I was napping in our tent on the banks of the Boro River in the Okavango Delta when my husband woke me with the following words: “There’s an elephant heading into our campsite. Our guide is off fishing. You’ve got to come out and climb a tree.”
This, of course, is exactly the kind of thing Tom likes to tell me. And since this type of situation arises so infrequently in life, he needs to fabricate something like it from time to time. I emerged from the tent with a healthy skepticism.
And was greeted by an enormous male elephant.
We’d headed up to Botswana’s mysterious inland delta for five days. “Where other rivers seek ocean shores, the Okavango forms its delta on a sea of fitful sand,” writes Creina Bond in Okavango. “The rivers are beautiful but deranged. Channels flow one way this year, another way the next. Seemingly perverse, the floods pour down in the dry season when no rain falls. They get narrower, not wider as they run their course. A few steadily climb up above the countryside as if to defy the laws of waterflow. Yet these are the streams that feed the long, waving beds of papyrus, the hippo grass and water lilies that tangle the edges of the waterways. They feed the crocodile and the hippo, the buffalo and the elephant, the secretive aquatic antelope cowering in the wet greenery, the noisy babbler in the reeds, and the fish eagle watching from the sky. This is Botswana’s sea of land, land of water.”
I couldn’t wait to go.
Then again, I hadn’t seen the plane we’d be taking to get there. We arrived at the rather enthusiastically named “Grand Central Airport” listed on our directions. When no announcement board could be found, we inquired after our flight. We were told to go have a seat at the bar. “It’s just the two of you on your flight. The pilot will come ‘round and fetch you when he’s ready.” Ah.
I was torn between the desire to drink heavily and the knowledge that there would be no bathroom on the plane. With a sigh, I proceeded without sedation. Once airborne in this little craft, I seemed to be the only one of the three of us who knew that we were constantly on the verge of falling from the sky. This prompted a revisitation of Tom’s ever popular turbulence-is-just-like-hitting-a-pothole-on-the-road lesson. This does not soothe me.
Impossibly enough, we landed smoothly two and a half hours later in Maun...only to board an even smaller plane for the 20-minute hop to our campsite. Here’s the funny thing: I loved the little toy plane. Its matching tiny female pilot somehow impressed me so much that I forgot to fixate on our impending fiery death, and was seduced by the phenomenal sensation of flying so close to the ground that I could see this strange land in detail. The ground looked scorched: burnt orange from the sun, black from bush fires. But there was water -- and its attendant life -- everywhere. We saw antelope by the dozens, buffalo, and wildebeest. Just as we were landing, I caught sight of a lone elephant bathing. It was the first elephant I’d seen in my seven months in Africa.
So from the air we’d already established that the “prolific wildlife” so touted by the brochures was no exaggeration. As we hiked from the little airstrip to Oddballs’ Camp, the telltale piles of dung -- as enormous as they were varied -- eliminated any further doubt.
This all begged a question: What were we doing hiking for half an hour through very tall grass amid elephant, hippo, and lion with a guide who carried no gun?
To put this in perspective, we’d just returned from a five-day walking safari in a South African game reserve. We were given an hour-long safety lecture before we set out (run if you see rhino; freeze if you see cats; pray you don’t see both at once), we had two guides with huge guns, and we were instructed to stay in between them at all times. Before heading into any low visibility areas (like tall grass) we’d get a refresher safety lecture. At night we each had to stay up and do a “watch” for an hour to fend off any unwanted intruders. (Rather begs another question, doesn’t it?)
And here we were in the Okavango, famed for having the most prolific wildlife in Southern Africa, and we were meandering casually through the grass. So either that South African trip had been slightly bogus just to scare us into thinking we were experiencing the real bush, or this was crazy.
We were then introduced to the man who’d be our guide for the next four days. His name was Sefu. Which is pronounced exactly like “C’est fou.” Which means “that’s crazy” in French.
We took the hint, decided to go with the theme, and pitched our tent right on top the fresh spoor (footprints) of the lion who’d taken a stroll through camp the night before.
But our only visitors that night were the baboons. (At least, they’re the only ones we knew about...) They grunted, coughed, screamed, scampered and swung their way through to morning. As they’re supposedly not nocturnal, it’s hard to imagine what their daytime schedule includes.
