Posted in Africa, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Thembi, Travel

The Tree of Life, Part One

An excerpt from the book I’m writing about elephants:

Baobob in winterJabu, Morula and Thembi slowly browse through the brush on one of the islands stranded after last year’s Okavango flood.  Opposite of us, across a dried lagoon filled with grass, is a rare tree species for this part of the Delta: an African baobab, Adansonia digitata – digitata for the five leaves it has per stem.  The baobab is deciduous, naked this time of year.  Its prehistoric appearance conjures up primeval landscapes full of odd plants and crawling creatures that existed in the ages before the dinosaurs.

There are eight species of baobabs, six found in the dry deciduous forests of Madagascar, one in Australia, and digitata, which grows in West, East and Southern Africa.  Baobabs are also found on the Arabian Peninsula, spread there by the movement of human settlements.

Adansonias are named after the French naturalist, Michel Adanson (1727-1806), who spent five years in Senegal, brought home a huge plant collection, and published a paper on digitata after his return.  Adanson also wrote a masterwork of natural history, an encyclopedic l’Ordre Universel de la Nature, but it was based on his own system of classification, distinct from that of his contemporary, Linnaeus (1707-1788).  Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae, introduced binomial nomenclature – using an organism’s Genus, Adansonia, followed by a descriptive modifier such as digitataSystema Naturae classified 4,400 species of animals and 7,700 species of plants.

In contrast to Linnaeus’s system based on structures, Adanson proposed a “natural” system that took many features of the plant into account, which included structure along with function, growth, evolution and distribution.  His system was ignored in his time because he refused to use binomial nomenclature.  However, the publication in 1789 of Genera Plantarum, by Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, combined Adanson’s use of multiple structures with Linnaeus’s binomial classifications – a methodology widely accepted and still in use.

Adanson’s masterwork was huge, just like the baobab: 27 large volumes with a 150-volume index that contained an alphabetical treatment of 40,000 species, a vocabulary listing 200,000 words, 40,000 drawings and 30,000 specimens.  It was never published.  It is, however, preserved in the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Elephants love the bark of the baobab because of its moisture content.  As insurance against harsh drought, the swollen trunk of a single baobab stores up to 32,000 gallons of water, making its wood soft, spongy and fibrous.  A plank cut from this tree will decrease in volume by 40% and shrink in length by 15% while it dries.  Sometimes, during these times of drought, elephants will completely gird a tree, leaving it standing as if standing on its own pedestal, and yet the baobab will still survive.

The bark on the baobab across the lagoon is smooth and pinkish gray – untouched by elephants, probably due to its proximity to the Okavango’s permanent water channels.  I estimate this tree to be about 22 feet in diameter and 70 feet tall.  Mature baobabs have trunk diameters of twenty-three to thirty-six feet and reach heights of sixteen to ninety-eight feet.  The Glencoe baobab, near Hoedspruit in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, is considered the largest specimen alive.  Up to recent times it had a circumference of 154 feet.  In 2009 it split into two still-living parts, revealing an enormous hollow in the middle.  The date 1893 is carved into its trunk.

Found mostly in seasonally arid areas, baobabs grow very slowly as they age.  However, in its first years of life, a baobab grows relatively quickly.  A tree planted in Kruger National Park in South Africa grew 65 feet tall with an eleven-foot diameter in just 38 years.  In contrast, an older tree described by Livingstone in 1858 grew only two feet in circumference in 110 years.  Despite their early exuberance, baobabs can be cultivated as bonsai trees.

Baobab forest b&wAlthough the Glencoe baobab is thought to be two thousand years old, baobab wood does not produce annual growth rings and it actually shrinks during times of drought, so its size is not an indicator of its age.  The baobab across the grass lagoon is probably – my best guess – around 600 years old, or older, taking root about the time Eric the Red colonized Greenland (985), or later – perhaps the year Gutenberg invented the printing press (1439).  This tree, this timepiece, first dropped its leaves during the Middle Ages, and will continue dropping them, annually, for several thousand years more.

