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Jambo Bwana 4: A Week with Elephants


Our first morning with the Umani Springs orphans was pure magic.

Friday, June 24
Umani Springs Camp
Chyulu Hills National Park
Kibwesi Forest, Kenya

People go on safari for different reasons, and there are enough to accommodate diverse palates. The most common and best-known are the “Big Five” or “Big Six” safaris. In Kenya, that means going to the savannahs of the Masai Mara or Amboseli National Park and spending the day in trucks marking off the Big Six list: generally, lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, buffalo, hippopotamus. It’s similar to what we did in Yellowstone in the years we spent watching wolves and grizzlies.

(Mondaii tells us a great story about a group that wanted to see the Big Six. It took him less than an hour to find examples of each. They took photos and were ready to come back to the camp and hang out the rest of the day.)

This week is different. Instead of trying to see all the animals, on this safari we get the chance to see one species up close and personal. (The second week of the safari heads to Masai Mara, where you get those amazing photos of the sun setting with a giraffe or lion standing before it.) And when I first realized, while riding to and from the elephant stockades, we wouldn’t be going on game drives or seeing other animals, I was a little disappointed. But not for long.

We have done adventures before, with mind-bending results. In 1999 and 2000 we traveled to Brooks Falls and McNeil River, respectively, two areas in southwest Alaska where dozens of brown bears gather and tolerate each other and the humans gawking at them while they fatten up on the salmon bounty at both areas. We spent a total of eight days over two trips in the wild with the great bears in their native habitat doing what grizzlies spend most of the time doing, and I learned that it doesn’t include chasing and eating people – unless provoked by said humans.

We felt privileged to sit among brown bears at McNeil River and Brooks Camp in Alaska in 1999 and 2000.

And we spent half a dozen Octobers in Yellowstone chasing the wolves in the early 2000s after they were re-introduced into the park. We were able to observe animals in a pack and how they relate to their surroundings and each other. One incredible, cold morning, on a hill overlooking the Lamar Valley, we watched for an hour as a mother grizzly and two cubs overcame seven wolves and took over an elk kill site. Powerful stuff.

So the chance to see another species, especially the largest land animal, up close was persuasive. Like brown bears and wolves, elephants dominate their ecosystems. I had left Alaska understanding that humans, especially since the advent of the repeating rifle, are the apex species – no doubt about that – but that we might not be the smartest in the sense of how we have adapted to our environment, and we loved seeing that kind of thing in nature.

Brown bears just want to be left in peace. Any so-called “attack” is nothing more than a living being protecting itself and its family or near enough starvation to actually entertain consuming a human. Brown bears can and do kill people if necessary, and so do elephants, but both, for the most part, are pretty docile. And when there is conflict or competition, animals always pay the price for their actions.

The final reason why I succumbed didn’t dawn on me until later. It goes back to seeing those first films of those orphans run for their bottles and watching their absolute joy for life as they went through their day. It reminded me that I was orphaned young, too, and how much I hated that word, how much I wanted to rid myself of its stigma, of that dread feeling of not being part of something. Seeing them become reintegrated into society with family and friends is a big part of it for me.

We’re up early today, and I grab a quick cup of strong Kenyan tea Peter has ready for us so we can be out at the elephant stockade at 6am as the guys and gals are let out for the day to roam the forest with their keepers. Just before we get in the Rover, I notice that a bunch of ants had gotten into my left shoe. I spent a little time ridding myself of the intruders, and it was the last insect incident of the trip.

When we get out to the stockade, I notice that the bark has been perfectly stripped from every tree limb that was placed inside their enclosures last night. They head off in a line, and as we leave the stockade behind the elephants, they all turn left at the gate and head for a small clearing the keepers have filled with lucerne, or alfalfa, which has nutrients that the ellies love.

Standing there in the forest in the hay, we have our first experience actually up close and personal with them, and it is amazing. (Watch the scene here.) Dawn is creeping into the forest, and here we are, eight tourists, two drivers, six keepers and 11 elephants in a pretty tight area. And we just walk around among them in wonder, feeling their trunks, scratching their ears, looking into their eyes, watching and listening to them eat, asking questions, learning to stay out of their way and just marveling that we are actually in the wild more than 9,000 miles from home communing with another species. This is what we came to do, and it feels soooo good.

The keepers seem as gentle as the elephants, able to communicate with words and gestures, keep order and put up with our insistent questions, and we have many. They are always calm and collected; I never see one of them panic at any time. Philip, head of the Umani unit, is the first of two keepers to tell me that elephants are as smart as humans, maybe smarter, and yes, the keepers get very attached to the animals, and yes, the animals get attached to certain humans. These elephants have been traumatized. Some were rescued while circling their dead mothers and screaming, “WTF?” and then brought back to an unfamiliar place, the nursery.

