I was working on this piece for my writing group when I got the news on March 13th that Thembi (the elephant in the middle of this photograph) had died from colic and a heart attack. I can’t imagine how their guardians, Doug and Sandi Groves, must be feeling. Thembi had been a part of their human/elephant family group since she was two years old. It is hard to lose any family member……
Heart shapes can be found in nature, if you’re lucky enough to see one. The heart shape on Jabu’s trunk was easy to spot when I first met him – a ridged outline high up, just below the level of his eyes, about a foot tall and half a foot wide. One of his wrinkles pierced the heart, straight as an arrow, from left to right.
Now that he’s an older elephant, his trunk has grown broader, and the heart is harder to find. I can still see the outline of it, but it’s not easy to make out.
The shape of the heart on Jabu’s trunk is a Valentine’s likeness, the kind you see carved into trees. An elephant’s heart has two points at its ventricular apex – which makes it look like an apple, instead of the red caricature on cards we give to each other once a year. You’re unlikely to see an elephant’s heart carved onto a tree.
Jabu’s heart hangs between his breastbone and ribs, a little to the left, like mine does. When I stand near Jabu’s side, our hearts are close to each other, one-point and two-point, Lupp-DUPP, Lupp-DUPP, Lupp-DUPP.
Hearts have the same basic pump-like design – a design that has worked through eons -an ancient blueprint, a master timepiece, a blueprint followed by even the tiniest of creatures. A day or two after fertilization, embryos develop a pinpoint that pales, then brightens, pales, then brightens, the beginnings of a tiny pump emptying, filling, emptying, filling.
Of all the body’s organs, the heart is the only one that doesn’t get cancer. Of all the body’s organs, Egyptians mummified only the heart.
The length of Jabu’s heart is twenty-two inches; its width eighteen. His heart weighs around forty-four pounds, almost the same as a medium-sized dog. Still, it’s less than 1% of his body weight, a common proportion among large mammals and humans. My heart weighs only ten ounces, less than 1% of my body weight.
The human heart is approximately five inches long, three-and-a-half inches wide, and shaped like a pulsing cone. It is the only muscle in my body that acts on its own – it doesn’t need any messages from my brain.
The cells in my heart tissue involuntarily twitch, all together, all at once, over and over, a synchronous soft perpetual-motion machine. Rip my heart from my body, chop it into pieces, immerse the pieces in a saline solution, give them a small jolt of electricity, and the remnants of my cardiac muscle will contract . . . contract . . . contract . . . for several minutes, all on their own, all at the same time. A whole undamaged heart will beat for five to ten minutes before it dies from lack of oxygen, from lack of blood.
It’s built to be strong, our hearts.
Mouse, hummingbird, elephant, human, snakes – we all have roughly two-and-a-half billion heartbeats for our lives. Species with faster heartbeats die sooner, rapidly using up their allotment within their short lives. An elephant’s heartbeat is slower than ours. Like us, elephants may suffer from cardiovascular disease and die of heart attacks and strokes.
Cardiac arrest. When the heart shudders and stops, when the light in the eyes flickers, fades and snuffs. When the heart quits beating, when its resonance
Lupp DUPP Lupp DUPP Lupp DUPP
is gone. The gurgle of digestion, all the silky, sturdy, slapping noises, the blood rush, gone – the symphony of the body finished.
For those of us left behind, its silence is almost too much to bear. But somehow we do it. Somehow, the world beckons us back in.
At birth, elephants have only two or three small cheek teeth. By the age of ten, big tectonic molars began to erupt in the back of their jaws, becoming part of a conveyer belt of teeth. As molars wear down near the front of an elephant’s mouth fragments of them break off in pieces and either fall out or are swallowed. Throughout its lifetime, an elephant will grow twenty-four molars in six sets – but only two tusks.
