Off in the distance zebras nod as they plod past a line of trees. Yes, this is the right way; Yes, this is the right way. Several stop to look our way.
They are nature’s bar codes, no two alike. Quintessential Africa.
In his book, Origin of Species, Darwin speculated on whether a zebra was a white horse with black stripes or a black horse with white stripes. He compiled examples of the occasional striping on all horses, arguing that a trait from a distant common ancestor, white on black, is brought to full fruition in the zebra. His examples noted that some zebras are born with white dots and blotches, incomplete stripes on a black background, Morse code instead of bar code, natural proof that a zebra is a black horse with white stripes. The white is lack of pigmentation.
I think I’ve taken at least 300 photographs of zebras, of their herds, their stripes, their tails. Tails of Africa: I have a whole album of animals turning their backs just as I press the shutter. Portraits of elephant butts, giraffe butts, baboon butts (not a pretty sight for those who don’t get an immediate visual image), impala butts, even bird butts. None of lions, however. They tend to circle, keep you in sight. The most butts in that album belong to zebras, notorious for twirling away just when I have a great shot lined up.
The zebra family of striped horses (Equidae) has four members: Plains zebra (Equus burchelli), Mountain zebra (Equus zebra), Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) and Wild ass (Equus africanus). I’ve never seen a Mountain zebra or a Wild ass (no jokes, please), but I’ve been fortunate enough to add plenty of photographs of the Plains zebra and Grevy’s zebra to Tails of Africa.
The Grevy’s zebra is the largest of the family members and looks a lot like a mule, with large rounded ears and a short, thick neck. Their brush-cut manes are stiffly erect, broom-like, and sometimes extend all the way to the tail. Stripes on a Grevy’s are narrow, close-set, brownish, and extend to the hooves. Their bellies and the area around the base of their tail do not have stripes: Grevy’s zebras have white butts. Foals are born with brown stripes that darken as they grow. Found in Kenya and Ethiopia, there are only 2,000 Grevy’s left in the wild due to habitat loss.
Like all zebras, the stripes on a Grevy’s extend up through their manes. Their muzzles are brown, and so is the whisk at the end of their tails. Their lips and nostrils are gray.
In contrast, Plains zebras are nearly everywhere, from Ethiopia to East Africa, to Southern Africa, but usually no more than nineteen miles from the nearest water source. Smallest of the zebras, it has horse-like ears and is thick-bodied with short legs. Their stripes are vertical on their bellies, but swing more to the horizontal on their hindquarters and make neat collars around their necks. Adults have black muzzles; foals are born brown and white. Southern populations also have “shadow stripes,” a brown stripe in between black ones. Their stripes extend nearly to their hooves.
You might think such a boldly patterned animal is easy to spot. For humans, yes – we are used to bar codes and are able to string together space between vertical black slashes as part of the whole. For lions, not so much, because cats can’t see color. If they did, we would have cats with butts like baboons during mating season, a lovely (to baboons) come-hither red, or cats with blue balls, like those of Vervet monkeys. (My blue balls are bigger than your blue balls.)Then again, maybe blue balls might work for lions, because they see mostly in blues and greens.
Stripes work to interrupt the outline of a zebra’s body – a lion sees only blobs of a lighter color of blue-green as an unrecognizable pattern – since no two zebras are striped the same it would be impossible to memorize a pattern as zebra! Black stripes are seen by lions as blank spaces. Add in a screen of bush and a hungry lion might walk right by an immobile zebra. And when lions flush a herd of zebra, all those flashing stripes together give the herd a psychedelic pulse that make it difficult for lions to visualize individuals in the herd.
Zebras have thick, tough hides. Healed scars from attempted lion take-downs often result in misaligned stripes.
But for photographers, even the butt end of a zebra is fun to capture – because, for the most part, their tails are striped, too. And sometimes the light is just too perfect to resist.
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.
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.