Just twenty days after leaving England, the Beagle anchored at the Cape Verde Islands on Jan 16th, 1832.  As Charles Darwin surveyed the islands with ship’s captain Robert Fitzroy, they measured a baobab that was 45 feet tall and thirteen feet in diameter, and rumored to be a thousand years old.  Darwin remarked in his diary that Adanson supposed some “celebrated baobabs” to be 6,000 years old.  The enormous tree “with its great thickness” impressed Darwin, and he wrote in his diary, “This one bears on its bark the signs of its notoriety – it is as completely covered with initials & dates as any one (tree) in Kensington Gardens.”

The Glencoe baobab has never been subjected to radiocarbon dating, but another in the Limpopo area has been carbon-dated at over 6,000 years, older than the pyramids at Giza (2560 BC).  Several other trees in the region have also been dated  – at about two-to-three thousand years old.

As I look at the baobab across the grass lagoon, I wish I could slip sideways into the life of this nearly eternal tree, and time-lapsed, witness the swirl of life around it as it fattened and grew.  And why not wish also for the future, for another one or two thousand years more?

I turn at the sound of a branch breaking behind me, squint against the sun, and cup a hand at my forehead to shade my eyes. The elephants are great gray silhouettes, haloed all around in bright, bright light.  My watch ticks on my wrist, its hands pointing to meaningless numbers.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Jabu, Uncategorized


I’m reposting this piece in honor of the new year.  It occurred very early in my blog:

Heart shapes can be found in nature, if you’re lucky enough to spy one.  There’s a heart on Jabu’s trunk, a ridge of skin that feels like fine shoe leather.  One of his wrinkles pierces the lower third of this heart shape, from left to right, straight as an arrow.  His real heart hangs between his breastbone and ribs, a little to the left, just like mine does.  But instead of having a heart with a single point, an elephant’s heart has two points at its apex – so it’s the wrinkled outline of a human heart that Jabu carries on his trunk.

The length of Jabu’s real heart is about twenty-two inches, its width eighteen.  His heart weighs around forty-four pounds, almost the same as a medium-sized dog.  Still, it’s less than 1% of his body weight, a common proportion among large mammals and among humans.  My heart also weighs less than 1% of my body weight: about ten ounces.

The human heart is approximately five inches long, three-and-a-half inches wide and shaped like a pulsing cone.  It is the only muscle in my body that acts on its own – my heartbeat doesn’t need any messages from my brain.  The cells in my heart tissue involuntarily constrict, all together, all at once, over and over, a soft perpetual-motion machine.  Rip my heart from my body, chop it into pieces, immerse the pieces in a saline solution, and then give them a small jolt of electricity.  The remnants of my cardiac muscle will contract . . . contract . . .  contract – all on their own, sometimes for hours.

It’s designed to be strong, my heart.

In mammals, birds, and reptiles the heart has the same basic pump-like design, a design that has worked through eons – even cold-blooded dinosaurs had hearts.  A day or two after fertilization, embryos develop a pinpoint that pales, then brightens, pales, then brightens, the beginnings of a tiny pump practicing emptying, filling, emptying, refilling.  An old, old pattern.  The master timepiece.

There are four chambers in my heart: two auricles (“little ears”) and two ventricles (“little bellies”) – named by anatomists for the external parts of the body they resemble.  Spent, dark-red blood is collected in the right auricle, then dropped into the right ventricle, which constricts and pumps it out to the lungs to pick up oxygen.  Bright red again, full of oxygen, blood circulates back to the left auricle and from there drops into the left ventricle.  In the next twitch blood is delivered to every corner of my body.

The “little ears,” the auricles, make very little sound as they drain blood into the lower chambers of my heart, a distance of an inch or so.  It’s the ventricles, the “little bellies,” that boom as each contraction forces open heart valves and blood gushes up the aorta under pressure.  Lupp DUPP.  Lupp DUPP.  Lupp DUPP.  One beat smaller, one beat larger, flush after flush.

My right ventricle has walls thin as paper – it delivers blood only as far as the lungs.  If I could hold it up to the light I could see right through it.  The left side of my heart is the heavyweight lifter, pumping blood all the way to my toes, moving 150,000 tons of blood in my lifetime.

Jabu’s great artery, the aorta, takes off from the left ventricle of his heart, the same as mine does.  Named in the Middle Ages, aorta means, “to heave.”   It’s an artery more flexible and sturdier than any manmade pipe.  Jabu’s left ventricle pumps a continuous stream of blood up and out of his heart into the aorta, which then drops down into his chest and down each leg, where it branches and branches and branches all the way to his toes.  Each arterial branch has less space than the artery it came from, but the sum of  their volume is always greater than their mother artery.  The blood moves, but more and more slowly through smaller and smaller pipes, trickling into all corners of Jabu’s body, trickling through capillaries one cell thick.

