The sky turns orange and the clouds turn yellow. Sunsets like this one have hung in galleries for centuries. A slight breeze rises – the lungs of the earth inhaling warmth, exhaling coolness. The breeze brings a faintly watery smell, even though the sun still warms the tops of trees. Beneath the trees, in cool green-black shadows, night begins, spreading a transitory stillness that will soon fill with the Invisibles – hyenas, leopards, lions – beginning their nightly rounds.
First, for those who are unfamiliar with black mambas, here’s a little background information:
Black mambas (Dendroaspis polytepsis) are the longest venomous snakes in Africa, measuring up to 14 ½ feet. Mambas are not black – they’re more olive or greenish gray, with a narrow, elongated head the shape of a coffin. It’s the inside of their mouths that are black – hence the name. Mambas are also extremely aggressive and may actively attack without provocation. I use the adverb “actively” with reason – a mamba can strike in all directions, even though a third of its body is raised above the ground, and it can chase you in that upright position at speeds up to 20 mph. If you are bitten, your death will occur within 20-60 minutes. An anti-venom for mamba bites exists, but it must be administered immediately, requiring 10-20 vials of solution. But if you are struck in the face or neck (quite likely, since the head of the mamba chasing you is 4 feet off the ground), you will die in ten minutes. That black mouth will be the last thing you see.
On that cheery note, on with the story:
In the Moremi Game Reserve, east of the Okavango Delta, is an elevated platform overlooking a large hippo pool in a bend of the Khwai River. Six of us, our guide OT (“just like Overtime!”) arrive in our Land Rover.
“What’s that?” I point.
It’s a large piece of stiff white paper taped with duct tape to a tree. We climb out, read it, and immediately start swiveling our heads, trying to look in all directions at once.
“Anyone want to go look?” OT laughs.
The toilet, roughly the size of those cartoon outhouses with the crescent moons carved in their doors, is a cinder block building with a tin roof. It’s about fifty feet from our Land Rover. The painted green door on the toilet is ajar.
Certainly I’m not tempted to look inside. After all, the second message (“Confirmed 30/5”) was written just three days before our arrival by someone a lot more curious than I am about deadly snakes. The mamba is most likely still in there. Who wants to reconfirm a reconfirmation? Mambas are territorial; they will always return to their lairs, although that’s usually in an abandoned termite mounds or a hollow tree, rarely, I’d bet extremely rarely, in a toilet. A mamba is diurnal, active both night and day. It could be sleeping in there. Or not.
In my opinion, I’m already standing way too close to that toilet. Trying to look both at the toilet and at everything else, I walk slowly backwards. Mambas don’t like sudden movements.
Besides, I firmly believe, even though I haven’t seen it, that this toilet is not a Western ceramic throne, but a mere hole in the cement. I’ve had enough experience with toilets-in-the-middle-of-nowhere to also believe that the area around the hole is likely none-too-clean. That bush over there looks a better. A few minutes later, after careful reconnoitering and quickly taking care of business, I can confirm that no mambas are lurking around it.
As I climb the steps to the viewing platform I look for mambas wrapped around posts. On the creaky platform I look for mamba’s hidden in corners, or nestled into the thatch of the roof. I look for mambas slithering across the branches of the trees that lean dangerously close to the rails. A rustling noise among the branches spikes my heart rate to a gazillion, but it calms when I see it’s only a Burchell’s glossy starling, squawking for handouts.
The view from the platform is wonderful. A massive cloud hangs over the hippo pool and puffs of other clouds reflect in the tranquil water. A dozen hippos rise and sink, burbling like submerged tubas. Tracks in the grass are hippo paths, where the hippos come out of the pool at night to feed, foraging as far as three miles for sweet young shoots.
At the bottom of the platform a dozen water monitors, some six-feet long, slither into positions that defend his or her portion of the bank, using the hippo paths as small highways. The smaller monitors end up with the worst spots, constantly harassed in slow-motion chases by the larger lizards. As I watch their typical reptile behavior, I think it’s lucky for us that the age of dinosaurs ended a long time ago.
On the far side of the river, specks in the distance, a huge herd of elephants splashes along the edge of a reed bed. After I check for mambas, I lean on the rail of the platform to steady my camera. I use the digital zoom to take a picture, already knowing it will be an extremely low-pixelated shot. The elephants are in constant motion, appearing and disappearing in the reeds, so the photo turns out fairly blurry, but at least I have proof that those specks were really elephants.
