and a collective inhale is heard, as if the vehicle itself is trying to shrink away. Behind us, the huge matriarch chuffs rapidly, building up steam.
Then the tiny trunk jerks back, blasts a bubbly snort of air, and the baby’s face contorts into an expression that can only be translated as Yuuuuck! The mother shifts into an I-told-you-so attitude. Her trunk relaxes, blows small puffs in the sand.
Carefully, I turn to look the matriarch in the eye. She blinks once, twice, emits a large exhalation Whooooff, and turns her back on us.
The baby charges our vehicle, flaps her ears, and trumpets like a bicycle horn, causing a gust of giggles in return. Her mother rumbles, pivots from us peons and makes a regal exit, strolling off in a stately manner no human monarch could ever attain. The baby twirls several times, then follows her mom in a quick side-to-side rocking gait reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin.
Singly, and by twos and threes and tens, massive silhouettes disappear into the darkness. A young female strolls by, scans us as if we’re department store mannequins. And then, they are all gone.
Only a few yards from our Land Rover, a single-cylinder water pump alternately chugs and sputters, drawing from the water table beneath the sand, and sending spurts through a pipe to a square trough. This supply of water keeps the bachelor elephants in Savuti area, as they wait for spring rains and the return of female breeding herds.
The steady sound of the pump, chug-sputter, chug-sputter, chug-sputter lulls my eyes closed. They open, close, open half-lidded, close again.
“Here he comes,” someone whispers and my eyes flick open as a huge bull strolls past. I pick up my camera.
His enormous tusk splay out almost sideways. I focus on his great head, nodding downward with each step, as he trudges past. A thirsty pilgrim in a parched land, his trek to water is nearly finished. He heads straight to the square trough. The clicking and whirring of our cameras doesn’t alter his gait.
Through the viewfinder I marvel at his tusk. It is easily four feet long, stained and chipped on its end. Because of its growth pattern – out, rather than down and up – his tusks make him a much wider elephant than he really is.
Mid-drink, he curls his trunk into his mouth; his head tilts back; his eyes close. He makes gargling sounds as he drank. Extending his trunk into the waterhole, he blows bubbles before curling his trunk again and again to hose several gallons down his throat. With each swallow goes the taste of dung, samplings from all the animals that used this waterhole – zebra, wildebeest, warthog, ostrich, hyena and the occasional furtive flavor of lion.
I try to imagine the bouquet garni of this waterhole and how its myriad fragrances might seep into the crevices of an elephant’s mind, form pools of scent elephants recognize, year after year, the liquid memory of Africa. Perhaps the old bull is memorizing the stories in this trough, paragraphs of taste and smell, twists of plot and character and fate.
He returns to where we are parked, and stops close by. His skin is the color of seasoned cast iron. The waterline on his body rises just past his belly. Spatters of mud stain his ears and back. His forehead bulges and flutters audible sounds, if I had the ears for infrasound.
After several long minutes, his eyelids droop and his mouth slackens. Under the hot sun he falls asleep, lulled perhaps by the narcotic of a long, slow drink. The tip of his trunk coils like a magic rope on the ground. He sleeps with his weight on three legs, resting a hind leg, occasionally rocking back on it as if he dreams of his trek. Drool from his trunk slowly seeps into the sand.
I match my breathing with his, and drowse, sedated by the sun.
The giant beside us rumbles soft snores in his sleep, yet he is probably aware of the humans next to him, nodding their heads, also falling asleep. Other bachelors scuff past him, on their way to and from the waterhole.
Tiny paws of wind skitter across my arms and keep me half-awake. But for a moment, I almost enter his dreams.
In 1984 whale researcher Katy Payne spent a week with eleven elephants at the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, 170 miles south from my Pacific Northwest home. An acoustic biologist with fifteen years of studying the long and complex calls of whales, she was curious as to the kinds of sounds elephants make. She spent every waking hour at the zoo listening and watching the elephants’ behavior. She noticed that certain keepers elicited a positive response from the elephants, an intangible “thrill” in the air, like the rolling vibrations of thunder right before you hear them.
