The sun rises with spokes on her head like the Statue of Liberty. She rises into an immense lemon sky that almost turns green before it turns blue. Bare, wood-muscular branches of a jackalberry stretch above my head, tips ablaze with light.
On the far side of an open field of grass an African Mourning dove chants Bots-WAN-a… Bots-WAN-a… Bots-WAN-a, and that’s exactly where I am — in a country seven thousand miles distant from New York.
A week ago, while packing my bags, I studied a satellite photograph resembling a giant bird footprint pressed into the southern part of Africa — the Okavango Delta of Botswana, a river delta the size of Massachusetts. Swollen by November rains, the Okavango River floods south from Angola and arrives in Botswana in May or June. Then it fans out, stopping in its tracks when it bumps into fault lines at the bird’s toes. Land-locked, the river dies in the Kalahari sands; not a single drop reaches the sea. The four dead-end channels left behind in the Delta form the image found on that satellite photograph — the bird’s footprint — located about seven hundred miles north from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Yesterday I flew into the Delta and landed on a dry spot between two of the bird’s toes, a point halfway up one of the dead-end channels, Chief’s Island. The pilot let me sit up front. As the shadow of our chattering Cessna passed over game trails etched by countless hooves, a waterhole appeared, and then another and another, each left behind by last year’s flood. A half-hour later, the pilot pushed in his throttle and the Cessna’s chatter muted. Right before we landed on a dirt strip, we glimpsed a cheetah sprinting for cover. With that single spotted blur, my life divided once again between home and Africa.
This is my second extended stay at the encampment of Doug and Sandi Groves, and another opportunity to spend a week with their three elephants. Now I’m sitting in their kitchen shelter, watching the sunrise. Under my feet the sands of the Kalahari spread around me for two million square miles.
The morning air is as cold as marble. My hands warm around a metal cup filled with tea. Sandi sits with her feet on her chair and her knees tucked under her chin. She sips coffee and stares straight-ahead, not yet fully awake. Doug finishes eating an apple and puts the core into a small canvas bag.
“Someone’s gonna love that,” he says and straps the bag around his waist. Doug’s stained, wide-brimmed hat covers dark unruly hair. He wears a short-sleeved cotton shirt, ankle-high boots, and khaki shorts with cargo pockets. On the streets of Johannesburg he’d likely be mistaken for an accountant on a holiday safari.
He steps away from the kitchen shelter and crosses the open field on his way to fetch the elephants.
Skirting a tree line of purple shadows, he follows a dirt road across the sea of waist-high grass and disappears around a corner.
Half an hour later he returns. Jabu, Thembi, and Morula are right behind him.
Sandi picks up another canvas bag and slips the strap over her shoulder. She steps under Jabu’s massive head, leans against his leg and gives his knee a motherly pat.
“Can you tell he’s grown?” she asks me with an impish grin.
Five years ago, when I first visited the elephants, Jabu was a gangly fifteen-year-old. At twenty, he’s ten feet tall at the shoulder. He fills my entire range of vision.
Gently, he swings his trunk and uses just the very tip to tap the bag hanging from Sandi’s shoulder.
“What’s in there?” I ask. I’d seen the bags last time I visited, but hadn’t bothered to ask what was in them.
She shows me a little mound of pellets cupped in her hand. “Pressed alfalfa, wheat bran, salt, ground corn, and sunflower hulls.”
To the elephants it must be like candy. Jabu immediately vacuums the pellets into his trunk and transfers them to his mouth.
Sandi whispers, “Let’s go, Jabu.” He turns to follow her down the dusty road in front of camp.
Plain-Jane Morula is next to saunter past, her broad, honest face etched with a network of creases and wrinkles, the tip of her trunk canted in my direction. Thembi lags behind with Doug at her side. She soon catches up to Jabu and picks up a stick just like he does, stashes it between her trunk and tusk, and then drops it.
Oddly enough, the order in which they assemble for our morning walks never varies. First Jabu, then Morula, and finally Thembi. Yet, when we set off, it’s always Morula, the oldest, who brings up the rear.
We mosey away from camp at a slow ramble, all in a line — Doug and Sandi, three elephants, and me.
I never expected to fall in love with elephants. When I was only seven or eight, I spent an entire summer reading all the National Geographics in my grandmother’s attic, fantasizing how I could disappear from my dull life into lost worlds full of gorillas and man-eating lions, exotic peoples dressed only in feathers, full of jungles and snakes and fish that could eat me.
On my first trip to Africa I went looking for lions, but saw only one lonely lioness as she slunk into the bush. But elephants — elephants were everywhere. I watched whole families splashing in mud holes, greeting each other with what I called, at my first sight of it, great joy. Sometimes elephants completely surrounded our vehicle to stare at us the humans within it as if we were fascinating, caged animals. Under the steady gaze of those eyes, I felt equally small and enormous.
Five years ago, in the middle of planning my second trip to Africa, I was delighted to find the website for the Living with Elephants Foundation, managed by Doug and Sandi Groves. I sent an email to them about my research, and they invited me to stay at their camp for a week, but they warned me that my visit would definitely involve “roughing it a bit.” I jumped at the chance to spend seven days walking through the bush with an elephant herd, and I soon found out that “roughing it” turned out to be five canvas tents on a rise of high ground in the midst of a grassy floodplain.