Blood’s trip back to the heart is made through veins.  Millions of tiny venules drain into thousands of small veins, thousands drain to hundreds, hundreds to the one that empties back into the heart.  Veins are even more elastic than arteries, can hold variable quantities of blood, and serve as a reservoir for all that moving liquid.  At any one moment, 65% of my blood is contained in my veins.  It’s an ancient blueprint, this branching, this heartbeat, this coming and going, a blueprint brought to life in even the tiniest of creatures.

Blood has to be literally hoisted from Jabu’s toes.  Squeezed along by muscles wrapped around veins, pushed by valves in the veins, and sucked upward by the huge action of breathing, blood finally arrives in the vena cava, where it drops into the heart.  Jabu has two vena cavae, possibly because of the large amounts of blood that need to be moved.  The blood vessels of an African elephant reach lengths of twelve feet, a huge network of life.

Jabu’s body contains 120 gallons of blood, enough to fill an aquarium six feet long, two feet wide and two feet deep.  At one-and-a-half gallons, my puny amount of blood would barely fill a birdbath.

Blood is the body’s only liquid organ, five times denser than water.  It takes food and water in, removes waste and byproducts to the disposal areas of the body, the kidneys, lungs, and skin.  Blood irrigates all tissue, both feeds and cleanses.  It leaves the heart at one mile per hour and returns, laden with waste, at about half that speed.  Construction materials move along highways of blood, demolished materials return.  Blood is 20% solids and 80% water, carrying products of digestion, products made by the body, foreign intruders, the dust of stars, even cobalt from the original ocean of the earth where both of us, human and elephant, began our journeys.

We each have roughly one billion heartbeats for our lives.  Mouse, hummingbird, elephant, human, all the same.  Like us, elephants suffer cardiovascular disease, die of heart attacks and strokes.

Cardiac arrest: when the heart shudders and stops, when the light in the eyes flickers, fades and snuffs.

And when the heart quits beating, its resonance

Lupp DUPP     Lupp DUPP     Lupp DUPP

is gone.  The gurgle of digestion, all the silky, sturdy, slapping noises, the blood rush, gone.  The symphony of the body is finished.

For those of us left, that silence is almost too much to bear.

The heart on Jabu’s trunk
Posted in Africa, Elephants, Jabu, Travel

Odd, How Fast We Re-civilize

An Excerpt from My Book:

In the late morning, dizzy from heat, I survey the far side of a large lagoon.  Bracketed with the dense foliage of knobthorns, leadwoods, rain trees and fever berries, this remnant left behind by the Okavango is ultramarine, inviting.  But the color is only an illusion, a reflection of the blowsy blue sky.  The water is actually steeped brown, rich with dung, dead snails, rotten vegetation, sediments, and decomposing bodies by the thousands: fish, spiders, ants, beetles – any creature unable to outrun last year’s flood.

Not far from here jungles of papyrus lean their feathery seed heads over the clear blue channels of the Okavango, tall stands that line the permanent footprint of the Delta.  The river is inching southward, breaking the boundary between water and desert.  Soon it will flush this lagoon, scouring out the sweet muck at its bottom to spread among grassy floodplains, and the desert will green.  With the river will come crocodiles and hippos and other denizens of its deep, running water.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder on mats of trampled reeds, the elephants blow a concert of bubbles, bassoons under water.  They shower their spines, poke their trunks into the back of their throats and release gallons of water at a time.  As they remove their trunks some water spills from their mouths.  An odd mossy smell rises.

My mind wanders, wondering what it would be like to follow quicksilver fingers of water season after season, migration bred into my bones.  When the river reaches this part of the Delta, a new population of birds will arrive: Wattled cranes, Egyptian geese, Reed cormorants, Darters, Avocets, Black crakes, Red-knobbed coots, Southern pochards, Sacred ibis, Hamerkops and Saddle-billed storks.