On her way home to Cornell University, while she thought about her observations, the throbbing of the airplane reminded her of a pipe organ she once heard. During a performance of Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew, a shuddering filled the air as bass notes from the great pipes descended in a deep scale until sound disappeared – but the air still throbbed. Those same, strong, vibrations-without-sound had filled the air around the elephants in Oregon. Could they be communicating with infrasound, like whales?
Four months later, back at the zoo, Payne and fellow researcher Bill Langbauer set their recording equipment to its slowest speed. They mapped the elephants’ movements and timed changes in their behavior with the recordings. Working around the clock for an entire month, they recorded what sounded like snores, chirps, barks, rumbles and even moments of absolute silence.
Back at Cornell, the first tape Payne selected to review was during a time of silence, when there was a “thrill” in the air as a female elephant faced a concrete wall and a male elephant faced the same wall in an adjoining enclosure. With the wall removed, the elephants would have been within three feet of each other. Running the tape at ten times its normal speed, the researchers heard sounds emerge from silence – elephants carrying on an extensive conversation in infrasound, even when separated by concrete walls.
To test the theory, The Cornell research team rigged a double-blind experiment in Africa. An observation tower near a waterhole at Etosha National Park in Namibia was outfitted with video cameras and microphones. Miles from the waterhole, a mobile van roamed through the bush carrying broadcast speakers and tape recordings. The timing, location and content of the broadcasts were unknown to the observers at the tower.
One hot, dry afternoon, two male elephants, Mohammed and Hannibal, picked their way through the white calcareous rocks around the waterhole and paused for a drink. As soon as the two bulls arrived, the tower radioed the van. Selected at random, infrasonic estrous calls of a female elephant from Kenya were broadcast to the two bachelors in Namibia.
A female elephant needs to advertise as far and as wide as she can, since she is receptive to males for just a few days every estrus cycle. She repeats her calls over and over for up to forty-five minutes at a time. The calls can be heard as far as two and a half miles away – over a range of nineteen square miles – but only by other elephants.
Just seconds after the sound was sent, Mohammed and Hannibal froze, spread their ears and lifted their heads – twisting them side-to-side like scanning radar. Within two minutes the bulls set off. Half an hour later the pair strode past the van, looking for love in all the wrong places.
Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems – an interweaving of myriad plant and animal species that defies an easy analysis. The previous four times I came to the Okavango Delta were in “dry” years when water tables were low and the floods barely reached as far as Stanley’s Camp. I saw two, maybe three Burchell’s coucal (Centropus burchellii. ) Now they’re everywhere – rising from the grass to look for snails, frogs and toads, new opportunities for these predators with fierce red eyes. Interestingly, it is mostly the male who incubates the eggs. At dusk, as the elephants head back from their evening forage, I often hear the liquid song of a coucal: Doooo, doo-doo-doo-doo, doo – the sound of water dripping into a wooden bucket, or pan-pipes rapidly descending a scale.
Water is rare and precious in Botswana – so much so that the pula, the equivalent monetary unit as the dollar, is the same word used for rain. The lack of water leaves much of Botswana’s desert areas uninhabitable. Paradoxically, so do the floods, two months downstream from the rains in Angola. The fickle nature of the Okavango’s channels defy permanent infrastructure, such as paved roads. Often vehicles become immersed up to their floorboards.
Each time I follow the elephants to another section of flooded road I’m both delighted and chagrined. Delighted at the number of secret waterways – so numerous, so new, that no one can memorize them over the length of a year. Chagrined, because I will need to wade. My pants are already stained by decayed plant muck. All of this water, and I cannot drink a drop of it. Thankfully, the pipes at Doug and Sandi’s camp tap well water.
Some of this year’s road-channels are deep enough for mokoro, canoe highways, but not deep enough yet for crocodiles and hippos. Bits of plants tumble along in slow clear currents down previous roads; water lilies and reeds fill entire channels, remind me of paintings by Monet.
Even elephants can get lost behind huge stands of palm and grass.