Each molar looks like a set of dishes drying edgewise on a rack, bonded together by enamel. The vertical ridges function like giant vegetable graters as an elephant’s lower jaw moves forward and back, rather than side-to-side like a cow. Each molar grows up to a foot long, has a maximum of ten ridges, and weighs eleven pounds apiece – perfect for grinding up tree branches.
Like human teeth, elephant teeth consist of cementum, dentine and enamel. Cementum holds the roots of a tooth in place, dentine surrounds the pulp and enamel crowns each tooth with a hard protective layer. Packed with nerves and blood vessels, the pulp cavities of elephant tusks extend two-thirds of the length of each tusk. Their teeth are as sensitive as mine are.
Doug asks Jabu to “Open up.” He curls his trunk back over his head and Doug stretches to his tiptoes, pulls his lower gums wide with his hands.
In his lifetime Jabu will have six sets of molars. His sixth set will wear down by the time he is sixty. Only ten percent of aging elephants grow a seventh set of molars.
“Very good, my boy. . . . veerrry good.”
Peering over Doug’s shoulder, I count four molars in his mouth, two on top and two on the bottom.
Doug lets go of Jabu’s lower jaw. “Allllright, Jabu, allllright.”
He drops his trunk but leaves his mouth open. Doug grabs a fistful of treats and slides his arm into Jabu’s mouth, all the way to his elbow. As he lets go of the treats he rubs Jabu’s tongue. He flaps his ears.
“Elephants use their trunks to rub each other’s tongues. It’s kind of like a handshake,” Doug says.
The morning air is as smooth and cold as marble. The last birds of the night are the first birds of the morning. They gab and jabber as if they had just newly discovered daylight. Six would-be-trackers and two rangers circle the fire, sticking our toes close to its embers.
I dunk my rusk into a cup of rooibus, red bush tea. Rusks are dry biscuits, resembling biscotti. Softened bits crumble and sink to the bottom of my tin cup. My last gulp of tea is mush.
After breakfast we walk out to the dirt road that leads away from camp and immediately find elephant prints where one sauntered down the road last night. It’s not surprising we didn’t hear him. The thick pads on elephants’ feet support their massive weight and distribute their tonnage. An elephant is a remarkably quiet animal for one so large.
Elephant tracks are easy to recognize – no other animal has a print like the impression of a large pizza-pan. Since their front feet are oval and back feet round, it’s easy to tell in which direction this one went. But when we find him, the bull is immediately agitated, even though we’re upwind.
“He hears us,” Syd says, “but he doesn’t know what we are.”
The bull’s trunk periscopes as he samples the air, trying to smell us. Then he sends a bluff our way, charging several feet, ears extended, a short blat indicating his displeasure. He’s a good hundred yards from us, but we take the hint and back away. An elephant could cover that distance in no time at all. After all, we’re here to study tracks, not get flattened.
The road is full of elephant overlapped elephant tracks. One track has a swipe through it where the elephant dragged his trunk. An impala’s tracks step across the road to the left, the prints of a Kori bustard head right.
Syd stops further on and sits on his heels near the side of the sandy road. “What are these?” he points at some small prints.
“Genet,” someone guesses, since the tracks are small and clawed, and the genet, a spotted cat with an elongated body, is nocturnal.
“Porcupine,” I announce, pointing at the long marks alongside the tracks where quills scored the sand.
Syd stands up and grins at me. “Very good,” he says, and I feel like I’ve momentarily gone to the head of the class.
“Then what are these?” He points to a set of padded prints left smack in the middle of the road, deeply imprinted into the floury sand.
“Too big for hyena,” one of my fellow trainees says, and we all look at each other, thinking as one: lion.
We reluctantly follow Syd as he walks and points out the direction the lion is headed. Same way we are. It’s a quiet class – we’ve all heard the recent stories about the lions of Kruger, the ones right next door, neighbors with no fence between us.
Illegal immigrants from Mozambique try to enter South Africa through Kruger. Lions have learned to hunt them. Several days earlier I had talked to a park ranger at Kruger and he cautioned that twenty “or so” evidence sites had been found. “But that’s just when there’s something left,” he said. “I’ve been stalked. Now I always carry a rifle.”