Jabu sloshes up the embankment and heads for his ration of fresh alfalfa spread under nearby trees.  His feet and ankles are covered with mud.  He looks like he’s wearing socks.  His trunk is relaxed and curled slightly, to keep the tip of it out of the mud.  Although this is just a backwater of the Okavango, huge trees line the shore behind him.  No wonder elephants grew large in Africa: there was enough room and food to do so.

I slap dust from my pants and follow, as eager as he is to tuck into lunch.  I watch him stash a chunk of alfalfa between his tusk and the upper lip of his trunk, pick off mouthful after mouthful as if eating peanuts from a bag.  He smacks his lips as he eats.  When the grass is gone he drapes his trunk over his left tusk.  His eyes close and he dozes.

In a shady grove near the lagoon a table covered with a white linen cloth dazzles the tourists.  Fresh branches of mopane decorate the surface of the table; the leaves on each branch fold modestly like small olive table linens.  Knives rest across linen napkins on white china bread plates. Pepper grinders, water glasses, oil & vinegar decanters and wineglasses complete the illusion that we’ve stumbled into the al fresco dining room of an elegant restaurant.  Nodding at murmured compliments, the staff from Stanley’s hand out cold beer, which has been uppermost on many minds.

They’ve set up a buffet complete with chafing dishes.  White lace doilies edged with heavy colored beads protect the salads from flies.  It’s odd how fast we re-civilize.  All morning long the tourists had been mostly silent, filled with awe at walking next to elephants.  Now they sprawl in camp chairs and compare camera lenses.

A cake of soap sits in the fork of a bush next to a white basin on a folding wooden stand.  I use the murky water in the basin to lather my hands.  One of the camp staff holds a pitcher of clean water for rinsing.  The water in the basin turns even grayer with dirt.  I empty the basin and small puffs of dust rise from the force of the water hitting floury sand.

Then I too re-civilize, join the human conversation.

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Thembi


Doug calls out, “Jabu here.”

Then he turns to Stacey.  “Time for a photo-op?”  I leave off drawing diagrams in the dust, stand up, dust off my pant cuffs, and join them.

Stacey fishes a disposable camera from the pocket of her shorts, “Do you mind?” and hands it to me.  I smile; she had a camera after all.

“Ears,” Doug says to Jabu in a conversational tone, in the same tone a mother might remind a teenager, “Dishes.”

But Jabu’s way ahead of him.  As soon as the camera came out he spread his ears and posed.

Stacey cuddles his trunk; I turn the camera horizontally in order to squeeze them into the frame.

“How many?’ I ask.  Practically the entire roll, it turns out.  Jabu with Stacey.  Jabu with Stacey & Doug.  Jabu and Doug.  Just Jabu.  Then Jabu with Stacey again.  It’s hard to fit all of Jabu into the frame of a point-and-shoot without Stacey appearing to be a mere speck.  I do a couple of close-ups.

Behind me seedpods rattle their tiny gourds as Thembi swishes through the grass.  Her ears ripple as she walks, a wave going through them, top to bottom.  She’s giving up eating to find out what’s going on.

Stacey joins me.  I hand over her camera.

“Squhweeek, Jabu.”

Doug’s voice rises an octave between “Squh”  and “weeek.”

Trunk tip squeezed together, Jabu obliges, emitting a series of squeaks similar in sound to rubber tires leaving skid-marks on pavement.

“It’s an inhalation,” Doug comments.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with Jabu, Thembi joins in.  And over in the brush, with her back to us, Morula squeaks too.  Like a kid in a corner, she keeps on practicing.  Her squeaks sound more like a finger rubbed across a balloon.

“Talk.” Doug says to Jabu and Thembi.

First one “talks” and then the other.  They rumble, leaning back and forth, abdomens filling and emptying like bellows, sounds made by exhalations.

It’s a rhythmic conversation.  Jabu and Thembi’s low bass tones carry layer upon layer of vibrations.  I close my eyes and imagine giant, reverberating oboes.

Is there an under-current of conversation going on between them?  Silly humans.  They get so pleased over the littlest things.

Morula saunters over.  The tip of her trunk curls against her forehead, waves Hello.

“Morula has something to show you, too” Doug says.  “Morula, open,”

First Stacey, standing on tiptoe, reaches in, and then I reach in to rub Morula’s tongue.  It’s much bigger than mine is, but feels pretty much the same – wet, soft, fleshy.  It’s flecked with bits of leaves.

