Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography, Travel, Writing

Larger than Life


Here are the first few pages of my manuscript, Larger than Life: Eye to Eye with Elephants.  Having read this much, would you go on reading the rest of the book?  I’d love to have feedback.  Thanks!


photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill


There is nothing like him on earth. His head alone is more immense than an entire gorilla.

Jabu is one hundred times larger than I am. His trunk is larger than I am. A single leg is larger than I am.

He rests his trunk on the ground and the tip of it lifts, opens, inhales my scent. I reach out and run my fingers along his warm tusk.

Do you recognize me, Jabu, do you?

  *   *   *   *   *

The pilot lets me sit up front.  As his clattering Cessna lifts straight into the sun, we pass a line of small aircraft and a block-and-brick terminal only slightly larger than the Air Botswana 727 parked next to it.  We leave behind a flattened land where the tallest structure is a water tower, where the olive-green scrub spreads as far as can be seen, and where footsteps have no echoes in a country mantled by sand.

We gain altitude and Maun slides under us.  The last town before venturing into Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Maun is an odd frontier mix of trading companies, outfitters, curio shops, supermarkets, cattle in the streets, and an airstrip long enough for daily international flights.

We fly higher.  Haphazard, barely paved roads meander to round stockades – bomas, fenced by thornbush.  Each boma contains a hut plastered with mud and roofed with straw, or a small square cinderblock covered by rusty corrugated metal.  Only a few corral a cow or a goat.  Behind us the last buildings disappear into a curtain of shimmering haze.  Maun melts into the desert.

The shadow of our Cessna passes over thin dirt tracks, which lose their way and vanish.  A waterhole appears, an orphan left behind by last year’s flood.  Another comes into sight, and then another.  Etched into the sand by countless hooves, game trails wander through the dry landscape, headed to those life-giving pockets of water.  Few animals follow the trails in the heat of the glaring sun.  A small herd of zebra.  A single giraffe.

Suspended above what could be considered a great emptiness, I remember the map I studied a week ago.   Printed alongside the log of GPS coordinates for airstrips – some of them makeshift, many little used – I read another list of handy notations. “Tourist road, 4×4 required . . .Top road extremely sandy, takes very long.”  Eighty percent of Botswana is covered by sand, some of it a thousand feet deep, but the airstrip where we’ll land is barely above water.

Swollen by November rains, the Okavango River floods south from Angola, arrives in Botswana in May or June, fans out, and then stops when it bumps into a barrier of fault lines near Maun.  Landlocked, the river penetrates deeply into the Delta before it dies in the Kalahari sands.  Not a single drop reaches the sea.

As the river pushes south, it creates, in the midst of a vast desert, an oasis – a floodplain the size of Massachusetts containing an ark-full of animals.  Dependent upon the rainfall in Angola, the river swells or shrinks.  In the dry season, it leaves behind ponds no bigger than puddles, abandoned lagoons that shrink into brackish swamps, and waterholes reflecting a cornflower blue sky.

 Last week I reviewed the latest satellite photograph of the Delta – four skinny channels with several webs of water between them.  The river is beginning to flood.  The photograph reminded me of a duck’s giant footprint pressed into the sands of southern Africa.  I located my destination, a dry spot between two of the bird’s toes.

Twenty minutes after leaving Maun, the pilot pushes in the throttle and the Cessna’s clatter mutes.  We drop lower.  A thousand waterholes are a thousand mirrors signaling the sun.  Lower still, the mirrors turn back into waterholes, some of them connected  in long braids of water.

Right before we land on a strip of dirt, we glimpse a cheetah sprinting for cover.  With that single spotted blur, my life divides once again between home and Africa.


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

15 thoughts on “Larger than Life

    1. Hi Chris – My book is still in development and I hope it will be available in Kenya – probably in two years time. Thanks for your interest! Any information about the book will be posted here in my blog. Kenya is such a beautiful country. Glad to read of continuing efforts to reduce poaching there. All the best – Cheryl

    1. Thanks Lynn,f or commenting. The book probably won’t be available until next year, but I’ll certainly be posting about it on my blog. BTW, other blog posts here are excerpts from the book.

  1. ABSOLUTELY! I love your voice. Its not common for a writer to have genuine and deep affinity with wildlife, and those of us who love wildlife crave the uncommon masters.

    As I make this comment I am still haunted by your more recent post, The Great Ones.
    “… shaggy shadows move among the firs. An immense shape assembles and disassembles in the wind. … Time twists as I stare out the window at the huge ghost facing me. … I missed him by only 14,000 years, an eyelash of time.”

    Then you say “With that single spotted blur, my life divides once again between home and Africa” and I want to read more.

    1. Wow, thanks for your kind words. Writers, as you know, mostly labor alone, then send their hatchlings out into the world, hoping they will fly far. It’s wonderful to get encouragement. Thank you.

  2. Never gave elephants much thought until you peered into the eyes of Morula and told me what you saw deep inside. You captured my imagination when informed that she could sing like Yma Sumac. Now I eagerly await each post. I love how you are taking me on the journey with you. You place me alongside you with …
    “ where footsteps have no echoes … mix of small shopping centers, cattle in the streets … building flatten and disappear into a curtain of shimmering haze … channels look like giant bird footprints, and mirrors turn cornflower blue.”
    Thank you.
    Regards, Charlie

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