Think about it. These animals have no good reason to trust humans, knowing our treachery, and here are these men who walk with them, talk with them, feed them, sleep with them, comfort them when they’re lonely in the darkness, in effect becoming their surrogate family. Keepers are moved around in sleeping quarters so animals, or keepers, don’t get too attached to each other. We are witness to so many instances of the marvelous interaction between these humans and animals. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I would seriously consider giving up the ghost right this minute if I could come back as a keeper in a green Sheldrick tunic.

By the time we return for breakfast, dozens of vervet monkeys have taken over the lodge area, playing and jumping around in the bushes, along the edges of the swimming pool and out on the lawn. Scientists have studied vervet communication, and the species, which is widespread in Kenya, has been found to incorporate extensive patterns of communication. Young ones learn vocalizations from older relatives and siblings, which one to use to say “watch for a snake,” for instance, or “watch for another predator.” No doubt all this is taking place, but for us, it’s just thirty minutes of sitting and observing the entire troupe, which must number at least fifty, sweep through the area, over the deck chairs and around the pool, often with little outbreaks of action, before finally dispersing into the trees.

After breakfast we take an hour-long hike to the actual Umani springs, the underground aquifer that supplies the water here, before heading over to the mud bath in an open area a short walk from the lodge at 11 a.m. Soon, we can see the orphans at the edge of the forest, each one spotting the keepers and beginning to run for the milk formula bottles.

I’ve said it before, but watching the pure joy emanating from every ounce of these creatures as they head for their prize is still perhaps the best part of the entire experience. It connotes unabashed, overwhelming enthusiasm for life itself, and it just overwhelms me. Some of them get the bottles from the trainers and then hoist them with their trunks, others pick them up themselves and suck in the full five liters – it takes about thirty to forty seconds to drain one — before trumpeting for another. Orphans finding their way back into real life. (Watch the orphans run for their bottles here.)

Then they make their way over to the mudhole, where the orphans step in and slap mud onto their bodies. One just splays himself out into the natural sludge and works his limbs clumsily while trying to cover his body. The hole is not that muddy, and it’s not easy for them to cover themselves. But once they do, they walk over to a pile of dirt nearby and throw it on themselves happily before disappearing with the keepers back into the forest.

One of the keepers mentions again that since these animals can be here for a few years, the keepers switch off so that the animals don’t become attached to one trainer over another, which can be dangerous for the animals and complicate their return to the wild. It’s hard on the keepers, too, to keep from becoming too close to the animals for whom they are father/mother/matron/friend/companion. When I ask about intelligence, he says, “very intelligent, more so than humans.” No arguments here, so far.

The cement pond: Did a crocodile or a monitor lizard slither into the cement pond? Inquiring minds need to know.

Back at the lodge, lounging around before lunch, I look up just in time to catch something slither into the little cement pond on the front lawn. Some of the others got a longer look and identified it as a crocodile. At lunch Mondaii argues that it was a monitor lizard, which I never knew would have existed here, but they do. Peter, the chef, contends that it was a crocodile, and at dinner it becomes a kind of meme for the group: Step up and give your opinion: Was it monitor or croc? Most are going with the latter. I’m not the only one to think Mondaii is putting us on.

One thing we notice is that Peter, besides cooking great food, also makes our napkins into animals, a new one each meal – he tells us later that he has 30 choices so he can do a different one for every meal for longer than a week. Lunch today is a ham sandwich, spinach lasagna and a dessert made of raspberry and mango with the same salty chocolate cookie we got yesterday with vanilla ice cream. Billie is a little tired and doesn’t come for lunch. Peter is concerned and takes her a plate of food.

The Kenyans’ general warmth, friendliness and gentle ways are infectious. We get the chance to really get to know Geoffrey and Mondaii, our two drivers. Geoffrey is 33 and has been a driver/guide since he was 19. Mondaii is 49, with a wife and four kids, the youngest about kindergarten age, and who he really wants to be educated in the United States. Since I’m the only other male in our group of eight, the three of us develop a pretty close bond, and I like them immensely. Miss them both.

Not a bad place for a shower.

There are a couple of swings hanging from the acacia trees that surround the main building, and I take advantage any chance I get to just swing. During the afternoon siesta, I keep hearing a loud male voice outside coming from different locations. I’m guessing that it is the caretakers keeping the elephants in line, but I learn at dinner that it was a large male baboon out near the mud baths trying to find his mates. On our ride out to Umani, we had driven past a small village that had a dozen baboons running through the area, and we are getting used to expecting animals to be around. Baboons are known thieves, and someone tells us that they will run from men, but not from women. Huh?