There’s a common but erroneous belief throughout Asia that all elephants are tongue-tied.  It’s also believed that if the tip of their tongue were not tied down at the front of their mouths, each and every one of them could speak.

Morula pushes against Doug’s fingers with her strong tongue.

What if Morula could speak?  There’s not a single one of us who do not wish that the great beasts of this world could whisper into our ears the secret of life, could answer our questions in a language we might understand.

But would we want to hear what they have to say about us?

Something tickles the underbrush, a small rustle from a smaller body.  Insects buzz in the background, a white noise that echoes the beginnings of the universe, a biological chorus constantly singing.

 I listen as if I am a young species, as if my life depended on

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Sandi, Thembi, Travel

Mammals Are Called Mammals Becuz. . .

An excerpt from my book, Larger than Life:

Doug gets my full attention when he proclaims to his guests, “Thembi has a great set of knockers.”

“Thembi, leg.”

She obliges by bending her left front leg at the knee and raising it, exposing a clear view of her breast.  “See?  Elephant mammary glands are located on the chest, like humans.”

A Great Set of Knockers

I lean over Doug’s shoulder and look at two gray breasts with permanently erect nipples.  They’re about the size of a medium cantaloupe and, like human breasts, slightly globular, due to the pull of gravity.

“Alllllll-right, Thembi.”  As her foot touches the ground, she flaps her ears and her trunk snorfles around his feet.

“If you reach in like this,” Doug demonstrates, “you can feel them.”

Steadying myself with one hand on Thembi’s leg, I reach in and cup her breast with the other hand.  The skin of her breast is as soft as an old, creased leather bag.  Her nipple, as one might expect, is harder than the flesh around it.

Thembi emits a low, murmuring rumble.

“Oh you like that, do you, Thembi girl?”  Doug chuckles.

I quickly withdraw my hand and step away from her side.

“Anyone else want to try?” asks Doug.

Out of the seven of us, several people look away, several look down.  No one ventures forward.  I can’t tell if everyone is embarrassed or just reticent.  Feeling up an elephant may not be quite what they had in mind.  It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind.

“Well, OK.  Mammals are called mammals because . . . . ?”

One of the guests ventures, “Mammary glands?”

“Right.”  Doug continues his lecture: “Like all mammals, Thembi’s lactiferous ducts terminate in her nipples.  They point out a bit, while Morula’s nipples point down.  Thembi gets a bit of stimulation while she walks, don’t you, Thembi girl?”

Some of the guests look mildly scandalized, while others giggle and whisper to each other.

Doug rubs Thembi’s leg, which generates another snorfle.

Female elephants don’t have a row of teats, like cats or dogs.  They don’t lie on their sides, suckling a litter.  Elephant calves nurse standing up, with their small trunks flipped over an eye like a wayward curl.

All mammal breasts are modified sweat glands.  Some mammal breasts are located in the groin and some on the chest.  The breasts between Thembi’s front legs are in the same location mine would be if I walked around on all fours.  Her breasts weigh about four pounds each, .1% of her body weight.  Human breasts weigh .08% of total body weight, dogs 2%, rats 9%.

Do all mammals have larger breast size to body weight than humans?  I pull out my notebook to write down that question, but then decided I really don’t care, and put the notebook away.

“Is she pregnant?” asks the woman behind me.

Although Thembi possesses relatively trim tonnage in comparison to the other two elephants, she is significantly rounder – huge thighs, huge belly, a Rubenesque sort of girl with a really long nose – and very full breasts, unusually large for a non-pregnant elephant.

“We don’t think so,” Doug replies.  “We had her hormone levels tested about six months ago, and they were normal.  She’s an enthusiastic eater, so she might be a tad rotund because of that.  She might be incubating a surprise, but we doubt it.”

Sandi laughs. “That’s because she’s a bit of a flirt with the wild boys around here, but when things get serious she becomes quite horrified and scoots on home.”

Another one of the guests pipes up: “Has Jabu ever tried mating with her?”

“Yes, he’s tried,” Sandi replies, “But we’ve never yet seen him achieve intromission.”