I swallow hard as we follow the tracks on the road, glad that Syd is also carrying a rifle. “How long ago?” I ask, meaning how long ago did the lion pass.
Syd smiles. “Yesterday.” He shows us where the tracks have degenerated, crumbles of sand filling the depression. “You can’t see the claw marks.” Maybe after a couple of years of following lion paw prints I’d be able to spot that. Or maybe my heart will always leap into my throat when I first see one.
Back at camp, Bernardo has heard that I have pictures of snow. He pores over them, trying to understand how the world could turn so white. I attempt to explain, using my hands as the sun and earth, tilting the earth first one way, then the other, moving it closer and further away from the sun. Bernardo is doubtful; his head has a permanent sideways tilt during my explanations.
Just before dark Syd gives a short class in how to hold and shoot the 45-caliber rifle that is our safety net in case one of us does something really stupid. We pay very close attention.
“How often have you had to use it?” I ask.
“In the last five years, maybe twice.” Ever the instructor, he uses the opportunity to ask, “Which way do you shoot?” We point to the ground, exactly where a warning shot should go. I am surprised we all have so much familiarity with guns.
“Good,” Syd says, “a bullet that goes up . . .” He leaves the sentence dangling, then adds, “It is too much paperwork to kill something.”
In a game reserve such as this one, careful monitoring is done of every nonhuman resident, since each animal is a huge investment. Most reserves are privately run, sometimes by huge corporations. The ability to advertise “Come see the Big Five! Lion! Elephant! Leopard! Buffalo! Rhino!” is an incomparable tourist draw. But wild animals do not behave quite like pets. When you swap lions with another reserve so that they do not inbreed, there’s no guarantee that those lions might not wander back, or off into Kruger, since there is no fence between the park and surrounding reserves.
As the light fades we sit near the fire and trade our full names: Bernardo Mkansi, Sydonea Hlatshwayo, Cheryl Merrill. Syd writes his name down on a piece of paper and shows it to me. “Can you say it?”
“Sure: Huh-lasch-WHY-o.” Syd and Bernardo gape. “Yes! How can you know?”
“I guessed, sort of like Bulawayo, that town in Zimbabwe.”
They both pronounce my name and make it sound like butterflies, each letter bouncy and full. “That’s it! Now teach me how to say it that way,” and they laugh, covering their mouths like schoolchildren. I practice saying my name several times, but I never quite get the hang of it.
The last thing I expected for Game Ranger Training was driver’s training, but right now I’m learning how to parallel park next to a bull elephant.
“A little right,” says Syd, and we flatten yet another bush with a loud crunch. Our noise doesn’t seem to bother the elephant. He’s placidly stripping the bark from a small acacia while I wrestle the wheel.
“Okay,” Syd says, “shut off the motor, but leave it in first gear.” As soon as I do, cameras click and whir as five other trainees happily snap pictures. My fingers tremble on the keys and my left foot goes numb on the clutch while I watch the elephant’s mood. He’s no more than ten feet away, browsing out of a patch of sunlight and into shady thornbush. The cameras cease clicking.
“Move over there,” Syd points to the other side of the elephant. “Light’s better.
Good positioning for photo ops is probably an important skill to acquire to guide tourists through the wilds of Africa. But getting to where Syd points will not be easy. There’s a log to crawl over and a hole to avoid that’s big enough to swallow a rhino. But the real trick to driving a 12-passenger Land Rover is not to bounce anyone out of the last tier of seats. It’s a good five feet off the ground. Already I’ve navigated a 30-degree slope out of a sandy riverbed without losing anyone over the side, even though the backend of the vehicle fishtailed as if on ice and all I saw was the sky until all four wheels were on level ground again. I figure if I get close to the elephant again, I’ll pass this informal driver’s test for sure.