After a leisurely breakfast at the “hide” overlooking a beautiful part of the delta, we began to load our mokoro. More accurately, Sefu began to load the mokoro. We watched as the long, slender wooden canoe sank further and further as he expertly loaded our tents, backpacks, food, pots, and pans. At Sefu’s instruction, we handed over our shoes and socks, waded in, and gingerly seated ourselves. Once settled, we were exactly one inch above water. As Sefu stood in the back and used his long pole to spin us around and out through the reeds -- all without disturbing that one inch safety zone -- we understood that we were in good hands.
It was the silence that struck us at first. As the frenzy of dozens of campers at Oddballs’ faded away, we were soon able to hear only the sound of our mokoro gently gliding through the water, and Sefu’s pole slipping in and out of the sand. Every now and then Sefu would quietly name a bird for us. We’d strain to see each one, listening intently for the rustle in the reeds before the piercing call or flapping wings.
There we sat, Tom and I, absolutely silent, bodies taut, ready to spin our two sets of binoculars wherever we heard a different bird...when Sefu casually pointed to the right. We obediently turned our binoculars and saw...nothing. Nothing but gray. It was only when we removed our binoculars that we saw the three elephants on shore not 20 yards from us.
It was indescribably moving. They were doing what they were supposed to do, here where they were supposed to do it, as they’d been doing for thousands of years. I think the definition of grace is something like “unearned blessing.” There have been just a few extraordinary times in my life that I’ve felt the undeniable force of grace. One was when I knew I would marry Tom. And as Tom and I sat silently in the mokoro, miraculously witnessing this intensely private world, I was overwhelmed by the power of grace once again.
We watched the elephants for a very long time.
After a few relaxing hours drifting along the river in the mokoro, we set up camp at Sefu’s favorite spot, and headed off for a walk through Moremi Game Reserve -- home of lion, leopard, hyena, elephant, hippo, crocodile, etc. I reminded myself that Sefu had been a guide for Oddballs for a dozen years, and the fact that he’s alive and is missing no limbs speaks well for our odds of emerging from this walk intact. Off we strolled, pausing as we passed groups of antelope, baboon, wildebeest, and zebra.
We spotted something odd on the horizon, and my swell new binoculars revealed the group to be human. Looking at them, I realized how silly and out of place we look here in contrast to the animals. Actually, we also look silly in comparison to the guides. Like the beginning skiers on the bunny slopes, many of these tourists come with every inch of their bodies outfitted for adventure. This particular group had most impressive matching khaki outfits, highlighted by the pants tucked into the socks -- well-prepared for snakes, this lot. Must have seemed like a good idea when they read the catalogue, but looks a bit funny when the guides are barefoot in sandals.
When we joined the group, we found they had just seen a leopard, and were waiting for him to emerge again from the thick brush. We waited. And waited. Finally our guides decided to go in and flush him out. What was now three groups of tourists subtly maneuvered for position on the termite mound (as if height could offer protection) and watched as our guides walked directly into the leopard’s hiding place. Again, I note these men carry no guns.
Finally, after getting a rather disconcerting distance in front of us, the guides motioned us forward. I’m only mildly embarrassed to note that sprinting would be the only way of describing our approach. The guides had not found the leopard, but had discovered what he’d been up to. Way, way up in a big tree was a male impala. No, impalas do not climb trees. The leopard had stashed his kill up there to keep the other cats and hyenas from getting at it. He was, no doubt, watching us from his hiding place as we pulled out our cameras, chatted about lenses, etc.
Imagine his annoyance.
Thrilled by the day’s adventures, Sefu, Tom and I built a campfire, watched the brilliant orange-to-purple sunset through the palm trees beyond the river, and cooked an enormous pasta dinner. As we ate, and enjoyed a bottle of wine together, we got to know Sefu. While we talked, he carved a little mokoro out of a chunk of wood he’d found.
Sefu’s village was perhaps 30 kilometres north of where we were. He’d grown up navigating the Okavango waters by mokoro, as it was the only sensible way to travel the region. He spoke several languages, had a wife and a son back in his village, and had worked for Oddballs for a dozen years. As one of the most experienced guides, he’d made it through a layoff period just a few years earlier when new regulations cut down on the number of people allowed in the area at any one time.
Whenever you get a chance to spend time with these guides, it’s a bit like being around someone famous. There are questions you’re dying to ask, but you don’t want to seem starstruck or unsophisticated. What you really want to know is: HAVE YOU EVER ALMOST BEEN EATEN?