Heads nod thoughtfully.  I can see intromission has thrown them a bit.  It’s not a word commonly used to describe sexual penetration, but I think most of the guests have a general idea of what it might mean.  Several of their heads swivel to gaze at Jabu, ripping apart a nearby bush.  Since he’s such a big boy, why couldn’t he just have his own way?

“Thembi doesn’t really favor him,” says Sandi, as if she’s reading minds.

“What if she had a calf?”

There’s not one second of hesitancy to Sandi’s reply: “Oh, we’d keep it.  It wouldn’t be easy, though.  Thembi’s never been in a breeding herd and has no clue about birth.  And she’s rather stuck on herself, you know.  We don’t think she’d be a good mother.  But if it happened, we’d make it work.”

Even though it’s not likely that Jabu and Thembi will become pachyderm parents, I can easily imagine Thembi as a pregnant princess, mood swings, food cravings and all.  As if to prove my point, she regally sweeps through a stand of grass, a princess on a mission.  She breaks off a few branches from a small thornbush, stuffs them against her back molars and chews with her mouth open.

Thembi has never been with an extended herd of mothers and sisters and aunts and hasn’t had the opportunity to learn the complex behaviors required to be a mother.  She’s never learned that newborn calves stay in physical contact ninety-nine percent of the time, either below or beside their mothers.  Although calves will begin to forage by nine months, they continue to suckle for about four years.  Elephants in zoos will quite frequently shun newborn calves.  So I can just about predict Thembi’s reaction to a calf:  What IS this thing following me around?

I glance over at Jabu.  He has nipples, too.  Guy nipples, nozzle-like nipples, surrounded with sparse hair.

A Guy Nipple

All mammals have three distinct features: hair, three middle ear bones, and mammary glands.  Even whales, dolphins, porpoises and manatees have hair, usually on their snouts or next to blowholes.  Elephants and manatees shared a common ancestor fifty-six million years ago, but the nipples of female manatees are now under their flippers, in their armpits.

A question comes from the back of the tourist group.  “What about Morula?”

Dear, Old Maid Morula.  The wallflower with big ears, large liquid eyes and a knobby forehead.

“If an elephant doesn’t breed by the age of twenty-five, they are unlikely to,” Sandi replies.  “Morula is already the ripe old age of thirty.”

Female elephants typically become active at a quite young age, around thirteen.  They can conceive as early as ten years old and possibly have 12-15 offspring by the time they are fifty.  Female calves will stay with the herd the rest of their lives.

Male elephants take a bit longer to mature and become sexually active around the age of twenty-nine.

Morula has missed the boat.  But I’ll bet she’d make a great aunty.  She stands close by, slowly opening and closing her great ears, patiently watching.

One of the Lactating Class

When he first developed his classification system, Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus originally called mammals Quadrupedia, after the name Aristotle gave them.  Later he became actively opposed to wet-nursing practices in the 1750s and wrote a book on the benefits of breast-feeding your own child.  As a political act, he reclassified Quadrupedia to Mammalia in later editions of his most famous work, Systema Naturae, defining mammals as a lactating class within the Animalia kingdom, a classification that has lasted to this day – all because women of nobility in Linnaeus’s time thought breastfeeding would ruin their figures.

Certainly that’s one thing Thembi doesn’t have to worry about.

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Sandi, Thembi, Travel

What Happened Next

It Looked Harmless.



I know what will happen next.

I’ve already leaned too far forward on my right foot, anticipating the left will follow.  But the clog on that foot is mired in the Okavango muck, cemented in place, my balance irreversibly committed in the wrong direction.

What happens next is a slow-motion twist to my right, as I go down in thigh-high brown water and ooze, down into decayed leaf litter, down into a mat of decomposed anaerobic slime.

My right arm drops to cushion my fall and my left arm shoots up, holding my brand-new camera above my head – the camera purchased just for this trip to Africa.

I create primary and secondary waves as my hip and shoulder enter a backwater swamp of the Okavango.  The waves push against a small clump of reeds.  Elephant dung floats by.  A brackish, decayed scent rises.

The sun hasn’t moved more than a tick in the blue Botswana sky.

Just before The Fall

I come to rest against the reeds – all of my right side invisibly encased in muck.  But my left arm is dry, above the water, my camera clutched at the end of it like a trophy.

Sandi is already splashing in my direction.  She tugs on my dry arm.

“Let me help you up,” she offers.

