Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fear and Optimism in Namibia

Etosha National Park, Day 2.

Optimism comes in different forms. Meg expresses her optimism candidly, and out loud. She does not only think positively, she speaks positively. My brand of optimism is more pessimistic. I believe that if I vocalize my hopes, they will definitely be shattered.

So, as the sun rose on the second morning in Etosha she said, “I am sure we’ll see elephants today,” and I replied, “I don’t think we’ll see elephants today”. She thinks I am being negative, and I believe she is being na├»ve. But, at least we agreed on what we wanted, if not how to conjure it up.

Just after sunrise we drove out of Halali camp, along the access road, and turned left at the main road that of Etosha, following the advice of the drunk South African. The road cut through a huge open plain of tall, yellow grass stretching hundreds of meters. Three trucks were pulled over ahead of us, and we pulled up behind them and stopped. Beside us, to our left, were a few lonely springbok, but we knew that was not what they were looking at, springbok are omnipresent in Etosha.

“Lions,” I shouted, pointing my hand across Meg’s face to our left.

About a hundred meters away, bodies barely visible over the tall grass, a male lion lead a string of five lionesses and two cubs towards the distant trees. The adults moved slowly in the grass. They were not hunting, just moving through early morning plain, taking no notice of the antelopes around them, or the cars watching them from a distance.

The cubs brought up the rear. They followed the females, at their own pace, about thirty meters behind them. Then, they started to play with each other. One would hang back, giving the other time get ahead before launching into a sprint and tackling the other from behind. Then the wrestling began, with both young animals rearing up on hide legs to paw at the other cub’s head, exposing their bright white underbellies before disappearing beneath the tall grass.

Then one would emerge first and trot on behind the pack for a few seconds before the games would continue again as before. The lionesses stopped occasionally to make sure the cubs were following, but the male lion never turned around or altered his pace, he just kept on heading towards the tree line.

After a few minutes the pride was out of sight, and we pulled out onto the road again. It was a great start to the morning, but we were on the hunt for elephants, and we decided to try to follow their ‘tracks’.

Elephant ‘tracks’ consist of impressive piles of dung, and enormous paths that have been trampled through the brush bisecting or lining the roads. Judging by the amount of dung along the roads, elephants prefer to walk along the roads than make their own way through the bush. We examined the piles of dung for color to determine how long it had been before they passed before us. You are not allowed to get out of your car in Etosha, so we could not smell them to truly know the time of their departure, as far as the game warden knows.

Around lunchtime we had seen hundreds of piles of dung, but no elephants. We were getting discouraged until we found the watering hole the South African told us about just south of the Okaukuejo campsite. It was, of course, as he said it was, very impressive.

The watering hole sat at the foot of a huge clearing, and animal herds appeared from our right, drank from the water, and moved off to the left. The viewing area was thirty meters from the water, protected by a low stonewall and lined with comfortable bench seats. We ate lunch on one of the benches and watched the springbok, kudu, zebras, oryx, jackals, fox, come by to drink.

After lunch we took the southern road south to a new, more remote area of the park. The road became a little difficult at times for the Kia, but we just drove more slowly and more cautiously. Before reaching the watering hole at Olifantsbad we turned a corner and were greeted by a group of a new species, Red Hartebeest, lying in the shade just a few feet from the road.

Beyond the hartebeest came more new species of antelopes; impala, steenbok, and finally a male kudu with its tall, curled antlers. Somehow we had stumbled upon antelope alley, and the animals seemed to be perfectly content to travel with each other to the watering hole. The brashest species of the group was the impala. The males frequently blocked the road ahead of us as their females and young crossed the road in front of us. They showed no respect for the destructive power of our puny, Korean car or us.

Unfortunately the watering holes held no elephant herds. It was getting on in the afternoon, and you cannot drive at night in Etosha, so it was time for us to end our seach for elephants, and drive home. We were both disappointed, but had hope for the next day, our last day in Etosha. I vocalized my fear, hoping that the saying would prove me wrong, “I don’t think we are going to see elephants today.”

“I don’t appreciate your pessimism.”

Little does she know about my relationship with optimism.

On the quiet, back road back to Halali there was no elephant dung, and little chance for seeing one. Then we saw a car in the distance pulled over to the left side of the road. The road cut across a wide, yellow plain, lined on both sides by low shrubs. I eased the car about fifty meters behind the other car and surveyed the area.

“Elephant!” Meg screamed, and she was right.

Two hundred yards away, headed right for us was a huge male elephant. Over the two days we had incorrectly seen zebra on the horizon and mistaken their think, sturdy bodies as elephants. Now that we saw a real one, we knew the folly of our ways. This thing was huge, and looked like a huge gray house coming towards us.

My fear of elephants in Etosha is two fold. The first comes from watching a youtube video days before coming. In it a huge bull elephant is charging a tour bus, ears flagging, and trunk bellowing. The elephant towers over the bus as it charges. The driver of the bus reversed as the elephant approached, knowing that he was outmatched by the beast. Our Kia did not stand a chance against it.

The second fear was of Meg’s ‘connection’ with elephants. She squealed with delight at seeing it, and shifted around in the passenger seat, and rolled down the window as it approached. I feared that she might well get out of the car and run towards it to give her ‘brother’ a hug and expect to ride on its back into the bush. I feared for what she would do, and what might be done to her now that we found one.

I had a lot of fear, and soon I realized the elephant was coming going to pass directly in front or behind our car because shrubs between us and the other car blocked his path across the road. Fear for our safety welled up inside me as I snapped photos and Meg struggled against her excitement to keep her video camera still. This was really happening.

The elephant walked directly towards the passenger side of the car. It’s huge head swung from side-to-side with successive stride, the trunk swaying with the motion. He wore a collar around his neck, and I imagined it was similar to a house-arrest bracelet worn by convicts, and I imagined him as a real ‘rogue’ elephant, unpredictable, and dangerous. I whispered, “stay calm,” to Meg, the words meant to calm me as much as her. We sat as still as possible, our hearts pounding in our chests. Five meters from the car it slowed and turned its left flank towards us, and moved behind the car.

At the edge of the road the beast stopped, directly behind us. I looked out the rear windshield and saw only the broken tusk inches from the glass. The tusk moved towards the car, then away, checking his path across the road. I thought it was going to lift the car up on its tusk and toss us aside. I was petrified.

Then, as abruptly as it stopped, it started again to swing its head and began to cross the dusty road. I watched its wrinkled gray flank move across the back windshield with relief. Meg turned to get a view of him from my window and in doing so pushed her seat backwards. The seat had not been set into a secure position, and it slid backwards, its peg a hole in the rail, locking into position with a loud ‘bang’. Meg and I turned to look at each other, and froze with fear. We both expected the animal to be startled and charging us, but could not bring ourselves to face him. We braced for the trumpeting sound of the attack and the imminent impact.

But there was none. When I found the courage to break eye contact, and turn right, the elephant was across the road and moving into the grass. We did not spook him, thank God.

As the elephant moved away, the elation hit us, me as much as Meg. I had to resist the urge to get out of the car and jump up and down, screaming like an idiot. I thought Meg was going to cry. This was better than anything we could have expected.

Hours later, while watching the rhinos at the Halali watering hole we were still talking about the elephant encounter. We still hoped to see elephants at the watering hole until Meg said, “unless an elephant comes up and sits on the rock next to me, nothing can beat what happened today.” And she was right, it was the best day two of Etosha we could have expected, and I was happy my brand of optimism made it all possible.

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