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