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Look Mommy, Elephants!

There are six of us huddled in the back of a pickup truck bouncing along a rocky two-track through the bush. The late afternoon is eerily gray: thick clouds completely obscure the setting sun, the terrain is dominated by clumps of dull gray rock, even the gnarled mopane trees have a grayish tinge. And we are trying to find some big gray animals. Specifically, we're searching for elephants. This afternoon is supposed to be a finale of sorts to our two days in this small game reserve learning the art of tracking, as well as how not to be killed while walking around in the bush. We've looked at everything from frogs and mongooses to hippos and giraffe, and our guide, an Afrikaaner fellow named J.C. Strauss, is now anxious to show us the biggest of the big.

J.C. is driving fairly rapidly for the terrain, shooting in and out of little gullies like an amusement park ride, and we struggle to scan the surrounding bush through wind and whipping dust. The unseen sun is has dipped quite low by the time Melissa finally comes through and yells out a very coherent and descriptive, "Ahhh! Over There! Whoa! Stop!" Several seconds of rapping on the back of the cab halts the truck, and we all soon pick out what she is talking about; there is indeed a group of elephants feeding on the side of a shallow ravine about three hundred meters from where we now sit. Cameras begin clicking, we all exchange triumphant glances and murmur appreciatively at our first sighting of South African elephants, and several moments pass before any of us notice that J.C. has gotten out of the truck and is leaning casually on his rifle, looking at us with slightly raised eyebrows, as if to say, "I'm ready when you are." Slowly, we realize what he is indicating to us, and it is our turn to raise our eyebrows. Ambling around looking at birds or antelope or hippos wallowing pleasantly in the river is one thing, but he's about to take us strolling up to a herd of elephants.

J.C. is a thoroughly old-school tracker. Whether eating dinner or crashing through tangles of thorny bushes, he is always smartly dressed in a khaki shirt and extremely short shorts, calf-high green wool socks, army-style leather boots, and a brown wide-brimmed hat. A rifle and a pipe tucked into his shirt pocket complete the perfect African hunter stereotype. He is 6'-1", tan, lean but muscular, and has jet-black hair and a matching goatee offset by frighteningly blue eyes that are always moving, looking, understanding. A thick Afrikaaner accent and deliberate manner of speaking add to his somewhat mysterious and faraway character (whenever he is showing a set of prints, he says, "And this is the track of the," then pauses to make sure he has our undivided attention, "banded mongoose," which from his mouth sounds like "bonded mongEWesse"). He always carries the slightest hint of a knowing smile, almost a smirk, that gives him an air of supreme but quiet confidence, which he backs up with an unparalleled knowledge of the veldt. He can stare for a moment at a series of slight depressions in the sand that for all we could tell were caused by a strong wind and tell us that a waterbuck walked past here two and a half days ago, that he was moving toward the river at a brisk pace, and that he walked with a slight limp in his left hind leg.

And now he wants to show us some elephants. On foot, and the closer the better. We all vault out of the truck, adrenaline flowing liberally, reveling in the perfect mix of anticipation and apprehension that life throws at you far too infrequently. J.C. takes out his pipe, lights it, and blows a few puffs into the breezes. "Upwind," he mutters. "We'll have to go around." And so we do, hiking in a large semicircle around the herd before approaching it from the opposite direction. The elephants are out of site now down in the ravine on our left, but we can hear the sound of very large branches or perhaps small tree trunks cracking as they feed. We continue to draw closer to the herd, J.C. in the lead, the rest of us following in single file, afraid to rustle a single leaf or even exhale, telling ourselves that J.C. knows what he's doing, that the elephants will not suddenly become displeased with our presence and spear us with their tusks or hurl us against large trees or just step on us. Well, that's what the gun's for, right? But we only have one gun, and there are more than thirty elephants milling around just out of sight.

And then we are at the edge of the ravine, and they are there, and all fear fades at the wonder, awe, sheer humility of being in the presence of the largest animals that walk the earth. Mothers, calves, adolescents, most foraging calmly, others scratching themselves on groaning tree trunks, others playing with each others' tails. They are the most aloof animals I have ever seen, totally unconcerned about anything except the present task, secure in knowing they are the most powerful creatures anywhere. The closest are no more than thirty meters away, picking at the bark of the mopane trees. Their trunks are an amazing fusion of raw strength and delicacy, able to rip off limbs with a bit of a tug, then strip succulent little lengths of bark from them.

All too soon, J.C. whispers that we have to head back. We begin the hike back to the car, thoroughly humbled by the encounter, all too aware of the physical weakness of Homo sapiens. The truck ride back to camp is silent, until J.C. suddenly slows. Just ahead of us is another group of elephants, feeding on either side of the road. The truck trundles along slowly. The animals are incredibly close; they continue feeding, but are clearly watching us diligently. Cameras whir continuously as J.C. shouts back at us to hang on just in case. A second later, "just in case" happens. The huge matriarch, apparently unhappy that we had separated her from the rest of her herd, crashes out of the bushes behind us, ears flared, trunk raised in a deafening trumpet. No longer complacent and deliberate, she is moving very quickly toward us as J.C. pounds the accelerator and shifts gears like a madman. The next few seconds are like a scene from Jurassic Park, but the machine soon wins the race. Lesson: don't tick off elephants.

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Last Updated:  13 January, 2003

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