Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Beauty and hardship

Night Drive, 8/26 @ 4-8 pm

Mars hung low again in the sky—the last of daylight gave way to two groups of elephants—the first on the side of the road—2 juveniles and 2 adults clambering across the red road. An older male swaggered pretty close to our vehicle. In previous years, the elephants here on the ranches were heavily poached. Many of these elephants witnessed the murder of family and herd members, and to this day possess a wariness that elephants in other protected areas don’t have. Their exposure to humans in vehicles is extremely vital; projects like Lions of Tsavo indirectly help other species, like the elephants, become more acclimated to humans and less likely to show aggression, which puts humans and elephants both in danger. Almost all of the elies that we encountered peacefully retreated from our vehicle. A few times Simon had to rev the engine as a big bull stood his ground near us, but every time, the elephants relented—giving way to us—the peaceful invaders of their space. They are truly amazing creatures. The wisdom and sadness in their eyes still moves me.

We saw lots of dik diks and bush babies that night. Peter and Grant’s gazelles bounding across the land. Impala, their wavy horns cutting across the grassy backdrop. And Kudu—an amazing mauve-colored antelope with massive, swirled horns and very big ears. His wispy, white beard. His light mane running down his thick neck. The kudu face—sculpted like Michelangelo’s David—strong and sincere.

As darkness wove its way into the night, the light from our spot reveal a beautiful African cat called a Caracol. His large ears, curved with wispy black fur at the tips stand alert. He sits a long the road; shy, yet a bit curious. He didn’t stick around for long, but what a treat to see such an unusual creature in the scrub.

Down the load road ahead, two giraffes stopped as we approached. A juvenile stands and stares; his big ears oscillate and spin one at a time. The short, rope-like tail twitching with curiosity. He absorbs the idea of us; and without hesitation takes off with that giraffe slow motion. It’s almost as if they run, moving one, elongated vertebrae (only 7 vertebrae, but LONG!) at a time. The land and time stop. And suddenly we are immersed in the rhythm and motion of this remarkable creature with the big stony eyes and rust colored patches that help him blend into the woodland.

And then eye shine of Burchell’s zebra—5 in all—gather in a clearing. Even at night, the stripes that cover the entire body are striking. By far the most common zebra in Tsavo (although we did see several of the endangered Grevy’s zebra—more on those later,) they are restless and a bit nervous. On minute they’re standing there—and then the next second, they’re off! Rushing and skimming across the grass through the night to safety.

Down by Satao water hole, another group of elephants-8 in total-congregated and drink together. One group splits off. They travel down a large animal trail called “Elephants’ Highway,” a pathway made by elies that connects two water tanks. Water is a highly valued resource here in the arid, Tsavo scrubland. Now, at the end of the dry season, many of the holes and tanks are either low or empty. Lack of water brings hardships to the local animals—especially to the young, sick, or very old. They spend their days eating and searching for water. These struggles make it much easier for lions and other top predators to catch their prey!

Back on the road, with Susan at the spotlight, we encountered a serval—a beautiful, spotted African cat. He sat motionless in the dry grass and we drove closer. His breathtaking coat stood vibrant against the yellow grass. His ears alert, eyes and large, knobbed nose fixed upon us. Then he stood, and we gasped! His elongated body stretched out between the grasses. He responded to Simon’s high-pitched squeaks (as to resembled a rodent call,) and then became too smart for our tricks, disappearing gracefully into the brush.

During the 10-2am drive, a young elephant surprised us as he lumbered across the road in front of us. His mama was out of sight and he went off into the brush. But as we passed, we were startled by her trumpeting—just like any frustrated mom, “Get over here!” It seemed like she called. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Rounding a water tank, we spotted a Black-backed jackal slinking through the tall grass. It’s small dark back meshing in with the shadows there. A striped hyena darted away from the water tank, it’s bushy white and black tipped mohawk of hair running down its back. The hyena was bigger than I imagined, more graceful and beautiful. Maybe that’s the magic of Tsavo again. Even the group of army ants carrying eggs I saw marching through the carport in camp were alarmingly lovely. A perfect example of tenacity and power in a terrain so dry and difficult. Would we adapt as well to our own landscape if we needed to? Do we rise above the hardships in our environment? In our lives? Do we become more graceful as we find the power that drives us through these struggles?

I can only hope.

This night I rode shotgun next to Simon, an amazing guide, driver, and friend. It was a lovely experience to learn about his kids—two boys and a nephew that live with him. I was honored to discuss the trials and tribulations of parenting and writing (as he is writing a memoir himself!) A wonderful connection to a humble and genuine human being. This night we decided to set up a pen-pal connection between his son’s school and my son’s school. Building bridges through communication and writing. The power of words and understanding and love.

Breaking down barriers.

One word at a time.

(Thank you Bruce Patterson for the photos of the: civet, zebra, and jackal)

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