Down, up, squeezed between two large tree trunks, the Rover crunches dry branches under its tires, making more noise than the bull, who’s busy dismantling a large rainbush. Without any directions from Syd I park at an angle that gives everyone a clear shot. I turn off the motor. Engine vibrations cause blurry photographs.
“Oooo, good light,” someone says and the cameras resume their consumption of film.
Syd smiles at me. I’ve passed. He hands over my camera. “A very calm elephant. You can take pictures, too.”
As I focus the bull begins to look a lot like the elephant who hangs around our camp, the one with the chipped left tusk. Like all good teachers, Syd’s built in a little insurance to make the hard stuff easier. We’re here on a crash course with only three days to earn our training certificates. Safari guides study for months and years, both in and out of the field, so we won’t qualify for a change of careers. We only want to learn skills that might come in handy for the next leg of our trip – overland camping thorough Botswana.
Syd’s initial surprise at our wrinkled faces and gray hair was evident when he met us at the Skukuza airport. The surprise quickly turned to puzzlement as we dropped our duffels in the dust.
“Where is your luggage?”
“This is it,” I replied. “We’ve all been to Africa before.” I point to two women in our group. “They’ve been here thirteen times.”
“Is it?” Syd whistled through his teeth, the South African equivalent of really?
The camp Syd works for is located in a private conservation area on the southwest edge of Kruger National Park. It’s between the fork of two rivers, the Sabi Sabi (meaning “Danger! Danger!”) and the Sand River, now a dry and treacherous streambed filled with boulders – the site of my diver’s test.
The bush we drive through was once the home of the Shangaan, whose land was sold to a private concession. Syd takes us to the place where his father had a rondavel and kept cattle. Flattened areas mark the spots an entire village once occupied.
“My father received no payment from the former government,” Syd tells us. However, the new South Africa is talking reparations and Syd is proud of this. “Our government is trying. It is all we can ask.”
Although two luxury bush lodges are close by, we’re definitely roughing it. We pump our own water, take bucket showers and eat meals around a campfire. We live in tents set up on platforms above a concrete pad. In the warm season the elevation keeps snakes and smaller creatures from crawling into sleeping bags, but now, at the height of winter, nothing but cold air creeps under our cots.
Last night I wore my gloves, stocking hat, long underwear, sweatshirt, socks, sweater – nearly everything in my duffel and still woke up shivering.
This morning I burst out of my sleeping bag’s cocoon, jam my feet into boots, then simultaneously dance into my pants and pull on my coat. I scamper to the fire and shove my boot tips into the coals.
A blackened coffeepot simmers inches away.
“It snows where I live,” I say to Syd, “and it’s not this cold.”
“I don’t believe you,” he laughs.
“I’ll show you.” I jog back to my tent and fetch a small album I brought, photos of my house, of family and friends.
Syd stares at the picture of my car, a white lump, identifiable only by its black side mirrors sticking out like ears. He stares at the picture of our road – blanketed fir trees bracket a single set of tire tracks. He points to a fir.
“Christmas,” he says, “your Christmas.” He has never seen these dark conical trees with needles. “They are still green.”
I tell him that I was warmer then than I am now.
“No, no,” he laughs and points to the picture of our house; his finger traces the furrow my legs made through the snow. “No, this is colder.”
I stamp my feet to waken my toes.
A few minutes later Syd takes us out on foot to read spoor and learn the botanical lay of this land. In the soft early morning light the trill of a coucal follows us, sounding like water dripped into an empty metal bucket. Doo-doo-doo-doo. . . doo . . .doo. . . do.
The coucal’s rust-and-black feathers provide perfect camouflage in the dry winter bush. We peer into the scrub, but do not see him.
Most of the rattles and flutters we hear as we walk are birds, but each one makes us scan the bush nervously. We’re on foot with lions, leopards, snakes, and elephants all around, and absolutely dependent on the knowledge of just one man.