“No, just take the camera.”

She places its strap around her neck.

I roll against the reeds and use both hands to push myself upright.  I reach down, and blindly find my shoe.  I need both hands to pry it out of the muck.

“I think I’m going to have to go barefoot,” and flinch at a secondary thought.  “I hope there aren’t any lead wood thorns.”  Two-inches long, strong as steel, straight as nails – they’d go right through the bottom of my feet.

“I’ll go first,” Sandi says.  Her sandals aren’t sticking in the ooze.

Oddly enough, the muck at the bottom of the swamp is soft as a pillow to my bare feet.  It wraps around my ankles and squishes up between my toes.  I place each foot carefully, not committing my weight until it’s safe to do so.

It takes forever to cross.  Doug and the elephants patiently wait for us on the opposite side.

When we reach the far bank I put my clogs back on.  Sandi hands me my camera.

“We’ll put your clothes in the washing machine tonight.”

“Washing machine?”

“We brought one into camp last year.”

“Really?  How’d you do that?”

“On the back of the hay truck.”

I look down at my pants and shirt, both mottled by muck.

A lot has changed in five years.

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Sandi, Thembi, Travel

Transported into the Okavango Delta

As the Air Botswana flight descended into Maun, I looked out the window and gasped.  The Okavango floods had already reached the Thamalakane River on the outskirts of town!  Ponds, lagoons, lakes and meandering channels filled the landscape to the horizon.  The last time I visited, in 2007, Maun sat in the middle of a dusty desert.  Now blue waters surrounded it, sparkling in the sunlight.

In the terminal stood a small woman with a permanent smile, bright brown eyes and a “Mack Air” sign.  As Grace sorted scrums of passengers onto various flights out into the Delta she said, “Wait for me over there.”  Throughout a confusion of bags and jetlagged tourists, she never lost her smile.

I followed her to the Mack Air offices across the street from the terminal.  “Tea?” she queried.  Over the next several hours the office staff must have offered tea at least a dozen times – unfailingly polite through an amazing amount of chaos.  One of their charter aircraft had lost radio contact and they were sending messages every plane in the air over the Delta, hoping for a visual sighting.  Finally everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief when one of the ground crew reported that the airplane just landed in Maun.  But the relief was only temporary – the aircraft’s radio couldn’t be fixed.

Now the remaining available aircraft had to be scrambled into new flights.  “Tea?”  “No, thank you.”  One of Mack Air’s pilots wandered in.  “I can take the 206.”  And off he went to pick up tourists at one of the camps.  “Two airstrips flooded overnight,” one of the office staff informed me.  “Tea?”  “No, thank you.”  Grace smiled.

Another pilot wandered in, conferred with the office manager in a low voice, and wandered out.  “Tea?”  “No, thank you.”  Computer screens flooded with revised schedules.  The radio carried constant conversations between the office and pilots scattered over the Delta.  The office staff leaned into their screens, several chewing gum in that constant motion that concentration brings to jaw movement.  “Cheryl Merrill?” asked the receptionist, “Where is she?”

All eyes, except hers swiveled toward me.  “Oh,” she said, following their looks, her face flushing into a luminous red-brown.  She giggled into her hands as I waved to her.  “Don’t worry, we’ll find you a flight,” Grace said.  “It will take a while.  Tea?”

I wandered over to the wall with pilot pictures.  Mack Air is an independent charter company based in Maun, ferrying passengers and freight all over the Delta. The profiles of their eighteen pilots pretty much covered one wall.  Seven are originally from South Africa, three from Botswana, and the rest from countries as diverse as New Zealand and Mauritius.  One photograph stood out:  Hazel Esitile, who began flying for Mack Air in February of 2011.  She’s quoted as saying, “What a man can do, a woman can do too!”  I secretly began to hope Hazel will be my pilot.

But it was Paul, choosing bush flying “as my mid-life crisis,” who escorted me out to a Cessna 210 Centurion.  Trying for some chatty small talk, I remarked, “My husband used to own a 172.”  Paul squinted at me.  “Hate those.  Had to train in them.  No power.”  He opened the cabin door. “Want to sit up front?”

“Of course!”

I crawled over the pilot’s seat and buckled into the “copilot’s” seat, which is simply another passenger spot in small aircraft.

