In honor of World Elephant Day today, I wanted to share about one of my most memorable elephant encounters in the Okavango Delta.
Just before we sat down for lunch on August 3rd, I asked one of my trainers if I could accompany him and another to the watering hole — named Hidden Lagoon — to help fix the water pump that elephants had yet again uncovered. The Okavango Delta was experiencing its worst drought in decades, water had failed to reach our location yet, and Hidden Lagoon was the only place for miles that served as a dependable water source for all the surrounding animals. The water is pumped out of the ground using energy collected by a series of solar panels, pushed through pipes, and emptied into the watering hole to provide for water-dependent animals in the area. Those working at African Guide Academy tried time and time again to keep the pump and the well out of the grasp of thirsty elephants' trunks. Elephants are incredibly intelligent animals and were able to sense the water coming up from underground and going through the pipes into the watering hole. When they had consumed all the water, they went for the pump. The pump itself was covered in a cage that had been tied down with wires, some of which the elephants seemed to have snapped with their pure strength. Yet again, the elephants had exposed this pump to a point at which it had to be recovered or it would potentially be damaged. This is what we would try to remedy during the excursion.
Later that afternoon Mike, Jono and I jumped into the vehicle and took off on our way to the watering hole. As we rounded a bend in the path and Hidden Lagoon came into sight in the distance, Mike and Jono both groaned upon seeing the great number of elephants that were mingling around the water. Mike counted 47 elephants and I later counted 54. They were everywhere — under every patch of shade and playing in every puddle of muddied water. One massive bull elephant was even getting a nice scratch between two trees. There were at least 5 separate breeding herds and countless bulls, and their ages ranged anywhere from one year to forty years. The quickly depleting water collection was completely surrounded by these gorgeous animals. Though it was winter and the sun was still far from its greatest strength, the midday temperatures pushed each elephant to desperation for a sip of water.
As soon as we began our approach closer into the lagoon some of the elephants began clearing out. However, those who had been patiently waiting in the cool of the shade filled the empty space: we were completely engulfed in a sea of elephants. Parking between the watering hole and the pump, we were greeted by massive logs and leadwood branches strewn around, indicative of the elephants' handiwork. Mike, Jono and I were going to strategically replace the limbs in such a way that the elephants wouldn't be able to uncover the pump again.
Jono shut off the vehicle and the three of us sat quietly, letting the elephants settle their nerves and grow their trust in us, though their wariness was outweighed by pure desperation for water. After about 10 minutes of waiting, strategizing and observing, Jono decided that the coast was clear. Though we were still surrounded on every possible side with elephants continuing to pour into the area, they were, at the moment, at a safe enough distance for us to begin our work
Initially I sat on the edge of the vehicle, wanting to stay out of the way until instructed otherwise. I watched the way that all the different elephants interacted with each other and with us:
These different interactions occurred simultaneously, all in a matter of minutes. After a few logs were moved by Mike and Jono, I heard Mike say, "I'm sure Kerr and I can move this big one." Smiling from ear to ear, I leapt off the side of the vehicle, adrenaline coursing through my body: I was on the ground 15 meters away from several dozen elephants, trying to help preserve their water access.
My heart was soaring — this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and yet I wanted it to last forever.
As soon as I joined the two on the ground, Jono went through an operating procedure with me: if an elephant came too close, I was to immediately get in the vehicle. If neither Jono nor Mike was able to get in, I was to immediately start the vehicle, which would startle the elephants enough to ward them off. When you are in that kind of situation, there can be no hesitation. You have to have an action plan established in case things go wrong.
The three of us worked under the sun, strategically placing and intertwining massive limbs in hopes that the elephants would have a much harder time removing the logs if they were packed down a little better. When an elephant became too curious, Mike talked to the animal, which usually curbed its curiosity. We all laughed, bantered and worked in awe of the circumstance in which we found ourselves: surrounded by over 50 elephants on every side, moving massive logs that would take them one swish of the trunk to remove. Watching each other's backs, we kept an eye out for some of the more testy elephants.
