UP CLOSE WITH ELE­PHANTS IN BOTSWANA

At an off­beat wa­ter­ing hole in Botswana, you may get closer to one of Earth’s largest crea­tures than you could find com­fort­able

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - NEWS - By Sathya Saran brunch­let­ters@hin­dus­tan­times.com Fol­low @HTBrunch on Twit­ter

I t is amaz­ing how quiet an ele­phant can be. And how eas­ily it can hide it­self from view. We had seen many an ele­phant cross­ing the road as we drove along the high­way from Jo­han­nes­berg to Botswana, and noted how, even as we slowed down and aimed our cam­eras, the lum­ber­ing beast stepped into the bush and sim­ply dis­ap­peared.

But it was at Ele­phant Sands, an off-beat wa­ter­ing hole in Botswana, that I had my real ele­phant en­counter. Face to face, him stand­ing look­ing at me, me look­ing at him. That look was up close and pretty per­sonal, let me tell you. And thereby hangs this tale.

PACHY­DERM PAR­A­DigM SHiFT

This wa­ter­ing hole was on the last leg of our jour­ney.

“What do we do there?” I had asked our guide-cum-driver. He had laughed and replied, “Noth­ing.” He said noth­ing about ele­phant en­coun­ters. And of course I had no clue.

This lodge an­nounced it­self pretty dra­mat­i­cally. The board read, ‘Where Ele­phants Rule’, and in­stead of the word ele­phant, there was a larger-than-life beast, ears flap­ping, dom­i­nat­ing the space. Mar­ket­ing spiel, of course. We had then turned off the high­way, fol­low­ing a strip of road that opened up into a camp.

Pass­ing a line up of tents all dressed in sa­fari khaki, we stopped at a thatched build­ing that passed for the only built up struc­ture in that space. The re­cep­tion was for­bid­ding with its large sign­board of dos and don’ts. As I read the list, I was acutely aware that the other­wise cool day was turn­ing sum­mery. Per­haps it was the Spar­tan na­ture of the re­cep­tion, with its sin­gle table and two chairs, and a small fan. Or it was the sand all around that held the sun and passed its heat on to those who stopped there. Whichever it was, the list of in­struc­tions added its own heat.

Do not leave the ded­i­cated walk­ways. Do not feed the birds. Do not bring out­side food and drink beyond this point. No fires and cook­ing in the tents. Lights and wa­ter will go off at 10pm. Do not waste elec­tric­ity.

The wa­ter in the morn­ings will be very cold. So­lar takes time to heat. Ele­phants have right of way.

The last one got me. And I felt the rush of heat un­der my col­lar again. But a quick look around told me there were no ele­phants in sight. Clever mar­ket­ing, I mut­tered.

Botswana is one coun­try where, re­gard­less of whether you are in a game park or on the high­way, ani-

mals rule. Guides, driv­ers of rented ve­hi­cles, lo­cals... ev­ery­one gives the wild the re­spect due to it. Even voices are hushed. Which is prob­a­bly why, af­ter a few un­pleas­ant en­coun­ters with the typ­i­cal In­dian tourist, armed with crack­ling chips pack­ets and loud, an­i­mated con­ver­sa­tion, the Botswana gov­ern­ment has prac­ti­cally stopped is­su­ing tourist visas to In­di­ans. I ac­com­pa­nied my hus­band on a busi­ness visa, which is how I am one rare “tourist” who man­aged to ex­pe­ri­ence the magic of the coun­try’s game parks. As a rule, no­body, re­peat no­body, is al­lowed to get off the game park open ve­hi­cles once in­side the park. The ve­hi­cles fol­low des­ig­nated routes within the park area, and sight­ing an­i­mals is of­ten a mat­ter of luck com­bined with the acu­men of the guide-cum­driver. This lodge was an ex­cep­tion. Where, as long as we walked along given paths, we could be on foot dur­ing the day.

THE COW­ARDLY HUNTERS

The good news was that, un­like in other parks, there was con­nec­tiv­ity here. I had a dead­line breath­ing down my neck, thanks to un­think­ingly agree­ing to an as­sign­ment on the day of leav­ing for a va­ca­tion, and Wi-Fi was a must for the re­search. Un­like the ho­tels we had stayed in up to then, here it was on pay­ment, 20 pula for 100 mb. Con­sid­er­ing the ex­change rate was 10 pu­las to a dol­lar, it was amaz­ingly af­ford­able.