Syd shows us how to sort out the difference between the tootsie-roll droppings of wildebeest and giraffe – a wildebeest stands in one spot, thus a pile, while a giraffe walks, spreading droppings along its path. In contrast, hyenas eat enough bone that their scat looks like chalk. Syd picks up a piece and it crumbles in his hand. We step over the dung of an elephant, easily identified by quantity – a five-gallon bucket of compost dumped into a pile.
Just in case we might need it, Syd also shows us weeping wattle, which can be used for toilet paper or bed stuffing – its leaf clusters soft as any paper product on the market.
As we walk we sample the sweet, fibrous inner lining of acacia bark, a favorite of elephants. We taste a creeping vine called elephant pudding; its succulent leaves have the flavor of salty green beans. Syd gives us a single leaf from a Magic Guarri to chew, but I quickly find out there’s nothing magic about it. Guarri has so much tannin that it tastes like a never-cleaned copper teapot. Even elephants won’t eat it, and elephants eat almost anything. Syd doesn’t tell us that until after we spit out the bitter leaves.
Our hike takes us past a Marula tree, which bleeds a sap red as blood. Dye is made from its bark and sweet liquor from the fruit. The fruit has four times the Vitamin C of an orange. Just next to the Marula is a potato bush, which exudes the scent of fried potatoes, but only at dusk as its sap rises.
Later on, in the evening, Syd proves himself as good a cook as he is a teacher. Tomatoes fry in one cast iron pan, while a chicken stew simmers in the other. He deftly drops dumplings into the stew, covers it, and pulls it to one side of the fire. He passes out tin bowls and spoons. We scoop and set speed records for consumption, wash our bowls with sand and rinse in a tiny amount of water.
Night falls fast in Africa. In the gloom deepening into blackness we climb aboard the Rover and wrap ourselves in felt-lined blankets. The temperature is quickly dropping, just like in high deserts: shirtsleeves at noon, long underwear right after sundown.
Syd drives us to one of the nearby luxury lodges where we pick up Bernardo, a tracker. He is young, with a wide, brilliant grin and an obvious deference to Syd. We have the feeling he is in training also, and Syd confirms this. “I was once a tracker like Bernardo.”
Bernardo wants to know the results of our driving test.
“Who is the best?” He asks Syd.
Syd points to me.
“Is it?” Bernardo glances doubtfully at the only male in our group. I smirk and reply, “He drives too fast.”
How either of them will find anything in the gray twilight is a mystery to me, but Bernardo settles onto a canvas seat perched on the front of the left fender. Although it’s a little like riding a mechanical bull, from there he’s able to see any tracks in the sandy ruts before we drive over them. In ten minutes we are on the trail of a rhino.
Syd and Bernardo are excited. They leave us in the vehicle and walk ahead, trying to read the rhino’s intention. Bernardo waggles a finger at us when they return.
“You are very lucky,” he says, his smile a sunbeam through the gloom, “not many rhinos here.”
Ten minutes more and we find him, right beside the road. It’s doubly lucky that he’s a male; females with calves will charge anything that moves. The rhino ignores us. He’s found some fresh green grass, an unusual treat in the dry winter season, and he’s busy cutting a large swath through it, snorting as he eats.
Fhufff. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp. Fhuffff. Chomp. Chomp. He sounds like the world’s largest steam-driven lawnmower.
We sit in silence, watching a prehistoric creature. I half-expect a dinosaur to emerge from the surrounding bush and join in the grazing. Mist rises from the wet grass and obscures the black outline of trees against a sky that is now dark violet. The rhino moves off, disappearing into a smudge of brush. But we can still hear his progress: Fhufff. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.
On our way back to camp I catch a glimpse of movement in the tall grass. “Leopard!” I whisper and tap Syd on the shoulder. Bernardo turns in his fender chair and quickly spots him too, motioning with an arm. Syd drives in a wide circle, cutting across a clump of brush. Even though we’re making more noise than the rhino did, the leopard is intent on something far more interesting: the nearby snorts of jittery impala.
