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, Jabu, Morula, Thembi, Travel

The Most Useful Appendage Ever Evolved

Morula plucks a branch from one of her favorite snacks, a bush-willow.  She holds the stem in her teeth, wraps her trunk from right to left around the branch, and sheers off leaves, top-to-bottom with a single swipe.  She drops the branch and transfers the leaves from the curl of her trunk into her mouth.

Morula is right-trunked, as I am right-handed, preferring to grab and wrap from the right.  Thembi is also right-trunked, but Jabu’s a lefty.

One of the ways to determine an elephant’s dominant tendencies is to inspect the underside of its trunk for green stains on either the right side or the left.  But before you do this, make sure you know the elephant and, more importantly, the elephant knows you.

Morula peels and discards branch after branch.  Shredded bushes mark her path.  She pauses next to a candle-pod acacia, easily recognizable by its upright seedpods.  It reminds me of a giant leafy candelabrum, holding a hundred or more candles in ruffled tiers.  Sharp curved thorns protect each pod.  Morula strips the acacia of a branch, then puts it in her mouth and eats it, thorns, pods and all.

She sidles close to Doug and curls her trunk against her forehead.

“Those round bumps on her forehead might be an old skin infection,” Doug tells me, “but we really don’t know.”

Morula waves hello

A light breeze feathers the hair in her ears as she stands slightly sideways and nods the tipof her trunk in a tiny Hello. . .   Ribbed muscles cross the underside of her trunk.  Bristles stick out like the legs of a giant centipede.

There is no other living creature on this planet that has a trunk.  If elephants were already extinct, which brave paleontologist would go out on a limb and reconstruct the trunk just from evidence of bony nostrils high on the skull?  Who could imagine a nose dangling close to the ground where scents abound?  A nose with the ability to pick up a single straw, rip a tree out by its roots, bench-press 600 pounds and untie your shoelaces without you ever noticing?

“Stand here,” Doug commands me.

I obey, my back to an elephant lineup.

With a little guidance from Doug, Thembi gently places the tip of her trunk on top of my head.  It feels like a big beanbag up there, but one that’s warm, wiggly, drooling and breathing.

As Thembi rubs nose slime into my hair, Doug places Jabu’s trunk tip on my right shoulder and then Morula’s on my left.

Jabu has trouble keeping his trunk balanced on such a narrow ledge.  He constantly fidgets and pokes my cheek with his bristles.  Morula’s trunk drapes over my shoulder like a slack hose with a dripping nozzle.  Her runny nose continuously drains to clear out inhaled dust – the common condition of all elephant trunks.

When I look down and to the left, I have a close-up view of the two “fingers” on her trunk.  Her top finger is more pointed than the one on the bottom.  The shape of it reminds me of a hooded cobra.  But perhaps that’s because I think of Morula’s trunk as thinner and “snakier” than Jabu’s spectacular snout.

Which is getting heavier by the moment.  With the peripheral vision in my right eye, I see two nostrils dotted with grains of moist sand, nostrils more flesh-colored than gray.  Each opening is nearly as wide as the “O” of my mouth.

All three trunk tips, I can attest, are not just sheer weights.  They sniff, snorf, squirm, wiggle, inhale and exhale.  They create an atmosphere of elephant breath around my head.

Doug lowers my camera and pronounces, “Allll-right.”

The weights disappear.  For a few steps I am oddly light, as if walking on the surface of the moon.

There is an elsewhere, somewhere, but it’s not a place I want to be right now.

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

A Morning Walk with Elephants, Part One

An excerpt from my book:

The sun rises with spokes on her head like the Statue of Liberty.  She rises into an immense lemon sky that almost turns green before it turns blue.  She ignites the tops of trees with her torch.  Bare, wood-muscular branches of a jackal-berry tree stretch above my head, tips ablaze with light.  Crisp and clear, the air tastes of damp sage mixed with cold sand.

Doug sets down his coffee cup and leaves to fetch the elephants.  Skirting a tree-line filled with purple shadows, he crosses an open field of grass.

Sandi and I wait, our hands wrapped around steaming cups.

Half an hour later Doug returns.  Jabu, Thembi and Morula are right behind him.

Sandi whispers, “Let’s go, Jabu,” and he turns away to follows her down the dusty road in front of camp.

 Plain-Jane Morula is next to saunter past, her broad, honest face etched with a network of creases and wrinkles, the tip of her trunk canted in my direction.  Thembi lags behind, with Doug at her side, but soon catches up to Jabu, picking up a stick like he does, stashing it between her trunk and tusk like he does, dropping it just as soon as he does.

The order in which they assemble never varies.  First Jabu, then Morula, and finally Thembi.  Yet, when we set off on our morning walks, it is always Morula, the oldest, who brings up the rear.

We mosey away from camp at a slow ramble, all in a line – Doug and Sandi, three elephants, and me.

Yesterday I traveled by jet.  Today I fall into place behind an elephant.  My mind is having a hard time keeping up with a change greater than eight time zones and two hemispheres.

