Lemons, Lemonade and Elephants
A few years ago, at a camp in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park that gave me the worst guide I’ve ever had (not his fault; turns out that he was a mechanic), my decision to skip the useless game drives one day and instead stay at camp presented me with one of my best wildlife experiences ever.
Friends from a previous trip had highly recommended this camp, so I decided to make the long (bumpy and rather perilous) journey down the Mombasa Road to get to Tsavo East from Nairobi. The camp itself, with private bandas spaced out along a stretch of river, was travel diary-worthy. I could sit in the chair outside my banda watching hippos in the river below and antelopes on the opposite shore.
That one day, I had breakfast in camp and then returned to my banda to laze away the morning, focus my binoculars on the surrounding landscape and maybe read a little. I relaxed in the shade on the banda’s little wooden porch.
After an hour or so, a soft rustling in the grass just on the other side of the canvas caught my attention. I imagined little birds jumping around, smiled to myself and kept reading. Then I noticed that the sound had a pattern: a gentle swoosh and then a soft pop. I looked out through a netted window low down in the canvas wall and saw an elephant’s trunk. The animal twisted small bunches of dry grass around his trunk (swoosh) and then tugged them out of the dirt (pop), before curling his trunk up and pushing the grass into his mouth. About three feet, and thin canvas, separated us. An earthy smell—part shattered dirt clods, part elephant—seeped through the cloth. Heaven.
Eventually, the bull wandered off around the back of the tent—only to appear right in front of me (see below) about twenty minutes later. I shot out of my seat as smoothly as I could and stepped (way) back into the banda. Luckily, I remembered to grab my camera.
Then, as this elephant munched on a little tree right in front of me (two or three feet from where I’d been sitting), I found myself faced with a tough decision: stay back and give him his space, or take advantage of this extraordinary moment and move a little closer.
The camp manager had told me about a one-tusked elephant that “hung out” nearby, so I suspected that I didn’t really need to worry. Still, I didn’t want to have to explain why or how I’d broken 10 bones, if for some reason the bull didn’t take a shine to me. So although I inched a little closer as the minutes passed, I kept a safe and respectful distance, remaining well inside. He snacked, crunching on the spindly branches, and he kept an eye on me the whole time. Magic.
Eventually, he’d had enough of the little tree, and he lumbered off. Since the bull obviously felt comfortable in the camp, I’m sure that I’m not the only person who has experienced such a visit. But it’s definitely a highlight of my safari experiences—and all because the camp was naughty and gave me a mechanic for a guide.
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