He crosses the road behind us, then changes his mind and walks down the middle of it, in our wake. We stop and Syd shuts off the engine. The leopard lopes by on the right, too fast for my camera’s shutter speed. He passes under Bernardo’s feet.
Bernardo is frozen. He doesn’t even look down. By remaining motionless, he becomes part of the vehicle and the leopard ignores him.
When the leopard is twenty feet away Bernardo exhales, relaxes. He turns to us with his sunburst grin. “Oooooh you are lucky! A rhino and a leopard!” He shakes his head from side to side. “You are very lucky!”
Elephant air-conditioning, for a creature that produces enough heat to warm a small house. Elephants are pachy-dermed, thick-skinned. Some of Morula’s blood vessels are buried as deep as one-and-a-half inches under her skin. Since she doesn’t have sweat glands, her ears act like giant heat exchangers, regulating her body temperature. As her ears open, her body size increases by roughly one-fifth and her ears provide a huge area for thermoregulation. The air moving over swollen arteries on the surface of each ear cools her blood as much as nine degrees before it returns to her body.
I take a photograph of her ear in mid-flap. Where Morula’s ear attaches to her shoulder, wrinkles give way to rising rivers of blood, pumping five gallons per minute across the surface of her ears. The pattern of arteries on an elephant’s ear is as unique as a fingerprint, and often used for identification.
The breeze she creates dies before it reaches me. I take off my cap and fan my own neck.
My teeny, itsy ears are built somewhat the same as hers are, with an upper rim of cartilage and a fleshy, lower lobe. But I don’t have an auriculo-occipitalis, an ear muscle the size of a weightlifter’s bicep. I can’t flap my ears. I can’t even wiggle them.
In the late morning heat Morula’s ears are in constant motion.
Ears of African elephants resemble huge maps of Africa. Ears of Asian elephants flop forward at the top and hang like small, wrinkled outlines of India. Morula’s ears fold backward, giving them a smooth, tidy appearance, a map pressed flat. Although the ears of all elephants have a similar construction – cartilage covered by a thin layer of skin – Morula’s ears are roughly three times larger than those of her Asian kin. African elephants have the biggest external ears of all mammals, perhaps the biggest of all time. Each one weighs approximately one hundred pounds.
And no two elephant ears are the same. As pliable and soft as worn canvas, the leading edge of an elephant’s ear is often caught and torn on branches or by the tusks of other elephants. In Kenya I watched an adolescent flare her ear and trace its outline with her trunk like a matador holding out her cape. Backlit by sunlight, three perfectly round holes on its border reminded me of diamond studs. Nearby, a huge bull posed for my gulping camera as I shot an entire roll of film in less than two minutes. Only later, with the film developed and the prints in my hands, did I notice the edges of his ears were as scalloped as an old lace tablecloth.
Here’s a little fairy tale: Once upon a time, elephants lived to a rhythm of their own making. There were no elephants in captivity. They were captured only in legend, in song, painted onto walls of caves, etched on the flat sides of rocks. There were no elephants on reservations, in circuses, in sanctuaries, or zoos. No elephants were murdered solely for their tusks. They were not orphaned by the slaughter of their families, nor made to endure solitary confinement, leg irons, beatings, prods, and electric shocks. They were not enslaved. They were not used as vehicles of war. They were not made to wear radio collars, jeweled headpieces, or bear intricately carved wooden howdahs on their backs. They did not carry princes, or hunters, or loggers, or performers, or tourists. They were not forcibly relocated from the land of their birth. Most died of old age. Once upon a time elephants knew a landscape without fear, without fences, a landscape empty of humans. Once upon a time, elephants were everywhere.
I rock back and forth, toe to heel, toward the fire and away from it. My boots touch coals while stars crowd close around, peering over my shoulder, whispering ancient stories in my ears. Only moments earlier giraffes reflected the setting sun, but now their silhouettes fade, blur and disappear. Soon, out there beyond this fire, hyenas will make short work of bones.
