June 02, 2005

The Masai Mara: Twenty-three elephants

On safari in Kenya, our wake-up calls came at 5:45 a.m., and we’d meet Herbert, our driver, at 6:20 for dawn game drives.

On sunset game drives, we witnessed the hunt, lions and other predators crouched in tall savannah grass, craftily creeping toward grazing wildebeest.

On dawn drives, we saw the scavengers, beasts that ate the remains of kills brought down the night before by the carnivores at the top of the food chain. Hyenas and vultures ripping and pecking at the barely identifiable remaining skin and flesh of zebras and gazelles, animals, which, the previous evening, had graced the Mara with their elegant, supple beauty.

Outside of this circle of life and death lumbered the elephants, too big to harass, too tough to be tasty. These herbivores wandered the Mara and places like it in a sort of elephant-only cloud, keeping to themselves and generally being left alone, save for the white bug-picking birds that rode their backs. Like most host-parasite relationships, this one works. Elephants stay insect-free and birds enjoy a moveable feast.

One morning, Herbert steered us into the Ultimate Elephant Experience. We’d sat with other vans, called kombis in safari-world vernacular, and watched a herd of elephants cross the savannah and head down a grassy knoll toward a rare cluster of trees that ran a half-mile or so. As the elephants bounded down the knoll, the other drivers left, confident they’d given their clients enough elephant time for this drive. I’ve no doubt the travelers were satisfied with their morning outing.

But Herbert was a zebra of a different stripe. A man who eschewed mediocrity and settling. An impassioned professional and gentleman whose mission was to reveal his beloved land’s every secret and nuance – or as much as he could reveal during the week we spent with him.

As the other vans turned right to head back to the various camps where their clients were staying, Herbert kicked our pop-top into gear and sped toward the clump of trees the elephants had headed for. I looked at Mike and the kids. Hang on, guys. We hired the right driver.

Herbert knew exactly where the elephants would emerge from the trees, and there we sat. He turned off the ignition, and we waited. My mind blew as, one by one, the elephants we’d seen from a distance walked from the trees not twenty feet from our van’s front grille. We were alone with a sublime parade of land leviathans, and none of us will forget the experience.

Out of the woods came a great bull elephant. Then mothers with babies trailing behind. A big-tusked bull led two babies out of the trees. I asked Herbert the calves’ ages. “About six months and one and a half years,” he said, drinking in this spectacle as deeply as we were.

We watched as, almost within touching distance, twenty-three elephants emerged from the woods and passed before us. I shot a roll of 36 slides in about four minutes. This rumbling, moving herd of pachyderms was one of the most stunning visions I’ve ever seen.

The lead bull led his clan of twenty-three to a water hole hidden in the bushes beyond the small dirt track our van sat on. We watched in awe as the elephants, young and old, small and gargantuan, bent their heads to dip water into their mouths, then moved their trunks into their mouths to drink the water down. We watched them inhale mouthfuls of tree branches and then tuck some extra under their leathery brown chins for future use.

Beyond, behind and aside us, the savannah baked in the African sun, wildebeest grazed in peace until the lion hour, and acacia trees spread and drooped like giant, life-giving umbrellas.