This wa­ter­ing hole, in its ear­lier, orig­i­nal avatar was a hunt­ing lodge. Here ‘brave’ men armed with guns, wear­ing sa­fari gear right down to the pith hel­met, and an­kle-high hunt­ing boots sat in hid­ing and took pot shots at tuskers and she ele­phants as they came up to drink wa­ter at one of the few wa­ter­ing holes that re­mained wet deep into the dry sea­son. Then they posed with their ‘kill.’

I glimpse large thigh and pelvic bones, bleached by the heat of many suns, hang­ing as decor in some of the ar­eas. Fol­low­ing my gaze, the young woman at re­cep­tion as­sures me that no ele­phants have been killed here in re­cent years, even be­fore hunt­ing was of­fi­cially banned in the coun­try of Botswana in 2014.

Keys in hand, we take a quick walk­a­bout the area and go to our tents. The tents are roomy. And

hot! We swel­ter for a long, un­com­fort­able 15 min­utes till we de­cide to open up the zip­pered flaps. The cool cross wind is pleas­ant, but the evening sun seems to have set the tent on fire. Plan­ning to reach the shady restau­rant area, my friend and I start on the cir­cu­lar path, walk­ing past more tents on stilts, older ground-level cot­tages, and sin­gle-room thatched huts, in one of which our driver is en­sconced. EYE TO ELE­PHANT The ele­phant is al­most in­vis­i­ble. It stands be­side one of the tents, and only the sound of a twig snap­ping alerts us to its pres­ence. ‘Oh, look!’ I say to my friend, but it is as if I have ad­dressed the ele­phant, for he turns around, slowly and fixes his eyes on us. I have learnt that pachy­derms do not see too well; to him we are blurry im­ages. Only his ears serve him well, and will alert him to dan­ger. We freeze. He will turn away if we are still. But the temp­ta­tion is strong, and our phones go up to shoot a pic­ture.

“AF­TER A FEW BRUSHES WITH IN­DIAN TOURISTS, ARMED WITH CRACK­LING PACK­ETS OF CHIPS [THAT DIS­TURB WILDLIFE], THE BOTSWANA GOVT HAS RE­DUCED IS­SU­ING TOURIST VISAS...”

It is high alert then. The beast turns squarely to­wards us, ears flap­ping open, and he moves ahead. Some­one watch­ing from a tent calls to us to re­treat. We turn back. The ele­phant stops. We wait, hop­ing for more close up pho­tos. But he has ob­vi­ously read the line that says ele­phants have right of way. He wants us to go away. And when he comes slowly for­ward, straight at us, we turn back and beat a hasty re­treat, walk­ing the longer arc of the cir­cle to reach the cen­tral area.

The ele­phant does not fol­low, but look­ing in our di­rec­tion pro­ceeds to empty the con­tents of his bow­els and blad­der! My friend says it is his re­sponse to my bright pink um­brella!

That evening we watch as pro­ces­sions of ele­phants walk pon­der­ously up to the wa­ter­ing hole and drink their fill. At night, the moon rises large and full, and we sit by the fire and watch their shad­owy move­ments. The food, served hot off the stoves, is de­li­cious. But worry nags us about how we can walk back with­out walk­ing smack into a near in­vis­i­ble beast.

Our driver saves us the worry and drives us to our tents. Through the night, the snuf­fling of trunks and shift­ing of ele­phant feet can be heard all around. I still re­gret the fact that the snug warmth of my blan­kets stopped me from peer­ing through the flaps, espe­cially when I learn that lions and gi­raffes are also fre­quent visi­tors.

In the morn­ing, we stuff our­selves with ba­con omelettes and toast, and fried pota­toes, washed down with fil­ter cof­fee and pre­pare to leave.

As we drive off, a large tanker drives up. Nata vil­lage, which tends the prop­erty as a trust, en­sures the ele­phants never stay thirsty.

PS: The 20 pu­las were well spent. I wrote my ar­ti­cle that night, and Wi-Fied it the next morn­ing.

a grand gath­er­Ing Ele­phants gather ev­ery morn­ing and evening at the wa­ter­ing hole in Botswana

a tent WIth a vIeW A view of tents from the seat­ing area

Lions are fre­quent visi­tors around the tents at night WILD VISI­TORS

The au­thor is a se­nior jour­nal­ist and is a for­mer ed­i­tor of Fem­ina mag­a­zine. She has penned sev­eral books, in­clud­ing a bi­og­ra­phy on film­maker Guru Dutt

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