I turn my head toward the sun’s white-hot eye. Behind my closed eyelids burn a thousand childish sketches of red suns. I hear one of the regular camp staff scratching around my feet for crumbs: a Red-billed Francolin, who believes his territory includes the kitchen shelter and its surroundings. The color of his legs, feet and bill match, but they look more orange than red to me. He’s plump as a pillow, with a bright yellow circle around each eye – but woe to any other francolin who trespasses. The resulting chases are explosive, noisy, and continue until he’s satisfied the intruder is back in the bush where he belongs. Male francolins have spurs on their legs, and they don’t hesitate to use them in fights. When he’s this close I can see the tiny black claws at the end of his toes, and hear his soft chuckles when he finds another crumb.
The most popular post in 2015:
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!
Here are the first few pages of my manuscript, Larger than Life: Eye to Eye with Elephants. Having read this much, would you go on reading the rest of the book? I’d love to have feedback. Thanks!
There is nothing like him on earth. His head alone is more immense than an entire gorilla.
Jabu is one hundred times larger than I am. His trunk is larger than I am. A single leg is larger than I am.
He rests his trunk on the ground and the tip of it lifts, opens, inhales my scent. I reach out and run my fingers along his warm tusk.
Do you recognize me, Jabu, do you?
* * * * *
The pilot lets me sit up front. As his clattering Cessna lifts straight into the sun, we pass a line of small aircraft and a block-and-brick terminal only slightly larger than the Air Botswana 727 parked next to it. We leave behind a flattened land where the tallest structure is a water tower, where the olive-green scrub spreads as far as can be seen, and where footsteps have no echoes in a country mantled by sand.
We gain altitude and Maun slides under us. The last town before venturing into Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Maun is an odd frontier mix of trading companies, outfitters, curio shops, supermarkets, cattle in the streets, and an airstrip long enough for daily international flights.
We fly higher. Haphazard, barely paved roads meander to round stockades – bomas, fenced by thornbush. Each boma contains a hut plastered with mud and roofed with straw, or a small square cinderblock covered by rusty corrugated metal. Only a few corral a cow or a goat. Behind us the last buildings disappear into a curtain of shimmering haze. Maun melts into the desert.
The shadow of our Cessna passes over thin dirt tracks, which lose their way and vanish. A waterhole appears, an orphan left behind by last year’s flood. Another comes into sight, and then another. Etched into the sand by countless hooves, game trails wander through the dry landscape, headed to those life-giving pockets of water. Few animals follow the trails in the heat of the glaring sun. A small herd of zebra. A single giraffe.
Suspended above what could be considered a great emptiness, I remember the map I studied a week ago. Printed alongside the log of GPS coordinates for airstrips – some of them makeshift, many little used – I read another list of handy notations. “Tourist road, 4×4 required . . .Top road extremely sandy, takes very long.” Eighty percent of Botswana is covered by sand, some of it a thousand feet deep, but the airstrip where we’ll land is barely above water.
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 deeply into the Delta before it dies in the Kalahari sands. Not a single drop reaches the sea.
As the river pushes south, it creates, in the midst of a vast desert, an oasis – a floodplain the size of Massachusetts containing an ark-full of animals. Dependent upon the rainfall in Angola, the river swells or shrinks. In the dry season, it leaves behind ponds no bigger than puddles, abandoned lagoons that shrink into brackish swamps, and waterholes reflecting a cornflower blue sky.
Last week I reviewed the latest satellite photograph of the Delta – four skinny channels with several webs of water between them. The river is beginning to flood. The photograph reminded me of a duck’s giant footprint pressed into the sands of southern Africa. I located my destination, a dry spot between two of the bird’s toes.
Twenty minutes after leaving Maun, the pilot pushes in the throttle and the Cessna’s clatter mutes. We drop lower. A thousand waterholes are a thousand mirrors signaling the sun. Lower still, the mirrors turn back into waterholes, some of them connected in long braids of water.
Right before we land on a strip of dirt, we glimpse a cheetah sprinting for cover. With that single spotted blur, my life divides once again between home and Africa.
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.
More than filling the frame of a photograph. Okavango Delta, Botswana.
Thembi twiddling a stick, about to grab it with the tip of her trunk.