We restrain ourselves for as long as possible, and then head into the questions. Sefu has been waiting for this, and an enormous grin shows itself on the opposite side of the campfire. He tells us that, no, he’s never been tipped by a hippo. “How is that possible?” we ask. “Hippos are everywhere in the Okavango, and everyone knows how fiercely they defend their water.”
A chuckle from the other side of the campfire. “Well, I don’t go near them,” explains the ever-sensible Sefu. Upon further questioning, he reveals that his policy is the same for crocodiles, and for the terrifying array of snakes who call this area home. (Ah. So that’s the trick. Too bad all those other folks who’ve been tipped and trampled by hippos, eaten by crocs, and poisoned by snakes didn’t know that they should simply avoid them.)
The truth is, the more we see Sefu in action, the more we realize the simple truth of his statement. With his naked eye, he sees animals that we can only discern with difficulty when using our binoculars. And his intimate knowledge of these waters and the ways of its inhabitants allows him to predict behaviour with what seems to us to be superhuman ability. This is his world.
Finally, we retired to our tents. We lay wide-eyed, hoping to hear a lion’s roar, a leopard’s bark, or an elephant’s trumpet. Instead we fell asleep to the sounds of the omnipresent baboons.
Hours later, we both awoke with a startle when we heard strange guttural noises that seemed to be coming from right outside of our tent. We lay stock still, straining to identify the animal... And at the same moment we both realized it was very human snoring coming from Sefu’s tent.
We chatted a bit about how Sefu was probably so tuned in to his surroundings that if a real threat were lurking nearby he’d probably snap right out of that deep sleep and, well, attend to the situation...
We awakened hours later, while it was pitch dark, to the eeriest sound I had ever heard: A pack of hyena howling in the night. It was beautiful. And disconcerting, as we searched our memories for data on whether hyenas were interested in campers, and came up with a “yes.” As Sefu was apparently still slumbering peacefully, Tom got up and performed the highly specialized deterrence techniques we’d learned while on “night watch” on our walking safari. He built up the fire (which had gone out completely) and he walked in a circle around our campsite shining the flashlight’s beam out into the surrounding bush.
Yes, it occurred to us that we were ridiculous.
We woke the next morning, built a fire, and over our tea and rusks asked Sefu if he’d heard the hyena. “Yes, they were after the lion’s kill. Did you hear the lion make his kill?”
Ah. Sefu is omniscient.
We set off for another walk through Moremi. Our first stop was an inspection of the ill-fated impala in the tree. The leopard had made considerable progress. It wasn’t pretty.
Sefu asked us what we wanted to see. We told him we hadn’t seen any cats yet. We began to track the lion.
When we stopped to rest, I asked Sefu what it’s like when you finally find the lion. Sefu started to chuckle, and told us the story of his Italian tourists. All they talked about, he said, was lion. That was all they wanted to see. They had no patience for anything else. So he decided to show them the lion. Sure enough, he found them. A dozen of them, lounging under a tree. As they’d been instructed, the six Italians huddled up close to Sefu and stood completely still. That’s when one of the females decided she wasn’t sure she liked this at all. She came up to within feet of them, staring intently, tail twitching rapidly, and proceeded to circle them for 20 minutes. The seven of them stood hardly blinking, hardly breathing, for each of those 20 minutes. Finally, inexplicably, satisfied, she returned to her pride. Sefu and his tourists slowly backed away. “After that, they all wanted to go back to the main camp at Oddballs right away,” said Sefu. “Funny. I thought they wanted to see the lion.” There was that big grin again.
We resumed our search, with at least one of us thinking she wouldn’t mind if we just had a nice little uneventful stroll this morning. It was about then that Sefu stopped so suddenly that I walked into him. We had literally almost stumbled onto an elephant. We’d turned a corner around a bush, and his huge backside had been 20 feet in front of us. (That’s about two steps for an elephant.) We backed up slowly, silently, to a more polite distance. My heart pounded as this massive beast discovered our presence, and turned to face us head on. I thought the height was astounding, until I saw him spread his ears. His “wingspan” was easily 10 feet -- two human beings long. Then he reached toward us with his trunk. I held my breath. Moments later, apparently satisfied that we weren’t a threat, he went back to stripping the tree.
Exhilarated and exhausted, we called it quits. The lion were safe for now.
After a leisurely lunch back at camp, it was too hot to walk or to go out on the river in the direct sun. Sefu told us he was going to go set up some fishing nets, and that we should relax around camp.