On the way down from the platform I look for mambas wrapped around support posts, coiled under steps, and hidden in the framework of the flooring. I scan for slithery movements in the brush and wait for someone else to climb in the Land Rover before I do. I doubt the mamba has exchanged one lair for another, but still, you never know . . .
The viewing platform has its own GPS coordinates. So if anyone wants to look at that mamba and reconfirm one more time that it’s really there, I can tell you exactly where to go!
On the far side of a large swath of golden grass the air shimmers, full of birds. As if by some sort of avian telepathy, Red-billed queleas rise and fall in curling waves, with wing-beats that sound like distant surf. Wave after wave washes across the clearing in front of us. It’s impossible to distinguish individual birds among the swell and tumble. Dust rises, perfumed by millions of feathers, hundreds of birds, each bird no bigger than my thumb. The flock settles into a tree. The branches of the tree droop as if suddenly laden with snow, then spring back up as the birds roll on.
I’ll be speaking on our local radio station, KPTZ 91.9, on Friday, Nov. 6th, at 1:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, U.S. and answering questions about all things elephant. For my friends all over the world, you can live-stream by clicking on the link below, and send in email questions. Plus we’ll be broadcasting examples of elephant sounds. See you then!
An excerpt from my book, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants
My eyes tired from a day spent looking into the sun, I drowsed in a Land Rover beside a waterhole in Chobe National Park. Only a few yards from our vehicle, a single-cylinder pump drew from the water table beneath the sands and sent spurts through a pipe to a square concrete trough. The bachelor elephants of Savuti congregated around the trough as they waited for spring rains and the return of female breeding herds.
The steady sound of the pump, chugga-sputter, chugga-sputter, chugga-sputter, lulled my eyes closed. They opened, closed, opened half-lidded, closed again.
“Here he comes,” someone whispered and my eyes flicked open as a huge bull strolled past. I picked up my camera.
His enormous tusk splayed out almost sideways. I focused on his great head, nodding downward with each step, as he trudged past. A thirsty pilgrim in a parched land, his trek to water was nearly finished. The clicking and whirring of our cameras didn’t alter his gait.
Through the viewfinder I marveled at his tusk. It was easily four feet long, stained and chipped on its end. Because of the growth pattern of his tusks – out, rather than down and up – he seemed a much wider elephant than he really was.
Mid-drink, he curled his trunk into his mouth; head tilted back, eyes closed. Extending his trunk into the waterhole, he blew bubbles before curling his trunk again and again to hose several gallons at a time down his throat. With each swallow went samplings from all the animals that drank here – zebra, wildebeest, warthog, ostrich, hyena and the occasional furtive flavor of lion.
I tried to imagine the bouquet garni of the waterhole and how its myriad fragrances might seep into the crevices of an elephant’s mind, form pools of scent they recognize, year after year, the liquid memory of Africa. Perhaps that old bull was memorizing the stories in that trough, paragraphs of taste and smell, twists of plot and character and fate.
He retraced his steps to where we were parked, and stopped close by. His skin was the color of seasoned cast iron. The waterline on his body rose just past his belly. Spatters of mud stained his ears and back.
After several long minutes, his eyelids drooped and his mouth slackened. Under the hot sun he fell asleep, lulled perhaps by the narcotic of a long, slow drink. The tip of his trunk coiled like a magic rope on the ground. He slept with his weight on three legs, resting a hind leg, occasionally rocking back on it as if he dreamed of his trek. Drool from his trunk slowly seeped into the sand.
I matched my breathing with his, and drowsed once again, sedated by the sun.
The giant beside us rumbled soft snores in his sleep. Other elephants shuffled by quietly on their way to and from the waterhole, as if they didn’t want to wake us.
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.
In support of World Lion Day: my favorite photograph of a lion, keeping one eye on us. Lions are increasingly under threat, mostly from habitat loss, which is a fancy way of saying that the human world is closing in upon them. Here is a link to some absolutely spectacular photos and important websites: World Lion Day
Here is my favorite photograph of a male lion, taken in the Khwai area of Botswana. I think he was hoping, as he hid behind an eroded termite mound, that we couldn’t see him. Of the five subspecies left in the wild, this male is a member of the Southwest African lion, (Panthera leo bleyenbergi), the same species as Cecil, the Zimbabwean lion whose death as created an international uproar. This subspecies, also known as the Katanga lion, is the largest of all lion types and can be found in Namibia, Angola, Zaire, and Zambia, as well as Botswana and Zimbabwe.