In the darkness elephants are on the move, and almost without sound, except for the occasional rifle shot of a cracked branch. I wish I could hear condensed air – infrasound – soft rumbling kisses brushing my cheek. The compacted silence is completely full of presence, of huge milling bodies on padded feet. A herd of mountains relocates during the night while my thoughts swirl, embers stirred by wind.
Suddenly to my right, trumpeting, perhaps furious at being left behind, an elephant thunders by, an outraged trombone blowing past. I lift my head to follow the sound, but it’s my ears, not my eyes that see.
In the morning, no more than a half-mile from camp, we encounter a herd of sixty elephants. Nervous mothers guide their newborns away with their trunks, shield them from us with their bodies. Young punk males show off for each other, make small charges to see if our vehicle will bolt. Huge bulls, intent on mating, barge past like runaway cement trucks.
We sit in the middle of a herd. Two males give us a rear view of old men in baggy pants. A jumbo-jet sized matriarch leisurely crosses right past our front bumper. Her ears are perfect replicas of the map of Africa. Like fingerprints, no two elephant ears are the same. As pliable and soft as worn canvas, their leading edge is often caught and torn on branches and scrub. Hers has a neat, perfectly round hole near the bottom of Africa, right about where we are in Zimbabwe.
A young female strolls by, scans us as if we’re department store mannequins. She’s so close all I can do is snap a picture of her eye. She stops, blinks, and regards us with the air of a disinterested shopper. I look down at her feet, round in front, oval behind. The round one is about the size of a medium pizza pan. I glance back up, directly into her eyes. She stares back and shakes her head so hard that her ears flap. A great cloud of dust rises from them. Then she moves on.
There is a hole in the space between us, filled with thrown dust. You stare down your nose with a don’t-mess-with-me look, but I am describing things in my language, not yours. Yours is a language of thunder, trombones, and a low, rumbling growl. Your breasts are full; your child hides behind you. We have come knockata-knockata noisy around the corner in a vehicle now halted before you. How quickly we became silent and supplicant, waiting with immobile slightly bowed heads, as you sample the scent of our intentions. We are watchers watching each other. Your eyes are deep brown pools. Your benevolence is the most important thing to us. We hope you will bestow it upon us. Dear Madame Elephant, what would you tell us in our language, if you could. Or did you already tell us: your forbearance louder than our beating hearts, louder than words.
Across the grassy lagoon is a rare tree species for this part of the Okavango Delta: an African Baobab, Adansonia digitata – digitata for the five leaves it has per stem. The baobab is deciduous, naked this time of year. Its prehistoric appearance conjures up primeval landscapes full of odd plants and the crawling creatures that existed in the ages before the dinosaurs.
Adansonias are named after the French naturalist, Michel Adanson (1727-1806), who spent five years in Senegal, brought home a huge plant collection, and published a paper on Digitata after his return. He also wrote a masterwork of natural history, L’Ordre Universel de la Nature, but it was based on his own system of classification, a system totally different from that of his contemporary, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1788). Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae introduced binomial nomenclature – using an organism’s Genus, Adansonia, followed by a descriptive modifier such as digitata. Systema Naturae classified 4,400 species of animals and 7,700 plants.
In contrast to Linnaeus, Adanson proposed a “natural” system that took many features of the plant into account, which included structure along with function, growth, evolution and distribution. His system was ignored because it was too unwieldy. Adanson’s masterwork was huge, just like the baobab: 27 large volumes with a 150-volume index that contained an alphabetical treatment of 40,000 species, and a vocabulary listing of 200,000 words, 40,000 drawings and 30,000 specimens. It was never published, but is preserved in the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At least his life’s work was not lost.