I read for a while. Tom, well, did his Tom things, which include but are not limited to: wood collection and carving, equipment checks, repackaging of various items, tree climbing, tool-making. After a while we saw an elephant on the distant shores. It was a beautiful sight, this gorgeous beast taking an exuberant bath in this sparkling water. In fact, the elephant’s obvious joy was contagious, and convinced us both to take a swim. The water was cool, the birds were singing, the vervet monkeys were swinging through the trees, and all was right with the world.
Clean and refreshed, I settled into the tent for a nap.
My peaceful dreams were interrupted by Tom’s announcement regarding our guest. I got out of the tent and saw the elephant just on the edge of our campsite, drinking lazily from the river. Tom and I grabbed binoculars and the camera, and scrambled up the big ebony tree. This elephant was no closer, really, than the one we’d almost run into on our walk. But this felt astoundingly different: we were alone with it. There was no guide to take the responsibility off of our shoulders. This was just Tom and Kathy in the middle of the Okavango Delta in Africa coming face to face with the largest land mammal on earth. It was quite possibly the most exciting moment of my life.
After a few minutes, the elephant faced us. He began the same inspection ritual we’d seen in the other one. He lifted his trunk and sniffed in our direction for what seemed like a very long time. He took a few steps toward us, which was when we thought about the fact that elephants regularly knock over trees, but then he turned back inland. He spent the next hour or so moving just around the edges of our campsite, stripping trees of their bark, eating leaves and branches, and cracking coconuts to eat their insides. It was amazing to watch those enormous feet perform such delicate tasks. (Tom and I can fit all four of our feet inside one elephant footprint.)
Tom nudged me when he saw Sefu gliding back in his mokoro. As he approached the campsite, we watched as he saw the elephant. We watched as he scanned for us. And we saw that big grin when he spotted us in the tree.
Later that night, Sefu told us that the elephants here don’t hurt people. In fact, he said, if they’re knocking down trees near a campsite (to get to the coconuts or branches) they’ll always push the tree in the direction away from the tents. This generally non-aggressive and even protective attitude, he says, is because it’s been a long time since the elephants in Botswana have been threatened by humans. Botswana’s been more successful than many other countries in combating poaching, and they do not cull the elephant herds.
This is in marked contrast to South Africa, where they do cull elephants. The guides there will tell you that the only human-aggressive elephants they’ve seen have been ones from parks where there has been culling. So dramatic has been the response of the elephants left behind that it’s resulted in a serious policy to kill entire families at once when culling.
Africa is not a place for escape. It is unavoidable, like the lion in Saul Bellow’s Henderson The Rain King. “What a Christian might feel in Saint Sophia’s church, I absorb from a lion...You ask, what can she do for you? Many things. First, she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. She will force the present moment on you.”
Perhaps that’s why I’m here.
Over dinner that night (fresh fish grilled over the fire), we asked Sefu about parasites. We’d been told that one can swim in the Boro River but, our refreshing afternoon swim uppermost in our minds, we were seeking a bit of reassurance. We knew too many stories of people who’d picked up incredibly disgusting worms and such in Africa -- never mind that there was no evidence these things were from any water contact.
In the time-honored style of both my family and Tom’s, we launched into this entirely inappropriate dinner table topic with gusto. We told Sefu about my friend who, three years after his return from Africa, found three foot-long worms coursing through his body. We told him about Tom’s friend who, following a visit to Africa, started picking at a scab on his foot when a worm popped out. We talked about bot flies, which move from your freshly air-dried laundry into, say, the nape of your neck, only to emerge some time later as the head of a worm which must be slowly pulled out over the course of several days...
After each story, we expected Sefu to say, “Oh, yes, that’s the so-and-so worm. I’ve had that many times.” Instead, we witnessed ever-widening eyes. In his 40 years living in the swamps in Botswana, swimming and drinking this water, Sefu had never heard of anything like the horrid things we described. The expressions he made were not unlike what one would expect to find on the face of one’s Aunt Matilda, who’s never been out of her sparkling clean suburb in Michigan -- and has no desire to do so exactly because of things like this.
It was our last day. We slowly, sweetly drifted back to the main camp. Just as the hide came into view in the distance, we saw an elephant on shore to our left. Then another. And another. And finally we saw that the entire last stretch of our journey in the Okavango Delta was to be lined by elephant.
It might have seemed a salute. But it didn’t. It seemed like grace.