I’m clumsy in this new world.  The old discarded one of concrete and cell phones trails me like a lost dog.  I kick at it, but it circles back to nip at my heels.  It just won’t leave me alone.

Tufts of grass nods gently in the wind of our passing.  Isolated clumps of finger grass wave six-digit tassels at us.  The fingers of a slight breeze hold my hair up to the sun.

Morula stops, turns, and takes a single step toward me.  Somehow she doubles in size.


My heart leaps, captive within its ribs, desperate to flee.  I know Morula is not wild, not truly.  I know she has spent half her life with Doug and Sandi.  Nevertheless, I’m paralyzed.  I forget how to breathe.  Everyone else is up near the front of the herd, as far away as another continent.

Morula stands in half-profile, stares at me with one nut-brown eye.  A feathery tuft of hair sticks out from her ear canal.  Her mottled forehead glistens like cracked mud.

Slowly she blinks her eyes, flaps her ears, and a lifetime later swings around to overtake Thembi.  I exhale as they entwine trunks.

Cicadas chirr, stirring up the morning.  I stare down at huge round footprints in the dust.  I look up; the elephants are receding.  Last in line, I’ve been left behind.

Wait for me! shouts every cell in my brain, as I scramble to catch up with the herd, take my allotted slot in the order of march.

Posted in Elephants, Thembi

Thembi by Moonlight

An excerpt from my book:

We walk out to the elephant’s enclosure under the lidless eye of a full moon.  Puffs of dust stir around my feet, pale little clouds that settle to the ground.  The scent of sand and dung layers a gritty, farmyard taste at the back of my throat.  Soft rustles in the waist-high grass are unseen snakes or mice or birds.

Moist as a swamp cooler, musty and bacterial, the night air condenses into cold pools and sends my fingers into my pockets.  Warm air under the trees brings them out again.

My vision is elemental, full of shapes without fine details.  As I walk, shifting slabs of moonglow keep rearranging trees as if they are pieces on a giant pearled chessboard, their trunks whitewashed the color of ash.

The elephant’s enclosure is hidden in the bush, around a few bends in the road and down a dusty path, out of view for the guests at Stanley’s Camp. The enclosure consists of two heavy cables strung high and low through seven-foot wooden posts set in concrete.  A second, lighter wire is suspended outside the periphery.  Cowbells dangle from it, an early-warning system for invaders or escapees.  Granted, an elephant could bust out of (or into) this enclosure in less than a minute.  It’s more of a security blanket for the Trio, a protected space for eating and sleeping.

Just ahead a huge smudge of charcoal broadens.


Hushed and gaping, tugged like a blank comet into an immense gravitational presence, I orbit a little to the left in a cautious arc.

With a low throaty rumble MmmmRRRRRrrrrrr, his own elephant greeting, Doug slips under her jaw and stands by her side.  Glasses on his face are two mirrored moons.  He reaches up and strokes the skin just in front of her ear.

“Steady, Thembi,” he says, “you’re a pretty girl, aren’t you Thembi?”  He pronounces her name “Tem-bee.”

She nods Yes.  Later I will learn Thembi always nods Yes at the word “pretty.”  But she is a beautiful elephant, all her proportions flawless.  And Thembi knows she is pretty.  She holds herself perfectly still in half-profile, the way beautiful women do all over the world when under regard by an admiring eye.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Thembi, Uncategorized


An excerpt from my book:

With a low throaty rumble MmmmRRRRRrrrrrr, his own elephant greeting, Doug slips under Thembi’s jaw and stands by her side.  He reaches up and strokes the skin just in front of her ear.

“Steady, Thembi,” he says, “you’re a pretty girl, aren’t you Thembi?”  He pronounces her

Doug & Thembi

name “Tem-bee.”

She nods Yes.  Later I will learn Thembi always nods Yes at the word “pretty.”  But she is a beautiful elephant, all her proportions flawless.  And Thembi knows she is pretty.  She holds herself perfectly still in half-profile, the way beautiful women do all over the world when under regard by an admiring eye.

But her pose does not last long.  She turns her attention to a pile of mopane branches.  She picks up a single branch, strips its bark and stuffs the curled peelings into her mouth.  Thembi is after the sweet, green inner bark of the smaller branches.  Dessert first, the main course later.

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Sandi, Thembi, Writing

The Elephants Who Accepted Me as Part of Their Herd

An excerpt from my book:

Jabu, Morula and Thembi live in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.  I don’t need radio collars or binoculars or even 4-wheel drive vehicles to study them.  They are companions, who allow me to walk alongside them, close as an eyelash.  Adopted as orphans from culling operations by Doug and Sandi Groves, they spend their days as most wild elephants do: strolling and eating.  But they are also willing ambassadors between the elephant world and the human world.

Walk with me.  Stroll with three unfettered and unfenced elephants in a world where the thin-skinned sky is a bare reminder that the earth is covered with air, where clouds stampede as if chased by lions – a world  without asphalt, without cell phones, without that strange human notion of time.

I hope you enjoy and follow this blog.

Jabu & me