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  • I adore elephants and – traveling through parts of Africa – I have learnt to respect and fear them also:

    On our second morning in Etosha we drive ourselves to another pan, a waterhole named Olifantsbad, the elephants’ bath. As we approach we are thrilled to see over a hundred elephants taking their morning bath! It is a group of matriarchs, mothers and offspring. The youngsters play, measuring their strength, one against the other. There is a great deal of trunk pushing and head butting. There are a few newborn. I visually feast on one who repeatedly falls down and struggles to regain footing. I think he must be very, very young.

    The cows use their wonderfully flexible trunks to supervise the little ones. In and out of the females’ legs run a family of warthogs who look so small by comparison. The warthogs are little toughies, though. Fast and fierce, they show no fear of the elephants in their determined dash for water. The guardians, however, are not pleased with the interlopers. They are obviously upset. They try to chase the warthogs away with warning trumpets. The pigs scatter for a bit, but soon return. They are much too fast for the heavy elephant legs that repeatedly reach out with a kick. Agitation builds. We are rapt as the elephants form a wall with their bodies between their many babies and the warthogs. The warthogs move off again, this time retreating to a position close to our vehicle. A young elephant mother’s eyes shift focus to our Land Cruiser. Does she think it is a huge warthog? She seems to ponder the shape, moving slowly closer. She neither flaps her ears in warning nor trumpets, the sure warnings of an impending attack. She does not charge but steadily comes nearer, growing more and more enormous in front of us. She is probably only curious. .

    I remember the wall of photographs of ruined tourist cars by our lodge’s reception desk. Threatened elephants will go after vehicles. We stop clicking. We both sense the elephant does not like its sound. We close the windows. She keeps coming closer. We have no protecting wall. There are no other cars. She towers above us, twice the height of our car. One step forward and she will be able to touch the Toyota, smash the window or even sit on us! We hardly breathe. We do not move. We stare at her. My heart wants to explode. Am I deliriously euphoric or on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Yesterday a man told me how he retrieved the body of a man who had been killed by a mad elephant.

    A couple of weeks later we observed elephants in Botwana:

    The Okavango River delta in Botswana is the largest inland delta the world. The tributaries of the river flow out into the vast African bush and evaporate with the dry season. During the rainy season, though, they swell again and are a paradise for wildlife. The delta supports sixty thousand wild elephants I am told. During the wars for independence in Namibia and Angola, not only people, but elephants, were tortured and killed. Those animals that could, fled to Botswana and they and their descendents remain there.

    During the rainy season, it is hard to observe wildlife. The delta is so immense and filled with so much water that animals have no need to wander near human settlements. But when natural water supplies begin to dry up, the animals come closer. Many wells are kept moist just for the animals.

    In Savute I stood for an entire day watching elephants arrive at a water hole. Once they spotted it from the hills in front, they broke into a runr. The sun beatdown and the hole was mostly mud, but the creatures went nuts, their senses alive with thirst and nearby water. I could feel the desperation to drink.

    I watched them fight to gain access, the matrons first, then the younger ones. The babies splashed about just as human children do. I watched how a young cow, anxious to reach the water, was chased away again and again by others in her herd. It went on for hours. The young cow got more and more frantic, but the others just would not give her a chance. It broke my heart and I had to walk away. When I returned that night, all had left.

    Beyond the delta before the rains started, I was on the banks of the Chobe River which forms the border between Namibia and Botswana. Hundreds of elephants appeared. I could not believe my eyes. I was transfixed for hours. Elephants here, there and everywhere. All manner of family groups: cows with juveniles and babies, experienced bulls with adolescents. To cross from one side to another, one country to another, the family members lined up, first the older cows, then the younger ones, all surrounding the babies. Every baby was protected by a cow in front and a cow to the rear. Together, they glided into the deep river. The aft cow lifted the little thing up so that its trunk broke the water’s surface to breathe. What great snorkels! Elephants are so huge and heavy, but they are excellent swimmers. They must enjoy their tremendous bodies feeling so much lighter for a while!

    I could not get enough of watching them. Each river crossing moved me to tears, I cannot say why.

    I watched elephants swim to the other side, get out of the water, toss mud on themselves and, sometimes, not go into the green Namibian fields to feed, but turn insteadand reenter the water to swim back to Botswana.

    Are elephants like us, thinking that the grass is greener on the other side, often to discover that it is not?

    Photography by Kiki
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