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.