21: There’s an Elephant Where?
It’s 6:30 a.m. and I’m hurrying to the outhouse having “held it” for hours after hearing wild animal noises near my tent last night. As I make my way, trying to wipe the mist from my eyes, a foggy thought passes through my sleepy brain: “ummm, there’s an elephant blocking the outhouse”.
“Yeah, okay, so?” another part of my numb brain says as I rush along, nearly bursting.
As I move within spitting distance of the pachyderm, the survival instinct part of my brain suddenly switches on, yelling in its loudest Jersey accent, “YO!! Whoa! What! He-llo! THERE’S AN ELEPHANT BLOCKING THE OUTHOUSE!!!!” Now the rest of my body switches into survival gear – my feet come to a halt, my blurry eyes are straining to focus on the one eye looking back at me… my brain is rewinding to the previous day’s safety briefing – back, forward, back -eeeee, screech! there it is… if you run into a wild animal,
- Don’t act scared (“uh, huh, right,” says the jersey voice) and
- s-l-o-w-l-y back away.
Oookaaaayy,. I got the first and third right and hoped the elephant couldn’t smell fear. Jersey voice is still talking, “Oh shit, they’re damn big up close” – and known to charge people if they get pissed off. “What was that story about the elephant that squashed a girl because he didn’t like the clicking of her camera?”
“Shuddup,” I tell the Jersey voice.
Even as I back off, this one eye looking at me seems to be saying “come on… come a l-i-t-t-l-e closer…” My bladder is still straining but my feet are going the other direction, self-preservation mode winning out over embarrassing-yourself-in-public mode.
I think that elephant knew damn well what I needed, as he stood around munching trees by the outhouse for a good 10 minutes before lumbering off into the bush.
A close-up of Ria’s best bog buddy.
I’d suffered through the night before because I didn’t know what was making the rustling and grumbling noises in our unfenced camp in the Masai Mara National Park, and I wasn’t going to risk finding out, especially not after my stupidity the evening before.
There’s a restriction of movement in the Masai Mara after dark. Not thinking, just before sunset three of us walked to a nearby resort to watch crocodiles being fed. When we decided to return to camp it was black as pitch outside. Armed only with our flashlights, we hurried back the way we came, through the hotel worker’s village and the ranger station – the warning we’d had earlier about an errant elephant still fresh. We’d almost made it back to camp when we ran into something we dreaded more than a night predator – a game warden. These are fierce, fearless men who hunt poachers and are known to toss out or jail unruly tourists.
He shined his flashlight in our direction, but we hurried on ignoring him. That just pissed him off and made him yell. We still ignored him and my Belgian friends started chattering away, hoping he’d think we didn’t understand English, but then he lifted up his AK47 – THAT got our attention. As expected, he yelled at us about the dangers of leaving camp in the dark, and his descriptions of what awaited us out there were enough to ensure that no matter how urgent my needs I wasn’t leaving my tent again that night.
And then there were the roaches. Another guy in our camp offered a tip that if we had to use the outhouse in the dark, to make sure we shined our flashlights into in the hole. Why? He assured us that the light keeps the cockroaches from swarming out of the hole over your feet. I wasn’t about to test that theory, as contradictory measures meant Tevas full of roaches.
Of course the Masai Mara wasn’t all bugs and stubborn elephants.. There were cheetahs chasing prey just yards from the vehicle, a pride of lions gazing lazily at us, hippos fighting over territory, crocs keeping an eye out for a lost gazelle. It was National Geographic – Live and In Color.
My dad was a huge fan of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom program. Every week we’d watch poor Jim be chased on the Serengeti while old Marlin Perkins narrated from the safety of his studio. My dad’s eyes shone with excitement when he watched that show. Some say the spirits of the departed know what happens in the lives of the living. If true, I hope my dad was along for the ride, because I’m sure he’d have been like a kid in Disneyland.
This was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. In seven days I saw two kinds of zebra and giraffe (I didn’t even know they came in flavors), a marching parade of over 3 million flamingos, thousands of migrating wildebeest, four of the “Big 5″ and over 20 other indigenous species. For the full list of sightings see this sidebar.
Imagine no zoo bars and moats keeping the animals at a safe distance. I was bumped and bruised from four-wheel driving all day, tasted dust in my mouth for days, bathed in water with strange wiggly things in it and felt so incredibly alive and lucky for the opportunity. It was a bigger rush than bumping into a naked Brad Pitt in a shower… even when the cockroaches did run over my feet.
What I lost this week: my camping towel.