So many tales to tell: (1) the flooded Okavango Delta, water where there was sand last time I visited; (2) walking with elephants under starlight and a half moon (without a flashlight); (3) hyenas in the kitchen; (4) the closest I’ve ever gotten to a snake (!); (5) a leopard for my friend’s birthday present; (5) lions kill a baby hippo; (6) basic tents and luxurious chalets; (7) what not to do if you’re self-driving through the Moremi Game Reserve (hint: DO NOT rely on your GPS); (8) wild dogs, wild dogs and more wild dogs; (9) the rarest giraffes in the world; (10) hippos, hippos and more hippos; (11) a leopard hunts a male impala; (12) an absolutely wonderful stay with Sandi, Doug, Jabu, Morula and Thembi – and many, many more. Stay tuned!
Standing on a termite mound, face-to-trunk with an elephant, I place the palm of my hand against Morula’s fluttering forehead, a forehead as cool and rough as tree bark. She’s burbling, a rumble that resonates like water gurgling down a hollow pipe.
She’s also making sounds I can feel, but not hear. Right at the top of her trunk, where her bulging nasal passage enters her skull, her skin pulses beneath my hand, vibrations that reverberate in my chest cavity, drum against my heart. Muscular ground swells of sound roll full and luxuriously out in the bush, bumping into hippos, giraffes, zebras, lions, hyenas, birds, snakes and tsetse flies.
But it is only elephants who raise their heads and listen.
Most of Morula’s vocalizations are rumbles, which fall partially or entirely in the infrasonic range of 5-30 Hz., throbbing, quaking air for which we humans have no auditory perception. Such low-frequency rumbles usually have harmonics and overtones, both of which can be selectively emphasized. As in whale song, each individual elephant has a signature sound, one like no other elephant – their voices as different from each other as our voices are different from each other.
Are you there?
And invisibly, from beyond an island of trees: Yes, I am here.
Speech makes us human, makes these marks on this page possible. When we speak, our vocal chords vibrate with forced, small explosions of air from our lungs. We shape words with our mouth and tongue. Expelled from a chest full of wind, words float around us like little clouds, each one a separate exhalation, creating an atmosphere of meaning, thickening language one word after another. Sounds unfold in time, in agreeable waves pulsing against our ears. When we are lost and listening to a piece of pleasurable music, time even suspends itself. Songs hang on our bones.
Standing on a termite mound, I close my eyes. The fluttering beneath my hand goes on and on and on.
I open my eyes. “MO-RU-LA,” I sing.
My voice, like hers, originates in my vocal chords. But my vocal range is barely an octave, limping through the air at 220 Hz. Morula’s range is tremendous, more than 10 octaves, from 5 Hz. To 9,000 Hz.
The most athletic human voice in history belonged to Yma Sumac, a Peruvian, who had a self-proclaimed range of five octaves and a recorded range of four and a half. From B below low C to A above high C, from about 123 Hz. to 1760 Hz. Sumac’s high range was the same frequency as an elephant’s trumpet. This is a woman who could occasionally hit a triple-trill and whose voice could sound like an upright bass.
Morula would find her vocalizations a lot more fascinating than mine are.
Like all elephants, Morula is able to produce low frequency sounds just because she is big. The larger the resonating chamber (think cello compared to violin), the lower the frequency of its sound. Morula also has long and loose vocal chords and a flexible arrangement of bones attached to her tongue and larynx. In addition to her loose voicebox she also has another special structure at the back of her throat called a pharyngeal pouch, which not only affects her low-frequency tones but also holds an emergency supply of water.
Morula can produce different results from the same basic rumble by holding her mouth open or shut, by an empty or full pharyngeal pouch, by flapping her ears rapidly or slowly, by holding her head high or low, or by the position of her trunk and the speed of air moving through it. She can combine hundreds of variables to invent thousands of sounds.
Imagine a vocal instrument equal parts cello, double bass, violin, tuba and trumpet, one whose entire body is an expanding and contracting resonating chamber, one that can sing with a throat full of water and triple-trill a rumble, a roar, and infrasound, all in one 3-second call.
Yma Sumac would be horribly jealous.
Straight-armed, I lean against Morula’s forehead. A soothing mantle of high-pitched insect noise drapes over my shoulders.
The fluttering beneath my hand has unexpected results. A soft dry scrape makes me look around. It’s Thembi’s ears whisking against her shoulders. She’s standing behind me, on the opposite side of the termite mound.