Elephants (you knew I’d get around to them, right?) love the bark of the baobab because of its moisture content. As insurance against harsh drought, the swollen trunk of a single baobab stores up to 32,000 gallons of water, an amount weighing around one hundred and twenty-one tons. A big bull elephant weighs up to 16,000 pounds, or seven tons. If you stacked elephants upon a scale, it would take seventeen or eighteen elephants to equal the weight (if not the mass) of the water stored in a large baobab.
The wood of the baobab is soft, spongy and fibrous. A plank cut from a baobab will decrease in volume by 40% and shrink in length by 15% while it dries. Sometimes, during times of drought, elephants will completely gird a tree, leaving it standing as if on its own pedestal, and yet the baobab will still survive.
The bark on the baobab across the lagoon is smooth, pinkish-gray, and untouched by elephants, possible due to its proximity to the Okavango’s permanent water channels. I estimate this tree is about 22 feet in diameter and 70 feet tall. Mature baobabs have trunk diameters of 23 to 36 feet and reach heights of 98 feet. The Glencoe baobab, near Hoedspruit in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, is considered the largest specimen alive, with a circumference of 154 feet. In 2009 it split into two still-living parts, revealing an enormous hollow in its middle. The date 1893 is carved into its trunk.
Although the Glencoe baobab is thought to be two thousand years old, baobab wood does not produce annual growth rings and it actually shrinks during times of drought, so size is not an indicator of age. The baobab across the grass lagoon is probably – my best guess – around 600 years old, or perhaps even older, taking root about the time Eric the Red colonized Greenland (985), or later – perhaps the year Gutenberg invented the printing press (1439). This tree, this timepiece, probably first dropped its leaves during the Middle Ages, and will continue dropping them, annually, for several thousand years more.
I wish I could slip sideways into the life of this nearly eternal tree, and, time-lapsed, witness the swirl of life around it as it fattened and grew. While I’m at it, why not wish for an added one or two thousand years more to my life? Eternity is often defined as an endless length of time. Are two thousand more years enough time to witness this amazing world and the lives it contains? After two thousand years would I want more?
Swollen by November rains, the Okavango River floods south from Angola, arrives in Botswana in May or June, fans out, and then stops when it bumps into a barrier of fault lines near Maun. Landlocked, the river penetrates deep into the Kalahari Desert before it dies in the sand. Not a single drop reaches the sea.
As the river pushes south, it creates an oasis, a floodplain the size of Massachusetts, containing an ark-full of animals: the Okavango Delta, a flat maze of islands and water.
The river descends less than 200 feet in 300 miles. Bracketed by fault lines, sediments deposit elevation changes of less than seven feet. Islands that rise above the floodplains tend to be long and sinuous, following old channel routes, linking to other uplifted channels, and creating large dry fingers of land that will be outlined by next season’s floods. Water loving trees such as the Jackalberry, Mangosteen, Knobthorn and Sycamore Fig fringe these larger islands.
The Delta contains more than 50,000 islands; their landmass roughly equals that of water. Paths cross some of the islands; roads cross others; water surrounds the rest. All of the islands carry the mixed vegetation of the Kalahari sand plains. Approached by foot in this maze, every island looks like the next one and the next one and the next, especially during the low flood season, when boundaries between them evaporate with the water, when footpaths end in walls of thick bush, and roads take every opportunity to wander off in a new direction.
Sometimes you’ll wade to an island; sometimes the water is over your head. Near the southern end of the Delta, some of the islands are larger sandveldt tongues, extensive areas of the Kalahari that penetrate deep into the flood. In the Okavango’s vast delta of uncounted islands, a few inches here or a few inches there separate wet lagoons from dry land. If I turn one way, I’m lost in a maze of floodplain islands, now high and dry. Turn the other, and I’ve entered into a maze of Kalahari woodland. Until I’ve gone a few miles, it’s hard to tell the difference since the same vegetation covers both.
But when the sun sets, magic begins. The sky turns pink; water lilies fold into perfect imitations of floating candles; papyrus along shorelines become golden sentries; and the spell of water over a desert casts its memories into your dreams.