At one point, as Mike and I stood up from placing a massive log on the heaping pile, I heard a rustle and Jono say from behind me, "Uh, Kerrington, move to the vehicle and get in, but move slowly." I looked up and Mike nodded, confirming Jono's instruction as I gently set down the branch I was holding and side-stepped to the vehicle with my back towards whatever was happening in front of Jono.
"Slowly, slowly…" Jono reassured. I felt excitement rather than fear, as I trusted Jono and Mike completely, knowing that hesitation or failure to heed their commands would end poorly in one way or another. After a few steps, Jono said, "Okay, quickly. Get in the vehicle quickly." Another three steps and I was in the relative safety of the vehicle, watching as Mike and Jono jumped in behind me. I looked to both Jono and Mike and was met by beaming faces, their intoxication with adrenaline just as evident as my own.
An unseen elephant female — called a cow — had surprised Jono as she led her herd out of the brush towards water, coming too close for us to comfortably remain on foot. The matriarch approached the vehicle closer, trying to defend her calf and herd with a mock charge, flapping ears and trumpeting. Jono scrambled for the keys and flipped the ignition on. The growling motor startled the cow, and she soon realized not only that we weren't backing down but also that we weren't a threat. She slowly and very cautiously led her calf and herd around the vehicle to the water. At her closest, she was likely 10 meters away from us. The three of us sighed in relief, as we could now resume the nearly-completed task.
"Kerrington," Jono ordered, "Stay in the vehicle and keep a watchful eye out for elephants who come too close."
"Yeah, and if they do get too close, just start talking to them. They'll understand you," Mike added.
As they jumped back onto the ground I returned to my perch on the edge of the vehicle, turning and trying to keep my eyes on every elephant that wandered too close. The nervous cow did approach closer, and I began talking to her, saying, "Hey now, it's okay. No need to worry about us." I spoke at a volume slightly louder than normal with inflection in my voice, similar to the way I would talk to my dogs. Jono and Mike placed the last log on the pile as an elephant approached, causing them to jump back into the vehicle. There was still one massive leadwood limb that needed to be added, but it was far too heavy for Jono and Mike to move alone.
So there I sat once more, listening to Mike and Jono plan and strategize what the next move would be. Jono decided that when the nervous cow turned her back to us he would jump out and attach a tow rope to the limb so that we could very securely place it on the heap. Mike jumped into the driver's seat and I stabilized myself on the edge using the roof railing. As Jono guided Mike's driving from the back, the vehicle made its way towards Jono in reverse. The brief ride was bumpy and loud, enough to startle the elephants that were closest to us, giving Jono plenty of safe space to work. After Mike parked, Jono once again waited for things to settle before quietly slipping out to attach the tow rope. Sneaking around the corner of the vehicle, Jono was met with the questioning, watchful gaze of the cow. Mike laughed and said, "Dude, there's no way you're sneaking up on her."
Jono shook his head laughing and attached the tow rope to the branch before stepping back by the vehicle once more.
"Alright, drive," Jono told Mike. As he accelerated I felt the resistance of the massive limb, which eventually cracked under all the force. Finally, Mike stopped the vehicle.
"Mike," Jono laughingly started, "Come take a look at this — there's no way they're getting these off now." Mike climbed down the side of the vehicle for a look as I clambered over three rows of seats to get a look. The limb had literally been warped and pressed onto the others. We were fully convinced that the elephants would not be able to get those off. Satisfied with our work we all sat back in the vehicle, watching the elephants once more before heading back to camp.
Much to our disappointment, though I wasn't incredibly surprised, by the time we returned to Hidden Lagoon the next afternoon our contraption had been completely removed by the elephants, serving as a humble reminder of their vast strength compared to our own.
That afternoon serves as one of my favorite memories from my first trip to Botswana, and it is a treat to vicariously relive it on this World Elephant Day.
1 Thess. 2:2
"...but with the help of our God we dared to tell His gospel in the face of strong opposition."