“It’s a little bumpy out there today,” Paul said.  “Did they tell you we’re flying to Gunn’s Camp?”

“No,” I said.

“They’re working on Stanley’s airstrip.  Somebody will pick you up.”

“Okay,” I said.

Small charter aircraft fly low and slow over the Delta – a perfect vantage point to inspect the current Okavango Flood.  In 2011, the Okavango reached record levels, pushed by increased rain in both the Delta and Angola (headwaters of the Okavango system) and large amounts of residual ground water from the 2009 and 2010 floods.  The “dry” cycle of the Delta lasted between 1985 and 2005; now it is assumed that the “wet” cycle will last another ten to twelve years.  Where extensive game drives were once possible, now boats take their place.  I marveled at how much land was underwater.

The difference from space:

A dry year in the Delta

A wet year.

For the first time in 29 years, the Savuti Channel was flooded, the Savuti Marsh swelled with birds and water seeped south into the desert pans.

And so, rather than a 15-minute drive to Stanley’s from their airport, I took an hour-long trip down the Boro River and into meandering side channels that would have me instantly lost.

Reflected in two mirrors as we pushed through a side channel.

And, because all of Stanley’s vehicles were out on afternoon game drives, one vehicle at Baine’s (Stanley’s sister camp) was commandeered to transport me at Doug and Sandi’s place.  The flood had marooned the Groves’s vehicle in Maun.

We forded rivers that were once roads.

Making waves

Sandi met me at their kitchen shelter.  “Doug and the Trio are headed out to forage.  Want to join us or settle in?”

Are you kidding?  Eight hours after boarding an aircraft in Johannesburg, I was transported to this:

Sundown with Jabu and Thembi
Half moon at sundown

And several hours later, after dark, we walked back under a half moon.  I had forgotten my flashlight, but I could still follow three huge silhouettes against the stars.  I was back in Africa!

PS:  The NASA images above were taken by MODIS (or Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) – a key instrument aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites. According to NASA, “Terra’s orbit around the Earth passes from north to south across the equator in the morning, while Aqua passes south to north over the equator in the afternoon. Their orbits view the entire Earth’s surface every 1 to 2 days.  The data they gather will hopefully improve the understanding of global dynamics and processes occurring on the land, in the oceans, and in the lower atmosphere. MODIS plays a vital role in the development of global Earth models able to predict global change accurately enough to assist policy makers to make sound decisions concerning the protection of our environment.”  (Fingers crossed that they do.)

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Hyenas, Jabu, Morula, Sandi, Thembi, Travel

Out of Africa!

Peek-a-boo with Jabu

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!

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Sandi, Thembi, Travel

Goodbye, Hello

Jabu, Thembi, Doug, Sandi, Morula

In 2007, this was my last glimpse of Doug and Sandi, and their three incredible elephants.  Tomorrow I get on an airplane and begin a long two-day journey to return to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, to turn from “Goodbye,” to “Hello.”

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Extinction, Jabu


Jabu’s tusk

Carved ivory thrones are mentioned in the Bible.  King Solomon had one, covered with gold.  Tutankhamen’s casket had a carved ivory headrest for his pillow.  Cicero wrote of Roman houses where ivory doors opened onto entire rooms covered with ivory tiles.  Gladiators had chariots made of ivory.

In the 1800s, in Africa, ton after ton of tusks were transported thousands of miles to Zanzibar and Khartoum, carried on the backs of slaves.  An estimated two million elephants were slaughtered from 1860 to 1882, their tusks fashioned into billiard balls and piano keys.

The decade between 1979 and 1989 was the deadliest ever for African elephants.  Over 691,000 died.  In a line, trunk to tail, enough elephants to cover the distance between Miami, Florida and New York City: 1120 miles.  Around 8800 tons of ivory was harvested in that decade.  The average weight of tusks traded in 1979 was 21 pounds.  Fifty-two elephants died for each ton of tusks.  By the mid-1980s the average weight had shrunk to just 11 pounds – and so more elephants, 100 of them, died per ton.

In just one decade, the elephant population of Africa was halved – from 1.3 million to 650,000.

In Amboseli National Park, in Tanzania, a recessive gene is becoming dominant, occurring in 50 years instead of thousands, selected by poachers.

Year after year tuskless elephants are born.