Category Archives: Sandi

A Proboscis Par Excellence

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

Jabu’s trunk tip investigates my right boot.  Its scent swirls up two seven-foot-long nostrils – nostrils surrounded by nerves, arteries, veins and a staggering array of longitudinal and transverse muscles, the world’s biggest, longest and certainly most flexible olfactory organ.

A trunk is the most useful appendage that ever evolved.  Imagine having an arm in place of your nose, an arm long enough to reach to the top of a tree and pluck a single leaf from its crown.  Imagine having a nose that could rip, tear, excavate, whack, and blow bubbles.  You could steal with your nose, suck on it, or swat, poke and siphon with your nose.  You could take a shower, scratch your back, or whistle with it.  You could even arm wrestle with your nose.

The seven-foot septum that divides Jabu’s nostrils is made of muscle, not cartilage.  It becomes cartilage where his trunk attaches to his skull above his eyes.  Thick layers of skin and muscle protect his trunk.  It’s impossible for him to break his boneless nose, even when he uses it like a battering ram.

He picks up a wizened palm nut.

I ask Sandi, “How many of the fruits can he hold in his trunk?”

“Would you like a photo of that?”  She takes some of the fruit already on the ground and puts them one, by one in the tip of Jabu’s trunk.  “Jabu, good boy, Jabu, one more.”

Three, it turns out, but carefully placed so he can still breathe.

“Good, my boy, goooood. Okay Jabu!” Sandi tells him, and he spits out the fruits Whoooof! all at once.

Then he picks them up and gently tosses them, one by one, back to her.

Mammals Are Called Mammals Becuz. . .

As promised, I’m re-visiting the third most popular blog post of my blog in 2014:  an excerpt from my book, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

 

 

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.

Fish Eagles/Bald Eagles/Fish Eagles/Bald Eagles

An excerpt from my book:

After a long morning walking with tourists we stumble into a shady grove near a lagoon and into the illusion of an al fresco dining room in an elegant restaurant. Fresh branches of mopane decorate the surface of a table covered with a white linen cloth.  The leaves on each mopane branch fold modestly like small olive origami decorations.  Knives rest across white linen napkins on white china bread plates.  The staff from Stanley’s have set up a buffet complete with chafing dishes.  White lace doilies edged with heavy colored beads protect the salads from flies.  Pepper grinders, oil & vinegar decanters water glasses and wineglasses complete the setting.  Nodding at murmured compliments, the bartender hands out cold beer, which has been uppermost on many minds.Al fresco restaurant b&w

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.

While Sandi minds the elephants, Doug mounds his plate with food.  He has that unique gift of talking and eating at the same time, consuming enormous amounts of food and speaking in short bursts.  Each time he answers a question he sets his fork down and regretfully watches where he places it.

“Look!”

Our heads swivel and our eyes follow a finger pointing skyward.

Locked together, talon-to-talon, fish eagles plummet toward earth in their mating dance, twirling in passionate grip with each other, taut bodies wheeling faster and faster towards earth, picking up suicidal speed.

The eagles break off a second before hitting the ground and swoop up to roost in trees opposite each other.  They scream back and forth, flinging their heads over their shoulders.  The female’s voice is lower, counter-point to the male’s shriek.

One of the camp staff shakes his head.  “I have never seen that before.”

Beaut fish eagle illus b&wLike the bald eagles of North America, fish eagles have chestnut bodies, long yellow beaks, yellow feet, pure-white heads, white tails and chests, although their bibs are larger.

They have the same habits: they mate for life and build huge stick nests in trees, nests twelve feet wide and ten feet deep.  They dwell in the same habitats: rivers, lakes, creeks, lagoons, estuaries, and man-made reservoirs.  Both carry fresh fish caught near the surface in their grasping talons, carry the fish headfirst for lesser wind resistance, one claw behind the other, surfing, riding a fish through the air.

The eagles are a reminder that in only five more days I will be going home.  Home, where I once witnessed bald eagles teaching their young how to snatch crows out of the air.  Where bald eagles row fish ashore, using their wings as oars when the fish are too large to hoist aloft.

 

Home.  Here.  Home.  Here.  Home.  Here.