Glancing from one large forehead to another, from one set of eyes and back, I have a feeling Morula and Thembi are waiting for me to do something.
Maybe something as simple as rumbling in return.
An excerpt from my book
Whoosh-thwack . . . Whoosh-thwack . . .Whoosh-thwack. . . . As Morula’s ears hit her shoulder, they sound like heavy canvas sails snapping in a high wind.
Insects sizzle in the underbrush. A bleating warbler cries out Help-me, Help-me, Help-me, Help-me! The trickling call of a coucal drops like large beads into an empty wooden bucket: Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo . . . doo. . . doo . . . doo. . Francolins scatter into the underbrush, a tiny mob of cackling maniacs.
Standing on a termite mound, face-to-trunk with an elephant, I place the palm of my hand against her fluttering forehead, a forehead as cool and rough as tree bark. Morula is burbling, a contented rumble that resonates like water gurgling down a hollow pipe.
She is also making sounds I can feel, but not hear. Right at the top of her trunk, where her bulging nasal passage enters her skull, her skin pulses beneath my hand, vibrations that reverberate in my chest cavity, drum against my heart. Muscular ground swells of sounds roll full and luxuriously out in the bush, bumping into hippos, giraffes, zebras, lions, hyenas, birds, snakes and tsetse flies.
But it is only elephants who raise their heads and listen.
Every desert, river, forest or sea on earth has a mix of sounds biological in origin – birds, mammals, fish – mingled with non-biological sounds – wind, rain, waves, or the blanketing silence of snow. The symphony of a place is dependent upon night, day, weather, time of year and the creatures within it. John Muir always said he could tell exactly where he was in the Sierra Nevadas just by the pine needle music. Few of us are that familiar with our home ground.
Every animal’s voice has its own aural niche within its home ground. When an ecosystem is altered, when trees are cut, ponds drained, soils covered with concrete, and structures built, the orchestra of the land and its chorus of animal voices are silenced.
Wild sounds disappear as fast as habitats disappear.
Bernie Krause, an American bio-accoustician, notes that 25% of the North American natural soundscapes in his archives are now extinct. Habitats that no longer exist. Sounds we will never hear again. Silent summers, silent autumns, silent winters, silent springs.
In this part of the Delta, in this season, the soundscape around me is filled with dry cracklings. With crickets who rasp their legs together and listen to each other with ears on their tibias. With rattling grass. With the scrape of our footsteps. With the buzz of small flies seeking moisture at the corners of my eyes.
Those sounds will soon be joined with new animal voices once the Okavango River floods into waiting channels. For Delta inhabitants, the river also serves as a unique measurement of time. Rumor has it, Doug tells me, the river is two weeks away.
When it arrives, the symphony of the Delta changes. The delicate tink-tink, tink-tink of reed frogs will join the rasp of crickets. Hippos will jostle for elbowroom, grunting and burbling like a band of drowning tubas. Wildebeest will question their daily survival from the jaws of lions with overlapped musings: Hmmmmh?/Hmmmh. Hmmmmh?/Hmmmh.
And as fields of grass submerge in the returning river, ground hornbills will stride to and fro in front of the water’s many tongues. Hornbills are satiny, Satan-y black birds, bigger than fattened geese, with inflated air sacs red as bleeding throats, and beaks like a pickaxes – executioners stalking mice and snakes in advance of the tide. Their tympanic calls sound like thumbs rubbed across a kettle drum: Hmmmmph . . . . . . hmph-hmph. Hmmmmph . . . . . . hmph-hmph.
And intersecting each sound, in each season, the quaking air of elephant calls.
Bernie Krause created a new word for the soundscapes of animal voices: “Biophony” - the combination of sounds which living organisms produce in their particular biome. And for each biome, evolutionary complexity reverberates in the music of that particular place. Millions of years condense into the current symphony I hear as I place my hand on an elephant’s forehead. Wind rustles leaves, birds teer, insects zzzzzz, a palm weevil drones by and the skin under my palm flutters on and on. Without the low bass tones of elephants, without their soft rumbling regards, the animal orchestra of the Delta would not be complete.