It still feels surreal to be in a place so nice and modern. Umani Springs was opened just a few years ago, and apparently one of the British royal family has stayed here. Lois says it’s nice enough that some people get here and don’t want to see animals just because it’s such a nice resort. I could see that. But the Trust runs this as an adjunct to the orphan rehabilitation area. In order to stay here, you must pay for the entire resort, which allows only eight people, and bring in your own food, which is prepared by a safari chef trained for this experience. In that regard, Peter is the best, serving us an array of dishes that are tasty and plentiful.

At 5 p.m we are back at the stockade for the arrival of the orphans. I spend some more quality time with Mwashoti, and he seems to warm to Lois and I, sticking his trunk out to check us and letting us pet him and talk with him. I get so caught up in filming him taking his milk, that I’m not paying attention and quickly turn around to another group coming in right behind me, passing on their way to their pens, milk and saplings. Two of the “troublemakers” follow the others into the wrong area, and the keepers bark at them and point him in the right direction while we scramble to stay out of their way as they find their own enclosures. (Watch the whole scene here.)

Our Sundowner tonight takes place on a wooden deck that faces the Chylulu Hills, a volcanic mountain range and national park that fills the sky to the south and west as the sun sets. The hills are volcanic and considered still active, the last eruption in 1856. The hills separate the Tsavo plain from the Amboseli plain to the west. We’re looking at the eastern flanks. The western side is operated by the West Chyulu Game Conservation owned by the Maasai.

The drive to the deck is brutal, even for Kenya. It’s almost straight up, with the Range Rover lurching and digging desperately for any traction during the first few minutes of the climb before it finally levels off nearer the deck, which is about halfway up the hill. At one point, the angle seemed so great, it appeared we might flip over. But Mondaii keeps the tires digging into the soil, and it’s worth it. The deck looks down into a gorgeous valley with the hills across from us, and the drama of the sun fading behind the hills as they turn different shades of blue and gray is just wonderful.

Peter has set up a table with snacks, drinks and ice that was packed in an old-fashioned looking wooden box. Very Out of Africa. What I called Amaret last night is actually Amarula, a South African liqueur with an elephant on the bottle, and it really catches on with everyone and becomes a big part of this trip’s lore. And we were so happy to find it’s available here in Boulder, too. Every time I sip it, I’m back on the deck here or on the second floor of the main building at Ithumba.

But the view also clearly shows that we’re not that far away from the rest of the world. As I find out later on Google maps, Umani Springs, as the crow flies, is only a few miles from the Mombasa Highway to the north and east. Giant power lines bisect the valley below, much as they do across the American West and many other wild landscapes we have visited, which gets the group into a discussion about landscape photography.

Lois explains both sides of the argument, how some photographers would eliminate the power lines from their shots, even by manipulation, to present a more wild picture, while others, like Edward Weston, would never alter a photo. I subscribe to the second view, since the power lines are important to understanding the landscape, too. But with cellphones and apps, that’s all kind of moot by now—people can modify their photos simply and instantly, so who cares, right? Later, we will find a poorly disguised cell phone tree on a hill overlooking Ithumba. And we’ll see more power lines bisecting the wilderness miles away on our breakfast trip to Tiva River there in a few days.

The Chylulu Hills are a perfect place for a Sundowner.

The drive back is sometimes almost straight downhill, but much more pleasant than the ride up. Dinner tonight is lamb with veggies, potatoes, green beans, carrots, all fresh and prepared perfectly. Dessert is a nice, fruit mousse, and afterwards, we sing quietly, with Mondaii and Geoffrey leading us: “Jambo. Jambo Bwana.” The crocodile/monitor meme goes viral with the group and will continue until we unravel the mystery of what’s lurking down there in the cement pond.

Julia took a photo at the mudhole, where you can sometimes get cell reception, and she showed us a leopard track that was yuuugggeee, larger than a human hand. Last night we heard lots of strange noises around the resort, including a couple of hyenas. We find out that someone watches the camp all night, both to make sure we are out of harm’s way and, perhaps just as importantly, to keep the roaming animals off the grass lawn, which they love and will destroy quickly if allowed to linger. Billie still isn’t feeling well, and Mondaii suggests we serenade her after dinner, which we do before retiring. It’s a nice moment to see her wave back at us while we’re singing.

Sunrise over the cement pond.

Our elephant adventure continues here. Watch videos of our trip here.

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