 

Where I live and where I am.  That dual place inside me, moment and memory, locked together, spiraling, spiraling, just like these fish eagles, feather tip to feather tip, talon to talon.  Mind spinning, I want to hold onto a tree with fierce feet, cry out, return to the ground, stay here.  Learn from birds, from clouds, from rain.

 

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.

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.

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.)

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!

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.”

Sleight of Trunk

An excerpt from my book:

The tip of Morula’s trunk, like that of all African elephants, has two opposing fleshy extensions of muscle called “fingers,” one on the top of the tip, one on the bottom.  Asian elephants have only one “finger” on the upper side of their trunk tips.  To pick up objects, Asian elephants grasp an object between their single digit and the thick, stumpy underside of their trunk tips.

With her “fingers” Morula can remove a thorn, uncork a bottle, turn on a faucet, write with a stick in the sand, pick a leaf from a branch without making the others quiver, hold a cup by its handle, and swipe loose objects with the dexterity of a pickpocket.

Morula pinches the cap on my head and lifts it.

“Morula, behave yourself.”  I hear Doug’s voice behind me.

My cap plunks down, askew.  I take it off and examine a two-pronged smear of mud on its crown.

Amazing.

I had no sensation of her huge trunk hovering over my head.

Morula backs away, gazing sideways and down, caught in the act.

Who me? says her body language.

An exultant thief, Morula looks in every direction but at me.  If she could giggle, she’d be doing it now.

”Morula,” Doug tone is scolding, but all of us laugh, humans and elephant together.  Morula’s mouth is open and curled at the ends and she becomes, if possible, lighter on her feet, cross-stepping away from me.

Doug once wrote in his field notes:  “To experience these creatures fully, you have to be anthropomorphic.”

I agree.  How do humans measure anything but against themselves?

Stacey can’t wait to join the sleight-of-trunk game, but her hat is brand-new.  It’s not even dusty.

“Here,” Doug says, and plunks his hat, stained multiple times by his elephants’ trunks, on Stacey’s head.

“OK,” he says, “Jabu.  Take.”

Jabu fingers the hat, swipes it, and lifts it to the crown of his head.

Jabu takes a hat

“Jabu, Allll right,” Doug says, and Doug’s hat is returned to Stacey’s head, one more smear on its discolored crown.

She turns it in her hands before handing it back to Doug.  “Wow,” she says.

But I’m more impressed with Jabu’s quick assessment of the change of rules in a game he’s played over and over again.  This hat game wasn’t a simple one.  Jabu had two side-by-side bare heads upon which to place Doug’s hat.  And Doug’s hat would smell like Doug.  Yet Jabu knew which head was which.  And he knew Doug’s hat did not belong on Doug’s head this time.

Out in the field ahead of us Morula and Thembi continuously wrap and rip grass out by its roots, zzzzzzt,  zzzzzzt.  They beat the grass on the ground to remove sand and then place the thatch sideways in their mouths.  Bits of it fall to the ground as they grind their massive molars together.

Sandi stands near the road, watching them patiently, a mother with bright, exuberant children.  Her eyes slide sideways as I walk up next to her.  “Do you ever get tired of this?”  I swing my arm, trying to encompass the entire scene.  Four inches shorter than I am, Sandi tilts her head to look into my face.

“No.  We’re family,” she says.  I don’t have a reply to that simple statement so we both watch the elephants.  Then she says, “Sometimes I miss lipstick and makeup and movies.  But not often.”

I turn around to look at Stacey and Doug behind us.  Doug stands under Jabu’s head and Stacey is next to him.  Deep in conversation, they have their backs to us, looking in general direction of the way we came.  Jabu curls his trunk down and awkwardly to the right, exploring the scent of Stacey’s hair.  Even though the tip of his trunk is out of his range of vision, it hovers an inch from Stacey’s face as she, absentmindedly, touches it with one hand the way a child might reach for the arm of a mother brushing her hair.

Hyenas

An excerpt from my book:

I zip shut my tent, first the inner mesh, then the heavy outer canvas flap, fastening the zippers all the way to their ends – a precaution against unwanted visitors such as scorpions, snakes or the thieving hyenas of Stanley’s Camp.  Two days ago, in the late evening, I waited for Doug while the camp’s manager kept me company.  He handed me a cold Tusker and pointed to the banks of a nearby lagoon.  “Hyenas drug our leather sofa out there and ripped it apart.”

The sofa never had a chance.  A pack of frenzied hyenas can devour a four- hundred-pound zebra in less than half an hour, eating everything: bones, skull, hair, even hooves – leaving only a smear of blood on the ground.  With a bite pressure of over a thousand pounds, hyenas pulverize and swallow enough bone their feces turn chalk-white.  They will filch anything not locked up: boots, toothpaste, shaving cream, underwear, soap, even bottles of hot sauce.  What’s glass to a creature that can eat a zebra’s hoof?  In the case of the sofa, they ate the leather and left a gnawed wooden frame.

“Why the sofa?” I asked the manager.  I imagined the scenario: in the dead of night the hyenas climb a set of wooden steps into the dining lounge, shove aside several tables and chairs, pull the sofa from the lounge down the steps and drag it the length of a football field to deposit it at the lagoon.

“Just the oil from human hands.”  He rubbed a palm across the sofa’s replacement.  It too is leather.  I tried not to think of it as also doomed.

A well-known hyena den is very near the main road to Stanley’s Camp.  Since I had some time before Doug arrived in his 3F, one of the guides drove me over to the den just at dusk.

As we sat quietly, motor off, a lone Spotted Hyena tentatively emerged from the den.  She had the usual hyena slouched profile: massive head and shoulders tapering to small, tucked-in hindquarters – a hybrid creature: half fearsome predator, half coward.  The second largest carnivore in Africa, (after the lion), the Spotted Hyena is larger than her Brown Hyena cousins.  Her family is more aggressive, too – a single adult, weighing at the most 140 pounds, is capable of hunting and killing a bull wildebeest of 600 pounds.  Although hyenas kill ninety-five percent of what they eat, they also loot the kills of leopards, lions and cheetahs at every opportunity.  Lions can’t digest hair and bones, but  hyenas are happy to do that for them.

Grinning her famous false smile, the hyena sat at the entrance of the den and turned her black, empty eyes toward us.

Less than a moment after, black fuzzballs erupted behind her.  As she returned each pup to the den’s entrance, another escaped and then another.  The grinning, panting, anxious nanny seemed to be having a nervous breakdown.  I would have considered the pups cute, except for the hyena’s awful reputation.

Last night, when I mentioned the sofa, Sandi told me that hyenas had killed an eleven-year-old American boy several years ago at the Xakanaxa (Kah-khan-a-kah) Campground, thirty miles northeast of here.  Despite the young age of her son, the mother allowed him to sleep by himself.  Awakened by crazed laughter, the guide saw a huge female hyena dragging the boy’s partially eaten body into the bush.   Guides from nearby camps helped locate what was left of the decapitated body, driving away the hyenas and guarding it until daylight.  For two years afterwards, his mother haunted the streets of Maun and the area around Xakanaxa, carrying her son’s ashes, looking for clues as to how he died.  Did he leave his tent unzipped?  Did he have food in his tent?

In the parks and game reserves of Africa, you never, never sleep with your food.  At Doug and Sandi’s kitchen shelter anything even remotely edible is secured in heavy metal lockers or inside a propane-powered refrigerator.  Over at Stanley’s, food is kept behind the heavy doors of a wood-frame kitchen.  Watchmen patrol the camp.

Last night I double-zipped myself into my tent – first the heavy outer canvas flap, then the inner mesh.  Hyenas are opportunistic and would walk right in if my tent were open.  Hyenas hunt in packs and mostly at night, so I was grateful to find an enamel chamber pot on my side of the zipper.

My tent

This morning, I emptied the pot into the “African long-drop” located near my tent.  The “long-drop” is a plastic commode fitted over a hole in the ground that’s about five feet deep.  No walls, no roof, no door – just the surrounding bush, a hole in the ground and me.

Next to the commode a small shovel sticks upright into a pile of ash.  I raise the lid, empty the chamber pot, and shovel in ash and close the lid.  No smell, no flies.  I much prefer African long-drops to American outhouses.

I rinse the pot from the spigot outside my tent, throw the water out into the brush, stash the pot back inside the tent, wash my hands in a basin under the spigot, toss that water, replace the basin, stash the soap back inside my tent, and zip it shut.  No hyena’s gonna scatter my stuff all over Africa.

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